It's a drab and drizzly Friday evening, but there's a lively soiree at the Studio Gallery, just north of Dupont Circle, as local artists swish around mouthfuls of stout, hefeweizen and lager while home-brewers admire works in watercolor, oil and acrylic.
You might expect to hobnob with a chardonnay-and-brie crowd at this artists' co-op, but according to gallery director Marina Reiter, "We're trying to have different groups come here and mingle." That's why volunteers from Brewers United for Real Potables, the Washington area club for amateur beer-makers, are pouring 11 of their beers from bottles, barrels and metal canisters. They dubbed the Sept. 26 event the Art of Homebrew.
"There are some beers here that I love, love, love," gushes Joyce Weinstein, whose mixed-media composition "Made in Havana" hangs above the food table. She singles out Pablo Picasso's Porter by Paul and Jamie Langlie, an ebony-colored ale full of chocolate, coffee and licorice flavors: "It's the equivalent of a dark red wine that fills your senses."
Says artist Kristina Bilonick, "You take more time to savor the artwork while sipping."
Artists seem to have drawn as much inspiration from beer as from cognac, wine or absinthe. Foaming glasses show up frequently in still-life paintings of the Dutch masters. In Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," bottles of Bass Ale are made conspicuous by the bright red triangles on the label. Jasper Johns's modernist sculpture "Painted Bronze" is a casting of two Ballantine Ale cans.
But the theme for this night's event is not beer in art, but the art of beer. "There is a science to making beer, a process of chemicals reacting, but there is an art to doing a recipe and making it go the way you want to go," Bud Hensgen says.
Hensgen was the catalyst for this exhibition. He's a member of the Studio Gallery and has several works on display, including "Untitled Landscape," a tranquil harbor scene, and the vibrant, abstract "The Fire Next Time II." The Arlington retiree has been home-brewing since the late 1980s. He is also a co-founder of Old Dominion Brewing in Ashburn, although he cashed out two years ago when the company was sold.
Hensgen has brought two of his beers: the hoppy Jackson Pollock's Pale Ale and a multicultural libation named Rene Magritte's Belgian Strong Dark Ale. Mark Hogenmiller, who collaborated on the latter, describes it as "Virginia girl meets Belgian boy." It's a 40-60 blend of two beers crafted from an identical recipe. But one batch was fermented with a commercial yeast from Antwerp, the other with a wild strain that Hogenmiller isolated from a jug of unpasteurized cider he bought in Flint Hill, Va. The beer starts out sweet and fruity, like a caramel apple, but finishes remarkably dry.
It was Hensgen, incidentally, who gave the beers their artist-inspired monikers. Most, like Whistler's Wit, are based solely on alliteration, but Toulouse-Lautrec's Fruit Lambic has a special meaning for brewers Dave and Becky Pyle, who combine business with pleasure in their jobs as regional reps for hop merchant Hopunion. "My great-aunt fell in love with a Frenchman and moved to Paris between the two world wars," Dave says. The Pyles occasionally visit Dave's second cousins in the Montmartre area of Paris, where the great postimpressionist painter frequented the Moulin Rouge.
A lambic is a beer spontaneously fermented by wild microorganisms. The Pyles have added cherry juice to theirs and allowed the brew to mature in oaken barrels. Dave explains that it is a blend of three ales that spent one, two and three years in the oak. The extraordinary brew has layers of sour cherry, vanilla, fresh earth and biscuity malt.
"The lambic is an outstanding beer; it's very difficult to make," Hensgen says. Unlike the paintings in the gallery, which will hang indefinitely in some appreciative art lover's den, these beers are a one-time, one-place experience. Flavors will intensify or fade over time. Yeast strains evolve and will yield different results under varying conditions.
Hensgen is a little disappointed with the sparse crowd; he blames the weather and that evening's presidential debate. But he's happy that the brewers are at leisure to explain their techniques. It's a stark contrast with busy beer festivals, where servers are hard-pressed to fill glasses and have little time for small talk.
Will the Art of Homebrew be repeated? "The brewers are willing, but I don't want to commit myself," says Hensgen, who's busy readying an exhibition of his abstract paintings for January. But maybe for Oktoberfest 2009, he adds.
Bilonick votes thumbs up. "As soon as I got here I thought, we should do this at other galleries."
Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com.