Instructions for Eating: Serving Beer in the Gallery – Eric Steen

“Instructions for Eating” is a monthly column edited by Tracy Candido about food as a medium and eating as a social practice. Invited artists present recipes, preparation instructions, directions for hunting and gathering, lists of ingredients, etc. for public consumption. These experimental essays function as a site of learning and action: readers are encouraged to perform the instructions laid out before them. Each invited artist is asked to propose/suggest two other artists who would be well suited for the column. This creates a participant/artist driven effort. The following entry is from Eric Steen.

Many galleries think about using local foods and supporting the local community when it comes to serving food in the gallery. During openings, fundraisers, and special events food is often seen as an expanded type of art – care is taken to make sure that the food is prepared well, raised humanely, and free of harmful chemicals; local farmers and artists are invited into the gallery to give presentations on the food and to show how eating can be a relational activity. When it comes to the drinks provided at these events however, many galleries skimp. Galleries that I visit, and galleries that I have worked with, often receive beer donations and are able to offer beer for free to visitors. The problem is that this beer is often a product of huge companies that promote their beer with misogynist and objectifying advertisements. Additionally, most of the donated beer is industrial lager, where low quality ingredients and mechanized labor produce a drink that is stripped of flavor and has little resemblance to beer at all. These companies include Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Stella Artois, Heineken, and others.*

There is, however, a growing movement in beer; a movement that has been hindered by neo-prohibitionist ideologies that associate beer with drunkenness and all that is wrong in the world (which isn’t helped by the marketing work of the large brewing companie)s. In this movement, beer is seen not as an agent for getting drunk, but as a drink that has more complexity than wine and coffee; a drink that encourages thoughtful analysis, that familiarizes people with local agriculture and food politics, and is recognized as the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Patrick McGovern, a lead archaeologist specialized in the field of alcoholic beverages, suggests that beer is a major reason that groups of people began to form into agricultural communities, providing an easier way to have large and consistent quantities of grain available. Whether or not this is a myth, I have become interested in the aesthetics of beer and brewing. As an artist and homebrewer, my work is inspired by the idea that beer is the people’s drink – that it brings people together, loosens barriers between people, and that these social elements are integrated into the entire idea, production, and consumption of the beverage. Beer is a social lubricant (as Tom Marioni stated), and it is a social glue. Drinking good beer, to me, is a form of activism as it brings people together, inspires local economy, develops a sense of landfulness, and is known for shaping how people think about where their food comes from. Beer is an agent for social change. This fascinates me and is a major topic of exploration in my work. The pint is a center for relational activity; sharing a pitcher is an activity that, by the end of the pitcher, will likely have inspired warming conversation and bonded people together. In my opinion, drinking together and community is at the center of well-made beer.

If it is a part of the gallery’s general philosophy to support local food groups and organizations and to provide visitors with high quality food experience then it is necessary to put that same effort into the drink selection as well. In this post I will provide three general ideas for incorporating locally brewed beer into aspects of the gallery, showcasing it as a type of art. For those who are interested in these ideas, I have included a few broad but practical tips as well as some final thoughts on working with brewers.

Start A Beer Exhibition Program

Think of the tap handle as a type of exhibition space. A homebrewer or commercial craft brewer in your city becomes the artist. The gallery showcases the local talent of brewers in the vicinity. If a gallery chooses to have one tap handle, they can rotate the beer regularly every month, or with every exhibition. If the gallery has more than one tap handle the beer can also rotate every month, or beers can be switched out whenever the kegs are emptied. I like the idea that this would be considered a separate exhibition space in the gallery; that someone could come into the gallery, view the visual art, and sample the edible art, which activates three to four of the senses. During openings, the gallery can arrange their food table around the tap handles and someone can pour beer for visitors throughout the night. The gallery could have a curator for the beer, at times having a number of different versions of the same style – India Pale Ale, Stout, Belgium Sour, Herb and Spice – on tap at the same time, each made by a different person. Other times the curator could choose an exhibition that is a bit more experimental, such as beers made with edible plants found in nearby parks, beers inspired by current political events, organic beers, spit and chew beers made with gallery visitors, or beers brewed with random ingredients from the fridges of people who live near the gallery.

