Stillwater and the Committee on Opprobriations are collaborating on a new line of beers that are a stylistic departure in more ways than one. We interviewed Stillwater's Brian Strumke and the COO's Mike Van Hall via email. A lightly-edited transcript follows. The Contemporary Works are already available in Maryland, and will be in DC shortly, with VA to follow.
DCBeer: It seems like there's a "beer geek progression" from hoppy to other styles, be they yeast-driven, sour, sessionable… and it seems like you're going about this backwards with the Contemporary Works. Do art and beer have a teleology? Discuss.
Brian Strumke: Indeed they do, and working in reverse was kind of my plan, although I never had a exact trail mapped out for Stillwater, as I have always said it's a vehicle for my ideas. I like to release concepts and see how the world responds to them as I've never been a fan of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so I like to allow the concepts to naturally unfold and shape themselves (with my guidance of course). The Contemporary works came about as a response to the 'beer geek progression' I suppose. While it may seem that I am just 'giving the masses what they want' as in the popular styles, it's actually not the case. I referenced Dali's 'Basket of Bread' in a previous interview; when I first saw that piece at an exhibit I was blown away, not just by the extreme realism of the work, but the statement and meaning behind it. It was his signifying piece that allowed the credibility and self-confidence to go forward and reshape painting as he saw fit. I feel that I started out as an abstract brewer, and my goal was to create something new, but people want explanations and / or categories… so inevitably my beers were lumped into what appears to be its closest relative, Belgian beer. I have some really out there concepts in the works, but before going there I thought why not first make the attempt to break down any stereotype that people may have about Stillwater… so this is kind of my exercise in 'realism' before venturing back into 'surrealism'.
DCBeer: How did the two of you meet, and then decide to work on this project?
Brian Strumke: That's an interesting story in itself. I suppose it was a few months after we opened Of Love And Regret in Baltimore, Mike had sent a print of one of his single hop series posters along with some cool stickers and a very vague letter of appreciation. It was an artist wanting to share his work with another. I was intrigued and reached out. Later as things progressed with Stillwater I realized i needed to expand on my concepts and thought Mike would be able to lend not only additional skills to the project, but also a different perspective. I believe you can see that's true from the new line.
Mike Van Hall: Brian really captured it but I'll add that when I first started trying to present the work I was doing, I had no idea if anyone would get it. So I reached out to the few people I thought were doing interesting things and waited for the reaction. For me, that turned out to provide a great lesson in what makes for a good partner in an artistic endeavor. The Contemporary Works labels are successful, from my perspective, because it was a real artistic project for both Brian and I. It was not just him hiring a graphic designer to render an already formed idea – that rarely happens and is a credit to Stillwater. After working with Brian on these, I understood why that labels featuring Lee's [Verzosa, who designs the "traditional" labels] work were so impactful to me and so many others.
DCBeer: Mike, you seem to have a Zelig-like ability to appear in the DMV beer scene lately. Between this, Lucketts farm and Flying Dog…. How did this come to be?
Mike Van Hall: Most importantly, finding good people that recognized I was taking a novel approach in the booze and food world. Brian is certainly one of the people that understood it early on. Flying Dog too. That fact that both beer companies had such strong, art-centric identities before working with me should tell people a lot about how committed each is to doing more than just selling beer and protecting market share.
But it is also the product of me spending the last few years pushing the idea that what people choose to drink and eat can be an act of self-expression. I try to complement that by doing work that resonates emotionally for those people and it is starting to connect now. The work I do under COO is where a lot of groundwork was laid for the stuff you see lately, as well as the projects I do with my friend and cohort Jonathan Staples (the guy behind the Lucketts Farm and many other endeavors) .
DCBeer: Brian, when you're not on the road, you're either in NY or Baltimore. One of my favorite modernist objects is Massimo Vignelli's New York City subway map. Did that play a role in your embrace of modernism?
Brian Strumke: Funny you say that, as I know it has been a big influence on Mike. I would say personally, my move to NYC not only puts me closer to my main production brewery [Two Roads, in CT], but it also helped to shift my headspace into a more modern design. Baltimore (to me) has much more of a home town feel, and my existence there is well represented in the original Stillwater aesthetic, both the design of my bar and house there encapsulates that. the Brooklyn office looks and feels exactly like the 'Contemporary Works', purposely arranged as there was thoughts back in the summer of spending a month or so in a more romantically inspiring place like Paris or Spain just to work on new concepts for Stillwater, much like a writer going away to work on their novel… but I decided on a different form of inspiration for this, and spent majority of the fall and holidays in NYC working remotely with Mike on this new project.
DCBeer: Thanks much to both of you. We hope this has been an illuminating look at what goes into not only designing a beer, but also the art behind it, and the relationship between the two.