Ever since the McMenamins chain of brewpubs opened its first location, Barley Mill Pub in Portland, OR, in 1983, brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin have embraced art. For a time, the McMenamins even referred to their brewers, themselves, as artists.
Not counting these brewer artists, McMenamins currently employs three full-time artists and several others on a contract basis. Walk into any of over 60 McMenamins locations sprinkled throughout Oregon and Washington and you will see fantastic art painted all over the walls in a uniform style, which staff artist Lyle Hehn refers to as “historical surrealism.” “I look at old advertising art for inspiration, so there’s an old-fashioned look to everything,” Hehn says. He has been working for McMenamins for 20 years and designs everything from the paintings that cover the walls to beer labels, signage, T-shirts and graphics. “I’m here to promote the company,” he says of his longtime role at one of America’s most successful brewing companies, “but I try to have fun doing it.” The historical aspect of his work is a reflection of the image of McMenamins, which has chosen many historic buildings to house its operations.
There is an intersection where art—the physical manifestation of creative minds—and beer—the liquid creation of skilled artisans—meet in the mind as the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch come together. Beer and visual art are very much connected, and some in the industry as well as consumers are passionate about both and find ways to join them.
While McMenamins may have been working with artists for 30 years, there has been a remarkable surge recently in breweries discovering that they fit within the tapestry of the various arts. The collegial and supportive brewing community is now simply spreading its support to forms of art beyond the art they already brew.
A Kaleidoscope of Art Forms
Many people are now realizing the strong connection between brewing and other arts. As painters and sculptors mix colors and shapes and use strokes and form to communicate visually, brewers use grain bills, hop blends, yeast and other ingredients combined with traditional and innovative brewing techniques to communicate. Both sets of artists start with a blank canvas and use their chosen medium to create a work of art expressing a creative vision that cannot be expressed orally. Both sets of artists evoke emotion from their audiences.
Some artists are even taking the bold step of actually combining the two media more directly. Mike Brenner, for example, got a degree from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2000. He started an artistic not-for-profit within days of graduation and started his own art gallery a few years later. “I was sleeping in the back of my art gallery. I realized that this was crazy. I needed to re-envision how to support the arts. I was homebrewing in front of my gallery a few days later when the idea hit me. In the arts, you are always working with philanthropists, and in Milwaukee, the philanthropists come from a beer background, so I realized that I could use my beer to drive my art.”
In 2013, Brenner founded Brenner Brewing Co., a production brewery with an attached 1,800-square-foot gallery housing 12 to 18 artists. He promises to shake up the beer scene in the same way that he shook up the art scene.
“In my heart as an artist, I just want to do weird [stuff] that freaks people out,” he said. “But as an artist, I always did some works that were more accessible before seeing how far I could push it. People could get familiar with my work and then would be more comfortable and trust me when I presented something more out there.”
Brenner plans to use the same approach with his beer. In the conservative Milwaukee beer market, he will brew some accessible beers, but after hooking drinkers with these, he plans to expose them to more interesting brews, including sour Belgian-inspired beers aged in a 20-barrel French-oak storage tank he recently acquired. The connection is not just bringing art to beer lovers; it is also bringing beer to art lovers.
While Brenner is actually planning to provide space to artists, Gigantic Brewing Co. of Portland, OR, works with artists in a different way. Since opening just a few years ago, Gigantic has made connections to the art world and has leveraged artists into its marketing plan. One of its early investors was Rob Reger, an internationally known comic artist from Berkeley, CA, and since opening, Gigantic has developed a connection with Hellion Gallery, a Portland art gallery whose stated goal is to seek out undiscovered artists and bring them to the world.
Gigantic has only one regular beer, an India pale ale; all of its other beers are one-off, limited creations. Working with Reger and Hellion, Gigantic selects an artist and commissions a unique work of art for each one of its beer labels. The tie between Gigantic and the art community is so deep that when Gigantic supplies beer to Hellion for show openings, people in the arts community ask for beers not by the names of the beers, but by the names of artists who created the labels. As with Brenner, Gigantic’s connection to art is helping spread the gospel of good beer beyond the realm of beer geeks.
The connection with Hellion has also resulted in Gigantic being the only brewery in Portland (and there are a lot of them) to participate in a citywide mural project that is seeing local artists paired with an international artist to create public works of art throughout the city.
Perhaps nobody has combined beer and art more successfully than Eric Steen. In addition to organizing art and beer pairing events in Portland, OR, Steen is the man behind Beers Made by Walking. With Beers Made by Walking, Steen arranges for brewers to go on organized hikes, gathering ingredients along the way that are then used in a brew. The resulting beer is then a liquid “portrait” of that hike. In the same way that a photograph or painting can represent the hike visually, the beer represents the hike in beery fashion.
Breweries in Oregon, Washington and Colorado have brewed hiking beers, including big names in the craft beer business such as Deschutes Brewery and Ska Brewery. Deschutes brewed Sage Fight IPA with juniper and sage, a flavorful portrait of Whychus Canyon Preserve, while Ska brewed Cerveza de las Animas Perdidas with juniper, yarrow and chokecherries, a delicious portrait of the Animas River in Durango, CO. Because the beers are brewed with found ingredients, they tend to push the boundaries, but then, all art, in its time, does precisely that. Beers Made by Walking is not just about connecting beer and art; it is the ultimate presentation of beer as art. Ansel Adams has got nothing on these liquid landscapes.
“Beer and art projects are a fun way to mash together my two passions,” says Steen, laughing as he realized his unintended pun.