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.

Weird Beers and the Paradox of Aversion

It is a source of bewilderment in aesthetics that something repulsive might also excite or delight us. The aesthetician Carolyn Korsmeyer refers to this phenomenon as the paradox of aversion, arguing in her essay “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” that the paradox applies to certain disgusting foods. I believe the paradox also applies to certain craft beers. I offer a functionalist argument: when we imbibe for refreshment or intoxication, repulsive ingredients hinder our ability to enjoy a satisfactory (that is, sufficiently refreshing or intoxicating) amount of beer. However, when we imbibe in search of an aesthetic experience, repulsive ingredients offer fascinating tasting experiences that paradoxically allow us to enjoy imbibing weird beers.

Microbrewing good beer is sometimes still not enough to earn a brewery widespread visibility or acclaim. While many inventive beers cater to a common palate, others introduce provocative ingredients and flavors. There is no shortage of examples. Rogue’s Sriracha Hot Stout, Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin IPA, and New Belgium’s Coconut Curry Hefeweizen exhibit a peppery spiciness uncommon to beer. The Unknown ages a Mexican imperial lager with food grade scorpions, Wynkoop flavors a stout with bull testicles, and Redhook brews a pilsner with oysters and lobsters. Mikkeller added coffee collected from weasel poop to a stout; Brewdog sold an ale bottled inside of a taxidermied weasel. Each of these weird beers wildly deviates from traditional recipes, presentations, and expectations, albeit in a disgusting way.

Korsmeyer’s provisional list of disgusting foods helps us identify disgusting beers. She considers six categories of repulsion: (1) objects with repellent tastes, (2) foods desirable in minute quantities but sickening in large quantities, (3) objects so alien that we recoil from them in nature, (4) objects too similar to us, (5) objects that appear too natural or alive, and (6) objects that have spoiled or been dead too long.

Weird beers exist that fulfill each of these categories in some way. Many beers ferment with Brettanomyces, a group of wild yeasts that result in a funky taste sometimes associated with repellent things like bandages or hay. Others, though tasty, are unpalatable in large volumes, including the more aggressive habanero beers that exist. Some contain disturbingly alien ingredients—like scorpions—and at least one beer contains a disturbingly human ingredient—Rogue’s Beard Beer, brewed with yeast cultured from the brewmaster’s beard. Brewdog arguably succeeded in meeting Korsmeyer’s fifth category after bottling a beer called the End of History inside taxidermied road kill. Finally, some beers contain bacteria or wild yeasts, which brewmasters use to create sour—or deliciously spoiled—beers.

The prevalence of weird beers ought to provide sufficient evidence of the paradox of aversion in craft beer. If Korsmeyer is correct that a paradox of aversion applies to food, then it should also apply to beer. Weird beers brewed with repulsive ingredients or presented in repulsive ways are paradoxically pleasurable to taste and consume. The question then becomes: to whom, to what sort of palate or sensibility, or in what context are these weird beers pleasurable? In answering this question, a functionalist position becomes valuable.

Sven Ove Hansson defends a sort of weak aesthetic functionalism which I find useful. Hansson permits aesthetic valuations according to a work’s satisfaction of functional requirements. He argues that the fulfillment of function is one of many factors by which we can judge a work. In defending this position he rejects “the reduction thesis,” which states that fulfillment of function is the only determinant of beauty. In “Aesthetic Functionalism,” he writes, “aesthetic considerations are altogether unnecessary… since aesthetics will automatically be taken care of if function is dealt with adequately.” Surely, however, objects exist that fulfill their functions in a manner that is not particularly beautiful—catheters and brutalist architecture come to mind. Hansson also rejects the antithesis of that position, “the independence thesis,” which states that aesthetic value and function are completely independent of each other. He writes, “Perhaps the clearest counterexamples are those that refer to the beauty of abstract objects, such as mathematical proofs. A mathematician who called a proof beautiful would almost certainly retract or at least moderate that statement if the proof turned out to contain irreparable mistakes.” Recognizing that neither extreme is particularly beneficial to an aesthetician, Hansson takes a more moderate approach of “aesthetic dualism,” which contends that practical function is sometimes a factor in aesthetic valuation but is never the sole determinant factor.

