Bottles of Bass sit on the counter that Édouard Manet depicted in one of his greatest paintings, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, in 1882, and also appear in certain Cubist works by Picasso. Sarah Lucas has crumbled tallboys into bawdy, phallic sculptures, and Cady Noland has used countless cases of Bud to make indelible installations. Perhaps most famously, a pair of Ballantine cans were immortalized in bronze by Jasper Johns in 1960 after he heard rumor that the painter Willem de Kooning had said of the ultra-smooth dealer Leo Castelli, “That son-of-a-bitch; you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” Castelli did, for $940, and in 1973, the initial buyers resold them at auction for $90,000.
A thrilling history of modern art is waiting to be written with beer as its central focus—and in that tale, the story really starts getting juicy in 1970, the heyday of conceptual art, as artists ranged beyond traditional forms like painting and sculpture into performances and interactive situations. That year, beer became a medium in its own right, when Tom Marioni invited friends to the Oakland Museum of California on a day it was closed to enjoy cold cans supplied by a curator. They left the remnants of their party on display, and Marioni titled the project The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (a name with extra poignancy at a time when group imbibing happens only via video chat).
Marioni has been staging different types of beer events in art spaces and his studio ever since. “I’m from a German beer town, Cincinnati, Ohio,” the artist says, when asked about his initial inspiration for the piece, “and I lived in Germany in the army in ‘61 and ‘62. Beer was the drink of the people.” It is also, for him, “the American sacramental wine.”
The 82-year-old pioneer is far from the only artist who has found rich potential in beer. Numerous figures have approached it as an art, particularly in recent years, using it to create abstract portraits of people and places, to fund cultural enterprises, and even to tease out issues of intellectual property and conservation.
Since 2011, the Portland, Oregon–based artist and marketing consultant Eric Steen has taken dozens of brewers on hikes with botanists to identify unique plants to use in beers, in a project he calls Beers Made By Walking. A stroll through the Deschutes Land Trust led to an IPA—by Veronica Vega, the head brewer of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon—with “juniper and sage, which complemented the resinous hops really nicely,” says Steen, 38. Pickleweed— “refreshing, puckery, and salty all at the same time”—landed in a gose-style ale from San Jose’s Camino Brewing last year, generated by a visit to the nearby South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.
BMBW is informed by artists who have conceived of walking as art—the Englishman Hamish Fulton, for one—but it channels those energies into making a beverage that is intimately tied to the land, an environmental advocacy tool that can be savored by anyone with a bit of curiosity. “I very much consider it an art project, but one that crosses over from art into the beer industry,” says Steen. “For me, making art for audiences other than art audiences is one of the cornerstones of my work, and it doesn't bother me if the participants don't see it that way.”
Steen’s project underscores how this electrifying new beer art has been possible thanks to the rise of independent-minded brewers—people who have a penchant for experimentation, and for testing aesthetic criteria, just like artists.
For the 2017 edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster in Germany, a prestigious exhibition that occurs once a decade, the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh worked with the local aficionado Philipp Overberg at the Brouwerij Anders in Halen, Belgium to produce a beer with lime-blossom honey harvested from the German city’s public promenade. Anders even allowed Ogboh to install speakers alongside the tanks where the beer was fermenting so that he could instill the liquid with recordings of his hometown of Lagos. The result was Quiet Storm, a smooth 7.5% ABV stunner that doubles as a paean to cross-country and cross-disciplinary collaboration.
The same year, for the Documenta 14 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, Ogboh brewed his Sufferhead beer with coffee, gesho, and other flavors familiar to migrants in the city from countries like Ethiopia and Somalia. He partnered with Kassel’s craftBEE brewers on the project, and they minted 50,000 bottles.
The Milwaukee-based artist John Riepenhoff, who operates the closely watched Green Gallery, usually pairs with Company Brewing when working on beers for what he terms his Beer Endowment. Sales of the brews benefits a panoply of scrappy arts groups in the region—what he terms “not-for-profit, just kind of orphan entities that didn’t have a proper fit in the neo-capitalist system.” (Fittingly, his best-known artworks are life-size sculptures of legs that serve as literal supports—humorous, vaguely disturbing ones—for others’ paintings.)
“All of the actual recipes describe different qualities of the different artist-run organizations,” says Riepenhoff, 38. Some require a bit of explanation. For instance, profits from The Friends of Blue Dress Park Mild Porter go toward arts programming in Blue Dress Park, a disused stretch of concrete in Milwaukee that the artist Paul Druecke reimagined as a park. The beer resembles a porter but tastes like an English mild, Riepenhoff says. “It’s existing in this limbo zone between these two beer types,” in the same way that Blue Dress is sort of a park and sort of not one.
And then there is the Green Gallery IPA, which is regularly on tap at Company and the recipe for which is occasionally reformulated. “We treat the beer the same way we treat the gallery, where we program not what IPAs have been, but what IPA could be, using new enzymes and new mixes of grains and hops,” Riepenhoff says. As at the gallery, there’s typically “a little something from Wisconsin, a little something from the nation, and a little something from abroad.” (For the 2020 edition, they integrated a new hop variety, Mackinac, from the Badger State.)
Riepenhoff notes that beer “is one of the foundational staples of an art opening. It gives people an excuse to stick around for the whole beer, to look at the art.” And as it happens, he recalls drinking some well-made beer art at the New Art Dealers Alliance in Miami in 2005—Danish collective Superflex’s Free Beer.
An ale that includes energy-boosting guaraná, Free Beer “is free as in free speech, not in the sense of free beer,” Superflex has written. Developed in 2004 with IT University of Copenhagen students, the group released its recipe—and the vibrant labels it designed—under a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone is free to brew and sell it so long as they provide credit. That open-source approach gives new life to artist Sol LeWitt’s 1967 description of a type of work in which “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” Free Beer has since been brewed in Munich, Knoxville, Taipei, and other cities around the world, only sometimes with Superflex’s actual involvement.
Why is beer art thriving right now? The craft beer renaissance, I suspect, is only part of the story. In art, this is a moment when many paintings and sculptures sell for vertigo-inducing sums, and too much work justifies itself with opaque jargon. Beer art offers a riposte to all that. It promises aesthetic delectation for a modest sum, in an approachable and democratic form. Your $10 six-pack of Company’s Poor Farm Pils (which funds an arts center at the onetime Waupaca County Poor Farm in Little Wolf, Wisconsin) is just as good as the richest collector’s $10 six-pack.
Sometimes the price to experience this art is nothing at all. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art owns a version of Marioni’s Drinking Beer With Friends…, complete with a wooden bar, a fridge, and shelving, and when the piece is staged, all-comers periodically get to drink gratis. (“Usually if beer is cold and free, it’s quite good,” Riepenhoff deadpans, remembering that Superflex ale.)
And like all great art, beer art can also deliver huge, unexpected, ineffable highs—like when it’s a warm, sunny day in Münster and you’re strangely moved by the refreshing zest of a honey beer while sitting not far from where the honey in it was obtained. Such pleasures can even arrive long after the fact, when you’re just sitting at home in a New York apartment, self-quarantining and marveling at how that beer delivered a whole wild world in a single sip.
Sometimes words simply fall short. As conceptual art was percolating into widespread consciousness, in 1969, the critic Amy Goldin wrote, “At its most inventive, it has the mystery and charm of life itself.” That’s true of beer, too.
Top photo courtesy of Superflex.