John Hartford, Wendell Berry, Ettore Sottsass, and Terroir in Brewing

Among my favorite folk songs is John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings,” a short lament for the worldly beauty and joy forfeited while its narrator works an unwanted career. It concludes with this narrator looking towards the future, when his debts are paid and his retirement allows leisure once again, wondering what lovely things he missed while working in offices in the city.

“In Tall Buildings

Someday my baby
when I am a man
and others have taught me
the best they can
they’ll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

So its goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to flowers
and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings

And when I’m retired
my life is my own
I’ve made all my payments
it’s time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

John Hartford, 1973

For good measure, here’s Gregory Alan Isakov’s rendition:


I can’t help thinking of Wendell Berry when hearing “In Tall Buildings.” I find relevance in Berry’s Mad Farmer poems, including “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” written in the same year. (Regrettably, I haven’t yet gotten the line breaks to format correctly on mobile.) Berry’s poem reads:

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion–put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection.

Wendell Berry, 1973

The Mad Farmer suggests contrariness as a path to truth. Initially, he warns that the allure of profit, consumption, and privacy undermine individual agency and therefore limit each person’s capacity to recognize and prioritize other values. Contrarianism is his means of subversion: to truly worship God, conserve nature, celebrate freedom, and practice community, one must habitually “do something that won’t compute” within the context of modern society. In some ways the Mad Farmer’s economic philosophy appears to echo Paul, who wrote in Philippians 3:7 “…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Seeking profit competes with seeking truth, and so “the quick profit” is at odds with the practice of resurrection. (Hear Berry read “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,” another poem in the series, here.)

Embracing the Mad Farmer’s manifesto has certain tacit implications for the artist, who is not immune to such a misdirection of values. Berry’s attitude echoes in an essay by the Austrian artist and designer Ettore Sottsass entitled “When I Was a Very Small Boy.” Writing in the same year as Berry, Sottsass rebukes the influence of consumerism over design and the commodification of art in general.

Sottsass’s abbreviated essay is poignant and worthy of reading in its entirety. In summary, he writes that as a child, he felt it natural to draw and to build things and felt autonomous in that creativity. “Everything we did was entirely absorbed in the act of doing it, in wanting to do it,” he writes, “and everything we did stayed ultimately inside a single extraordinary sphere of life. The design was life itself… it was an awareness of the world around us, of materials and lights, distances and weights, resistance, fragilities, use and consumption, birth and death.”

Aging, for Sottsass, meant succumbing to an apparently necessary economy of art and design. Where he was once motivated to create by a rich and beautiful life, at the time of his writing he was being urged to make designs that catered to demand–demand for functional, affordable consumer products.

In some ways the sorrow in his reaction echoes that expressed in Hartford’s lyrics: Sottsass writes, “…goodbye bright Blue planet, goodbye melodious seasons, goodbye stones, dust, leaves, ponds, and dragon flies, goodbye boiling-hot days, dead dogs by the roadside, shadows in the wood like prehistoric dragons, goodbye Planet, by now I feel as if I do the things I do sitting in a bunker of damp artificial light and conditioned air, sitting at this white laminate table, sitting in this silver plastic chair, captain of a spaceship traveling at thousands of miles an hour, squashed against this seat–immobile in the sky.”

“I would like to think that the old happy state that I once knew could somehow be brought back; the happy state in which “design” or art–so called art–was life, in which life was art, I mean creativity, I mean it was the awareness of belonging to the Planet and to the pulsing history of the people that are with us.”

Hartford, Berry, and Sottsass all graze a similar theme. Hartford sings of a world in which one loses touch with the natural beauty of the world upon entering the workforce. Berry warns of a world in which profit and privacy supplant truthseeking and community. Sottsass recounts a harmony of art and life unsupportive of a commodification of design. Each finds industry at ends with joy and beauty.

