or: Beer & The Aesthetic Experience.
Hello, lovers of beer, funk, and food alike, I would like to attempt something with Bretty Fingers that I hold near and dear to my heart, for no other reason than to share it because I want to, and to perhaps spin some cogs within the readers' and beer-lovers' minds.
I set out to found Bretty Fingers as not simply a brewery, but a fermentation collective. This is, through its very essence of being a venue for which fermenters, brewers, chefs, and the like to create as well as those of you drinking and eating what we create to explore, to learn, to experience, and to know. By nature, this is not a business venture, but a venture of knowledge organized in the structures and context that we have available, we might be able to say. Yes, it is my bread & butter, but it is my baby; my creative child and my intellectual offspring. Not much can be as fleeting as the business of food and drink, perhaps, as the experience is here, and then it is gone; the beer is out there, scattered together across countless "lives" in little grains waiting to be sprouted, reaped from the Earth, along with an obscene number of individual cells of our beloved fermenters: Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, Pediococcus, and the list goes on - and then it is brought together for a few brief moments, ingested, and then gone; hopefully, in the best of possible worlds, to be returned to the Earth and transformed back into beer. We consume the beer, but not simply this, the beer consumes us for a few seconds, minutes, perhaps. We are enraptured by the nature of the flavor and the smells, the sights, the artistry and dutiful technicality of it all.
I want to briefly explore the nature of the aesthetic experience of... Well, what happens in your mind when you drink a beer. Or mine, at least.
(More broadly, what happens when you experience any flavor or smell; the mechanisms are the same.)
Types & Tokens: Is Your Beer A Thing Or An Idea?
Just what are brewers trying to accomplish when they brew a beer? Just what defines a beer? These are hot topics. I will, as is my usual mindset when it comes to my making of beer, abstain from questions of tradition (when it comes to tradition, I simply draw what is incredibly useful and sustainable for balance, my primary concern). When I ask, "what defines a beer?", I am not questioning a beer's legitimacy or adherence to an appellation or a style guideline; I am curious about its various meanings, to its creators and to its drinkers.
The distinction between a type and a token is a useful metaphysical tool for discerning between a specific instance and a "set" or a "kind". A type may be farmhouse ale; a token may be my Thesis. This is quite simple to grasp, but then within Thesis, the quandary of defining types and tokens is displayed: Thesis is a type itself, too, of which each batch, bottle, and keg is unique (thus bringing a seemingly endless Cantor set of type giving way to token, then each token becoming a type to be broken up into tokens in a temporal or physical manner, and so on). With the raising of such a point, we come to notice and perhaps begin to appreciate that there is an inherent individuality to every beer, not simply because of the simple question of batch consistency, but for its own place in the course of our personal histories and everyday experiences. Each beer we have comes with an incredible amount of factors leading to an experience, and the "same" beer will therefore never taste the same again.
What if individuality and variation is a key component to defining a beer that a brewer makes? As in, what if the brewer chooses to define that particular beer by its property of variability? Where would this stand in the mind of the drinker when it comes to what the drinker wants and expects, and is this acceptable? While I believe that a brewer has a responsibility to deliver a consistent quality of beer to the drinker, I also believe that this does not necessarily equate to consistently tasting the same. This may be the farmhouse brewer in me, where I leave many of the factors up to the microbes to decide and celebrate such things as seasonal change even in my base beers, but I will still always be working with blending and holding myself to a measure of responsibility for coming up with something delicious. This is partly because I adore biodiversity and the magic of mixed culture fermentation to a level of near spiritualism, but I simply believe the world could do with a bit more exposure to accepting the nature of wild fermentation, biodiversity, and seasonal change for being natural facts, rather than the forcing of human taste upon the natural world.
