Do We Want Beer Architects?

St Paul's Cathedral: elevation by Wren. (Detail.)

Last week’s article in the Wall Street Journal about conflict between traditional brewers and ‘beer architects’ in Belgium appalled someone we follow on Twitter:

Now, we’re not sure if the world needs beer architects, or if the term is one we’d like to see stick, but it’s an interesting way of framing the discussion.

Until fairly recently, there were no architects — only builders, and, later, master builders. Then came people like Christopher Wren — intelligent to the point of genius, and bred to practice good taste at a pitch most humans can’t detect — who made a living conceiving of buildings or estates; sketching them; modelling them… and then contracting someone else to get their hands dirty in the construction.

German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) started his career working on building sites. He designed modern structures of remarkable elegance and apparent simplicity, but used his knowledge of the (literal) nuts and bolts of building to, for example, specify dimensions that would accommodate standard brick sizes, avoiding the need for fudged edges or partial pieces. He visited brick merchants to hand select those of the right colour and texture to be used in the construction of his designs. He reportedly once spent six months tinkering with the placement of a wall in a scale model.

So, a credible beer architect might be someone who:

  • has a qualification from a great brewing school;
  • has worked hands-on in breweries;
  • has studied hops, malt, yeast and water in the laboratory;
  • knows the history of beer and its place in culture;
  • pays painstaking attention to detail and
  • has a well-trained palate and excruciatingly good taste.

Much like a ‘head brewer’, then, only without a home base; and certainly overlapping with the existing role of ‘beer consultant’ currently undertaken by, for example, Sean ‘Dr Hop’ Franklin.

What a beer architect surely can’t be is the kind of person who calls up and says, ‘I’d like 20 pallets of your standard Slavovar lager to go out with this cool label I’ve designed, please,’ or, ‘I’ve got a, like, wicked idea for a strawberry tripel — can you work out the details and send my a lorry load by June?’

PS. Those critical of contract/gypsy/nomad brewing who want a similarly persuasive bit of rhetoric might note that having your book ‘ghost written’ is not yet considered cool, and ‘ghost brewed’ does have a certain ring to it.

7 thoughts on “Do We Want Beer Architects?”

  1. I think you’ve nailed what a beer architect can’t be. As to what makes a beer architect – not sure. How does Mikkeller fit into this – as far as I know he now just emails his recipes to breweries and lets them get on with it. There’s quite a good summary in “Beer in the Netherlands” which rang true for me. If I have time I’ll type it out and post it later.

  2. Working with architects as I do, I can confirm that they are not the great generalists you suggest. As much as the cog between the building code and the general contractor as anything. What someone needs to start using as this sort of aggrandizing catch all is Beer Santa or even Beer Jesus.

  3. I was going to complain a lot, but then the I read the PS, and I must say that I liked the “ghost brewed” thing.

    Basically, I don’t care too much one way or another. What I want is a beer that offers me good value. Say, for instance, M&S’s Staffordshire IPA, I love it. I know M&S had nothing to do with the recipe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a relabeled product, but it’s great value, and I drink it very often.

  4. The term “architect” has a long history in IT. For a long time, it meant a person who designs a system, without actually being one of the people who actually make it.

    Then, the term started spreading. There was “enterprise architect,” meaning a person which oversees the entire ecosystem of IT systems in an enterprise, and their connection with the business processes. The old “architect” became “system architect”. Then we got “information architect,” which is someone who designs the information objects and the way they flow across systems.

    Then, suddenly, “information architect” was also someone who designs web sites, and the word “architect” started feeling more than a little bit over-used.

    I feel “beer architect” fits perfectly into this history. That is, as a fancy way of saying “gypsy brewer”.

  5. I might be dead wrong on this (it’s based mostly on the WSJ article rather than following the argument in-depth), but it feels suspiciously like the crux of the issue is that traditional brewers are basically afraid of being outcompeted by social-media savvy newcomers who know how to generate hype for (what the traditionalists percieve to be) inferior product. The precise commercial relationship between the owner of the physical brewery and the person who decides what goes in the beer looks rather like a handy stand in for the actual complaint, except insofar as contract brewing somewhat lowers the barriers to entry for people to try out their homebrew recipes on a big scale and see if they can get a bite from the hipsters…

  6. Surely the key thing is, who has designed the beer? Who has brewed it? Artisans, or craftspeople surely do both. And you are not a brewer if you don’t actually brew. In the same way that you are not a painter unless you actually paint.

  7. Surely the key thing is whether they’re producing consistently good beer at a relatively sensible price? I don’t really care how people divide the labour, ownership and risk or how they describe themselves provided they get that much down.

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