By Douglas Wissing, Author
My book, Indiana: One Pint at a Time, has been a beer trek across Indiana—a chance to understand the long Hoosier brewing tradition and experience today’s remarkable craft beers. As I explored Indiana brewing history and discovered today’s exciting microbrewing industry, I found time for reflection. I wondered, what is beer? Yellow lagers and amber ales connect to golden fields of grain. The bite of hops sends my mind up towering poles where hop cones nod against the blue sky. Cooking beer mash smells like a celestial porridge. Food—maybe beer is food.
But I realized science is part of the picture. Brewers have long struggled to master the mysteries of beer. Brewing history is rife with tinkerers and industrial designers who rationalized the process.
I conjectured that beer is Art, some conceptual, performative work—brewers’ boot-footed dances, choreographed by each brewhouse’s idiosyncratic setup—a jitterbug of twisting and turning with basic manual systems; waltzes in the more automated places; jagged hip-hops when chaos erupts. An elegant lager is clearly aesthetic; the high-wire act of deftly balanced ale is as artful as chamber music. Then I remembered conceptual artist Tom Marioni’s famous “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art,” a piece of art he performed countless times in museums and public places across the globe. The art is—you know—drinking beer with friends.
Thinking about this Beer with a capital B, I considered social chemistry—the concentrated conviviality of clinking bottles at sports gatherings; the thrum of a crowded brewpub; the welcoming hiss of uncapping bottles at family picnics. Then there’s the quiet enjoyment of beer: comforting ale by the fire; a high-hopped IPA’s sensual excitement; a lambic’s intellectual stimulation—so maybe beer’s liquid solace, too.
Then I considered beer as religion, conjuring up thousands of generations of yeast priests stewarding mysterious processes into a mind-altering sacrament. Medieval brewers had a name for the substance that changed grain into transcendental liquid: Godisgood—an alchemical transformation of grain into a higher calling.
But having finally reached the end of my zymurgic journey across Indiana, I at last concluded it is something far more elemental than all of these things: it’s beer.
We’ll be exploring these and other facets of our beloved beverage at the Jabberwocky event, part of The Spirit and Place “Food for Thought” festival, held Nov. 5-14 in Indianapolis.