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Oakes Archive - Brewing: Art or Science

An archived feature courtesy of Ratebeer.com
Features October 16, 2003      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

This very question was asked in the January Poll for the Beer Manifesto website http://www.netcom.ca/~jdoakes) and the results came in. Two-thirds of the Manifesto fans saw brewing as an art. A representative sample of the beer-loving public? I don’t know. Certainly my site is one of very few that is chauvanistically geared to the hardcore aficionado, but at the same time it reflects my opinions in their purist form. And I see brewing as an art. It stands to reason - after all, I am a writer, and my writing can be oblique and intuitive (at least, if you want to fully understand it). When I was in high school, I had trouble in science classes, not because I didn’t understand the concept, but because I hated working scientifically. I found much of it redundant, and preferred to focus on the key concepts rather than over-examining all of the details.

Anyway, the point is that I am predisposed to seeing brewing as an artistic venture. I know a lot of homebrewers, however, who wholeheartedly disagree. It seems to me that the percentage of homebrewers who are engineers, chemists and other scientific types is disproportionate to that of the general population. They naturally hold brewing as a science.

In the world of beer, the two positions are perhaps best exemplified by the brewing traditions in Belgium and Germany. There is no question that the Belgians see brewing as an art. Ok, Interbrew is completely oblivious to the art of brewing, preferring to worry more about the marketing of brewing (is it just me or is it very ironic that they are putting over for profit the same tradition that they are systematically destroying), but Belgians are the artists of the brewing world. The house character, the funk, the willingness to present flavours to the public that would otherwise be considered totally unpalatable...Belgium’s bizarre ales are measured by their wackiness. Nobody has ever come up with a definitive breakdown of Belgian beer styles, and with good reason. Belgians don’t care much for stylistic perfection. Fitting previously-set guidelines is not the measure of success for a Belgian brewer - distinctiveness is.

Across the border in Germany we see the opposite perspective at work. Germans are notorious for their love of order and discipline. Their beers certainly show this. From their medieval predilection for the cleaner products of bottom-fermentation (even in the days of wild fermentation, German yeasts tended towards bottom fermentation) to the rigid stylistic definitions by which the vast majority of German beers are categorized, to the Reinheitsgebot itself, German brewing is clearly a scientific undertaking.

Whereas in Belgium you can only define beer styles in the loosest of terms, in Germany the style of every single beer is immediately evident to an experience beer taster. There simply is not such a thing as style overlap. Brewers take pride in working within stylistic constraints to produce products of reknown. Specialties are rare. And the result of all this are beers of purity, class and style. For the poet, is it more difficult to write a free verse masterpiece or is it more difficult to craft a masterpiece within the confines of haiku? Well, there is some merit to the way that German brewers are able to exercise their creativity within stylistic confines. But personally, even as a child I rejected the idea that achieving excellence within established guidelines was better than creating something totally unique.

All the talk about art and science does, however, leave out a very important part of brewing tradition. Beer as a foodstuff. Now, chefs may argue as to whether cooking is an art or a science, but surely the humble loaf of bread, no matter how artistically-produced, is still not raised to the level of art. Nor is it advisable to make the production of bread into a science (mmmm....Wonderbread). The vision of beer as a foodstuff goes back centuries, if not millennia. And it is the tradition epitomized by the third great beer culture - England.



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