What does this mean for craft beer? I propose that there are three major functions of beer drinking which are independent of each other but not mutually exclusive. Those functions are (1) intoxication, (2) refreshment, and (3) tasting (or the enjoyment of flavor). A beer’s desirability is partly determined by its ability to fulfill at least one of these three functions. I will name just a few examples. Drinking sessions aimed at inducing intoxication require a beer that is sufficiently drinkable yet alcoholic enough to intoxicate. A poor choice of beer for the drinker wanting to get drunk would be a session IPA—a low-alcohol style of beer brewed to provide flavor without excessive potency. A regular drinker might still experience intoxication after a few session IPAs, but not without enduring a palate-wrecking torrent of bitter hops (and risk getting uncomfortably full on too many beers). Likewise, those looking to enjoy a refreshing beer after a long, hot day might choose to avoid thick, boozy, chocolaty imperial stouts, which are perhaps better consumed by the half pint after a meal on a cold day.

This leaves the third function I would like to propose, the function which I believe justifies the enjoyment of craft beer, since cheap liquor and macro-brewed light lagers are quite capable of satisfying the other two functions. Many people drink simply to enjoy an interesting or delightful taste. Every craft beer, to some extent, shares this function. Craft brewers brew because they recognize that beer can taste good—and it can taste good in an inconceivably large number of ways. If the paradox of aversion explains the delight we take in eating repulsive foods, it also ought to explain the delight we sometimes take in drinking repulsive beers. Often, these weird beers only satisfy the third function, that of aesthetic experience—one might cringe at the thought of drinking habanero beers to the point of intoxication or seeking a cold, refreshing pint of a savory bull-testicle stout. These are beers to be enjoyed because they present an interesting tasting experience. Weird beers exemplify Korsmeyer’s paradox of aversion in this celebration of repulsive ingredients.

*This is a revision of an essay I wrote while pursuing my philosophy degree at Furman University. An earlier revision of this essay was published in the 2015 Furman Humanities Review.

March

Listen

Mariachi Static by Izaak Opatz

This is an album of lovely “dirt wave” folk from a songwriter who spends most of his time cutting trails for the National Park Service. He’s formerly of the alt-country group the Best Westerns. I’ve struggled to listen to anything but this album lately. My favorite tracks are “Everything (But One Thing),” “Arm’s Length Away,” and “One Way Or Another,” but every song is fantastic.

 

“Getting Fermental on Fermentation with Lucia Solis” (Opposites Extract)

While esoteric to anybody who isn’t in the coffee industry, this is an interesting debate and discussion on the topic of fermentation practices in coffee production. Washed coffee in particular undergoes an intentional fermentation process post-harvest which helps separate sticky fruit material called mucilage. Usually this process is carried out by wild yeasts and bacteria, but the practice of using specific yeast and bacteria cultures has shown promise in experimental trials. Continuing this practice will be beneficial in promoting quality consistency and price stability.

Read

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist explores the ingredients used to create the world’s most significant fermented and distilled drinks. The book is presented as a list of these most ingredients, starting with the basics that comprise our most familiar beverages (such as agave, barley, potato, wheat) and continuing to the more obscure or exotic ingredients that often flavor them (clove, elderflower, wormwood). Each entry is, more or less, a brief examination of the ingredient in terms of the spirits derived from it alongside its biology and historical significance.

“An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey” by Jake Emen (Eater)

Hyperbole aside, this guide provides a nice rundown of the major factors that determine a whiskey’s flavor. Emen specifically discusses aging and warehousing conditions, barrel types and sizes, ingredients, and distillation techniques.

February

Listen

Twin Solitude by Leif Vollebekk

This is a hauntingly beautiful album from the Quebecois songwriter. Twin Solitude is more ambient than North Americana or Inland, turning away slightly from Vollebekk’s earlier, more Dylanesque instrumentation.

Read

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond” by Klaus Schwab (World Economic Forum)

Schwab writes, “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century.”

Schwab predicts that modern computer systems and digital connectivity combined with emerging technologies will usher in a Fourth Industrial Revolution characterized by “a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.”

This kind of revolution would seriously disrupt the way we live and work. What is this likely to mean for food and beverages? More and better integration with technology as we’ve seen at Atlanta’s Huge Cafe? More self-service or partial automation, which could both alter and reduce the role of bartenders and baristas? Or more coffee served by robots a la San Francisco’s Cafe X, eliminating human service altogether?