It has long been argued over whether there must be a specific definition to art or not. There have been countless artists who have intentionally tried to undermine and challenge the pursuit to define art by dismantling our preconceptions of what art is with statements nearly impossible to discern as art while ensuring us that, "it is art. I made it. I called it that." A viewer may become angered or provoked by this, feeling that they have not been delivered due pleasure or intensity of experience (perhaps this is the artist's goal as a provocateur), and perhaps the viewer will latch onto an underpinning ideal and playfulness behind this act, and derive their pleasure therefrom. Most of the time, the worth of an artwork is purely in the questions and waves of change raised within each of us and not for its material worth.
Of course, a brewer may be crazy if they make anything with the intention to undermine taste buds if they intend/need to sell, but it's happened in the world of brewing, and even become regular. I've personally gotten the statement, "it's good, but I don't know how you will call this beer to the rest of the world." It is certainly a statement worth much consideration in how I present Bretty Fingers. One component of this is that it is certainly its own thing: many of my beers are not in any traditional style, but are rather drawing inspiration from brewing traditions, such as from Belgian farmhouse and spontaneously fermented ales, and even then, I am using locally sourced wild yeast and bacteria. They are not 'trained' as many wild yeast strains have been through centuries of brewing tradition, like in the old buildings of the Lambic production regions that have long since been inaugurated with local wild yeast but have indeed had house cultures adapt to the presence of beer. They are nonetheless delicious, my little beasts, but they are full of their own character. Secondly, the traditions from which I am drawing are niches that I have dug myself into and become impassioned for. It is a rather small percentage of the brewing world that does what I do, and in any case, the more the world is exposed to these strange, characteristic, wild, and rustic flavors, the better, I feel.
So there is a point to dissolving the idea of single beer as one unifying, expected flavor and nothing else. In doing so, we are freed from the ideological shackles of historical and cultural notions of favored flavors. And I certainly am doing my part to challenge what beer is to us all (or rather, beer has already been what I am attempting, but beer has become something else since the introduction of innovations from industrialization like refrigeration, monocultures and pure, genetically identical yeast strains have come to beer). But I still stand by the fact that a brewer's point is not always to make art, for a beer can be any number of things: a quenching, refreshing break, an accompaniment to food, or its own isolated experience. In the end, a beer should always be contemplated for what it means to you, as I feel anything we consume should be.
Quiditas - Quiddity - or, Whatness
Maybe the only point of this section is that I love the words "quiddity" and "whatness". But the point of this concept of a higher form behind a thing that allows it to mean something more than the simple sum of its components to us is illustrated by Jean Paul Sartre in his novel, Nausea, on the idea of destroying a work of music:
It does not exist. It is even irritating in its non-existence; if I were to get up, if I were to snatch that record from the turntable which is holding it and if I were to break it in two, I wouldn't reach it. It is beyond - always beyond something, beyond a voice, beyond a violin note. Through layers and layers of experience, it unveils itself, slim and firm, and when you try to seize it you meet nothing but existents, you run up against existence devoid of meaning. It is behind them: I can't even hear it, I hear sounds, vibrations in the air which unveil it... it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which is superfluous in relation to it. It is.
Okay, that was intense when you relate it to beer, but the point that Sartre is trying to get at with this is that the tokens of the work of art that lay behind and beyond it really mean nothing, and what lay beyond it is indestructible and forever present after the moment of its creation. I may drink all of the bottles of Thesis from one batch, and it will be forever gone, but that does not mean that Thesis is dead. It is forever alive; I can brew it again, and again, and it doesn't matter how much or how little of it is in the world, in peoples' bellies and in cellars, it just is and it can never be undone. What is it, then? Is it the recipe? Is it the wild yeast and bacteria that ferment it? Is it a collection of specific ingredients from specific origins, brought together in a specific way and locality? No. It is a living, breathing memetic entity that can never die. And such is the way of beer; we may talk about Hodgson's Pale Ale, which will never, ever be brewed and experienced again as it was in its place in spacetime , but this does not make it less of a thing. We (beer geeks and brewing nerds) dissect, study, and talk about it as if it were tangible. And the question of coming up with what makes it so alive may never be solved, but perhaps, that is the beauty behind it. We have created life through our brewing, not simply in the propagation of microorganisms, but in the intelligible, personable, discernable way that the idea of this beer exists.