Beer isn’t a perfect analogue, but I think we’re seeing a relevant and related dichotomy in brewing. The past several years have seen a rapid increase in the demand for craft beer–a segment of the market experiencing double digit growth in 2014 and 2015–and an influx of new capital available to craft breweries. Long term growth strategies usually orient around meeting this demand–adding more tanks, building a larger facility, and so on. But beer distribution laws complicate expansion: to prevent some of the aggressive anti-competitive strategies employed by large breweries before Prohibition, most states have adopted some form of what is called the three tier system. In the three tier system, breweries are required to use an independent distributor to bring their beers to market. So in most states distributors, not breweries, are responsible for bringing beers to bars and bottle shops. Because the 21st Amendment established that alcohol would be regulated at the state level, significant time and money are generally required before a brewery can expand distribution to a new, out-of-state market.

In result, “growth” for most craft breweries involves brewing more beer and selling that beer over a larger and larger geographic area. Hubbub is made over this expansion: a brewery launches in a new state, and instantaneously its beers occupy shelves and tap handles statewide, and soon they repeat the same launch in another state.

You can expect this sort of expansion out of most successful breweries because, frankly, that’s how they make more money, expose their brand, and hedge against competitive forces in an economy in which new breweries open at a mind-blowing rate. Once a brewery has sufficiently occupied its local market, growth is heavily focused on the task of increasing distribution.

A handful of exceptional breweries exist that brew incredibly coveted beers, but haven’t made haste to expand distribution. In an extreme case, I’ll point to Brouwerij Westvleteren, the Belgian Trappist brewery that only produces enough beer to adequately fund their monastery and philanthropy (despite their Westvleteren 12 Quad being likely the most coveted beer in the world).

A less extreme case can be made of Hill Farmstead, a small Vermont farmhouse brewery that exemplifies what it means to have a broad understanding of terroir. Shaun Hill opened the brewery at the site of his grandfather’s dairy farm and recently decided to cap production indefinitely at 150,000 gallons–a paltry volume for a production brewery. As he told the New York Times, this decision supports his philosophy that beer is perishable and should be consumed fresh, and therefore that beer should be consumed locally. Traditional expansion is the antithesis of this philosophy: success is predicated on increasing sales, and therefore eventually involves diminishing the locality of the product in some manner. For Hill Farmstead, increasing production would require adding a water source–currently every beer is brewed with water from the farmstead’s well–and that’s to say nothing of the need for a larger industrial facility. Furthermore, it would limit the brewery’s ability to ensure that bottles are consumed quickly and kegs are tapped upon arrival–objectives Hill Farmstead has caused controversy in pursuing in past years.

I think there is also also room to argue that Hill Farmstead’s philosophy on brewing contributes as much to terroir as do well water from the farmstead itself and local malts and local hops and local yeast cultures. If terroir is defined such as it is in wine–that terroir is the taste attributed to a particular place at a particular time–then Shaun Hill’s radical commitment to staying small has as much to do with the unique flavor of his beers as do the resultant locality of the ingredients he uses as do the names of his beers–many of which pay homage to the generations of his family who lived on and worked the same land where he now produces their namesake beers.

Because Hill Farmstead’s beers are extremely hard to find outside of northern Vermont, I want to offer another, more available brewery that practices this ethos in Jester King. While Jester King upholds the importance of locale and terroir–emphasizing their use of well water, locally grown and malted grains, and wild yeast from the Texas Hill Country–their beers are certainly more accessible in many places.

This relative accessibility is perhaps consistent with Jester King’s vision. Ron Extract, a founding and former brewer at Jester King, cites his love of imported European beers as an inspiration. “The results,” he says, “…justify the cost of shipping [European beers] halfway around the world so we can enjoy them closer to home. At the same time, I also felt that if there were more authentic artisan brewers closer to home who embraced the European approach, importing would no longer be quite as necessary.”

Jester King’s focus on old world brewing methods–especially spontaneous fermentation, which involves the use of wild yeast and bacteria–coincides with this focus on locality and terroir. Founder Jeffrey Stuffings writes, “A world wide resurgence of spontaneous fermentation, if anything, is a reversion back to how much of beer was fermented centuries ago. It also helps create regional distinctions, terroir, and a sense of place in beer.”

I highly recommend trying anything from Jester King if available–though their distribution has expanded, they’re still relatively difficult to find outside of Austin. Many of their beers are sour, tart, or funky due to the effects of spontaneous fermentation. I recommend Le Petit Prince (a dry, tart table beer) and Ol Oi (a barrel aged sour brown ale), but have yet to be disappointed in anything I’ve been able to find of theirs.