The Advanced Genius Theory: The Life of Pablo and Kanye West by Ryan Bassil (Noisey)

Bassil offers an alternate response to the question of whether Kanye West is a genius. Invoking a theory originally conceived to explain the later work of Lou Reed, Bassil suggests that Kanye West is actually becoming an “advanced genius,” transcending his earlier work by not creating more of the same but not creating the exact opposite either.

“The Turning Point I Feared” and “Make or Steal” by James Hoffman (jimseven)

There are two common avenues of growth in the specialty coffee industry (though this applies to many other industries too): by capturing a greater market share by taking customers from competitors or by growing the industry and welcoming entirely new customers. Hoffman warns against the former and advocates the latter, claiming that growing the industry and making space for oneself is a slower but more sustainable route.

“Conscious Consumerism Is A Lie” by Alden Wicker (Quartz)

Here’s a compelling opinion piece on why voting with your dollar is perhaps admirable but inconsequential in the face of systemic moral hazards and environmental threats. Wicker argues that conscious consumerism fails to achieve its big picture goals and instead deplete’s consumers buying power and political will while diverting our attention from more meaningful issues. The more I reflect on this argument, the more important it seems.

“Weird Twitter: The Oral History” by John Herrman and Katie Notopoulos (Buzzfeed)

This is an amusing and interesting glimpse into the loose-knit online community of pseudonymous comedians known for their brand of surrealist, sometimes absurdist humor.

“How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers” by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times)

Manjoo observes that with the growing popularity of content streaming, our viewing habits are becoming more personalized and therefore television shows are becoming less ubiquitous. This is lessening the role of TV in unifying us in shared cultural experience. Despite charges of TV’s banality, broadcast TV as cultural unifier is likely to be seen as a distinctly mid- to late-20th century phenomenon.

January

Read

“Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine” (Jonathan Hayes, Food & Wine)

If you haven’t fallen in love with Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi, I urge you to watch the episodes of Mind of a Chef and Parts Unknown featuring Noma, the highly acclaimed restaurant in Copenhagen for which the pair are known. This brief feature recounts their role in the conception of New Nordic cuisine, which might be thought of as contemporary and expansive approach to Scandinavian culinary tradition. The title of the article alludes to a New Nordic food manifesto published in 2004 at the onset of the New Nordic movement. It’s splendid, brief, and can be found here.

“Speaking Out” (Daniel Patterson, MAD Feed)

This is a great, short piece about coping with depression in the culinary world (though it has much wider applications). We stigmatize mental illness which in Patterson’s words “amplifies its effects” while wrongfully linking mental illnesses and morality. He advocates speaking out about mental illness as a means of eliminating the taboo and encouraging those who suffer to seek help.

“The Sami Coffee Ceremony: An Interview with Anne Wuolab” (Chris Kolbu, Nordic Coffee Culture Blog)

This is a really fascinating glimpse into the Sami, a Nomadic culture indigenous to Northern Scandinavia whose population numbers 50,000-80,000 today. The Sami have been drinking coffee for a little over 100 years–since around the time it became commonplace in Southern Scandinavia. It was originally drank alongside Reindeer broth but quickly became a more focal beverage. Because the Sami have gradually urbanized, it’s conceivable to see Sami groups consume coffee in a somewhat ceremonial manner even in the setting of a modern Scandinavian cafe.

Wuolab describes a normal Sami coffee ceremony as “a quiet affair” in which a host serves steeped coffee, cheese, and reindeer meat, often near an open fire. The pace is relaxed, the mood is contemplative and relational, and mythical, spiritual, or comedic stories are told, often concerning the origins of Sami coffee culture. She draws comparisons to Japanese tea ceremonies and describes Sami coffee tradition as the antithesis of a short espresso or takeaway coffee.

The interview is a pretty short read but really fascinating.

The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman

I’m rereading this book for a refresher on coffee producing countries, but I’ve forgotten how thorough an introduction it provides. This has become my go-to suggestion for people interested in learning more about coffee. (James Hoffman’s blog, jimseven, is a fantastic resource for some more industry specific topics.)

Listen

Welcome by Slaughter Beach, Dog (Bandcamp)

Slaughter Beach, Dog is Jake Ewald of Modern Baseball, whose album Holy Ghost came out last year. The A.V. Club writes that Welcome “…sees Ewald building a record around detailed character studies of people who live in the fictional town of Slaughter Beach,” shifting perspective away slightly from the intensely personal narratives that characterized MoBo’s Holy Ghost. My favorite track is “Bed Fest.”