Our apprehension that this beer in this form exists is what Aquinas called quidditas or quiddity. It is the beer's form or definition. This gives way to claritas or our idea of the beer. These are difficult concepts to define, but that is exactly why Aquinas introduced these concepts: to give a name to a feeling that we get about something that we experience. And this itself is an acknowledgment that something lay beyond it, and that it is not simply the physical beer we are drinking that exists, but rather a whole system that we have created within our minds and used our technical and artistic skill to create into a tangible experience. I love this idea: that I am creating something indestructible and unforgettable, no matter how menial it is. It is just a beer but we all know that a beer can mean so much.
The World as a System of Wills & Desires, and the Relinquishing Thereof
There is yet another key feature that has been argued to define an aesthetic experience: disinterest. That is, disinterest in what we want something to be, but acceptance for just what it is. Many have argued that for something to be art, it has to go beyond what is wanted or desired of something. We cannot be forcing our ideological perceptions of what we want the world to be on what we are experiencing. Art serves as an exercise to present ideas and concepts, metaphysical or just about life, in a way that does not involve us, but nonetheless enriches us and our understanding of existence. This is how I perceive beer much of the time: I love to imagine that I am becoming an observer that can see, taste, smell, and somehow understand and appreciate what is sitting in my glass as a microcosm. Each beer is indeed its own little world: when we brew a beer, it becomes a closed system (more or less), with the creator's ideal inputs being meticulously controlled in order for it to become something that we conceptualize.
They ask themselves, "just what do I want this beer to taste like? Which flavor and aromatic compounds will get it to taste that way? Which ingredients will I use to get a certain mouthfeel?", among (one million) other questions. The beauty of brewing as an aesthetic exercise is that it seems so magical and paradisical in its outcome, but is nonetheless a practice of science, art, crafting by hand, and technical knowledge.
Then comes the magic. In the realm of fermentation and especially in the realm of wild and spontaneous fermentation, the tiny, closed ecosystem that we created, with a finite number of resources, takes care of itself. In the end, what we have to offer the world is the result of that tiny ecosystem, with all of its flavors, smells, and delicousness, encapsulated in a bottle or a keg to be poured into a glass. There, you can snuggle up to the glass, nose it, sip it, or chug it; whatever you like to do. But it is indeed our very essence and craft put out for the world to enjoy, just as a painter puts their work on display for people to criticize as they may, and just as a musician performs in front of vast quantities of people to be judged, enjoyed, or disliked. In any of these cases, though, there is a key point in that we are disinterested in forming or owning the aesthetic experience, but rather, are here to be placed into the artist's and creator's world for a short time, only to be released from it shortly (the key characteristic that allows us to have aesthetic disinterest is that we are not invested or dependent upon the outcome of that experience; our survival does not depend upon it).
As a brewer creating these experiences for the world to see, while brewing is my profession and I cannot be disinterested in the outcome of the brewery overall, I still can proclaim and adhere to my aesthetic disinterest in that I can continue to create a virtually limitless number of flavors without exhausting myself, as I will not be trapped into any one experience. Am I crazy for literally letting control of my "bread & butter" and my business go to the microbes and presenting the outcome for the world? I do not think so. I think it is exactly as humans have done for thousands of years, and in this age of human control over the environment through the prowess of our scientific and technological know-how, it is refreshing to allow nature to take the reins for once. And it isn't like I do not take precautions in this wild venture; just like any brewer, I will be prepared to not bottle something I think is unpleasant, and I will have much on hand to blend to taste. But the philosophy remains the same:
Humanity's place is not to force nature into its own ideological fallacy, that is, that humankind is master and supreme and all else must be controllably subservient, but to remain sustainably disinterested in its experience throughout the course of Earth's history, and to become stewards of the beautiful diversity that we are blessed with every single day.
And exactly that is the underlying ideal of the aesthetic experience that is Bretty Fingers.