Choose a spot in the gallery to have some tap handles. Generally speaking, what this will require is a wall that has enough space to insert a tap handle, or a number of tap handles. The image above shows that you can have four tap handles without requiring too much wall space. Hidden plastic serving lines will carry beer into the tap handles, (or you can have the lines on display the way artist Joseph Beuys displayed the lines of his Honey Pump). You will also need a stand-alone fridge to hold the keg(s) of beer. The fridge can go on the other side of the wall, or if the tap lines are long enough, you can put the fridge elsewhere.  You can choose to serve quarter-barrel kegs, which hold just over fifteen gallons of beer, serving you 149 full 16oz. beers. An 8oz. pour can be a nice sized serving at a gallery, so you would get nearly 250 pours per keg. Or you can serve the smaller five-gallon keg, which will save space if you are limited. Offering tap handles as part of an additional exhibition space in the gallery is the most expensive option I am presenting today, but it is still possible to do with less than $1000.00. It will require a little reading on how to keep the proper temperature in your fridge, and how to clean your lines once every two to four weeks.

Serving Beer At An Opening

If the above option is not feasible or is not something the gallery is interested in pursuing, offering a selection of locally made beer at an opening is the next best option, and is very easy to accomplish. In terms of finding a homebrewer to supply beer, the gallery would only need to create a flier that portrays their interest in serving homebrewed beer to a public audience and give the flier to a local homebrewing store. There are two basic options for serving the beer. Some homebrewers might be able to keg their beer. In this case a gallery would need a bucket large enough to hold the keg and some ice to chill the keg as well as a handpump to pump the beer out of the keg. The other option is to serve the beer out of bottles. A server can pour the beer into a small glass, being careful not to pour the yeast at the bottom of the bottle into the glass as well. It is not good to drink homebrewed beer straight out of the bottle because not only does the drinker not have the pleasure of viewing the color, which is an important characteristic of beer that homebrewers work hard to achieve, but there is also yeast build-up in the bottle. The reason for this is that the beer is actually still alive when you drink it – the yeast continues to eat the sugar in the beer, affecting the flavor all the way until you drink it. Many commercial craft brewers also leave the yeast in the beer when they bottle as well. When I create events where beers are served out of bottles, I choose to carefully pour a number of bottles into a large pitcher and then from the pitcher into the visitor’s glass. If you have a number of beers in bottles this is an attractive way to present the beer (see image above).

Adding Beer Into Fundraising Programs

Many galleries and organizations around the world have adopted some form of InCUBATE’s Sunday Soup program as a way to raise money for a local artist’s project. This could be a really nice opportunity to also showcase the talent of a local homebrewer and to offer beer to visitors. Let’s say that for $10.00 a visitor gets dinner and a vote. As a supplement to the dinner you could also offer a bottle of homebrewed beer for an additional $2.00. You would pay the homebrewer for their materials, which will generally run $0.50 to $1.00 per bottle of beer, and the remaining money could go to the artist that wins the vote that night. For other types of fundraisers, the same idea of charging a small amount for a beer applies. I believe that people will generally be willing to pay, or donate, a little extra money for a beer that was made less than five miles away.

Last Thoughts On Working With Brewers

If the gallery does not have enough money to buy new beer every month, but they are presenting the beer as artwork, it is very likely that both the homebrewer and commercial brewer would provide the beer for free. I have received many keg donations from commercial craft brewers that make very good beer. As an artist, I have also received donations from homebrewers when they feel their beer is being enjoyed and presented in a respectable manner. Homebrewers are usually more than willing to show off what they’ve made. As a homebrewer, it is a real treat for me when I am allowed to serve my own beer to visitors, so consider that an option.

Often when I work with a gallery on a project that involves giving away homebrewed beer I ask the gallery if it’s possible to give the homebrewer $1.00 per bottle of beer they provide. I ask this so the brewer can recover the material costs of making the beer. If the gallery has a license to sell alcohol it can take donations or simply charge $1.00 to recover those costs, or even $2.00 per bottle to gain a little money back for the gallery. Either way, $2.00 is still an awesome price for good beer.

In my experience few of the galleries have ever been able/willing to buy beer from the homebrewer and so the homebrewer has been willing to donate the beer. The buying and selling of homebrewed beer could also pose legal problems, so getting the beer donated is often a way to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. The key point is to handle the beer in the same way that you would handle the rest of the art in the gallery, to respect the thoughtfulness, care, time, effort, science, and creativity that goes into every batch and to appreciate each glass that you drink.

*I say “Bud” instead of Budweiser because it can then refer to either Budweiser and Bud Light. Also, “Stella” can refer to a number of their beers, but Stella Artois is one beer in particular (the most popular one).


Eric Steen utilizes beer to explore and celebrate place, history, politics, and people. Eric writes for and Focus on the Beer and has exhibited at Apexart, the Portland Art Museum, the Kondike Institute of Arts and Culture, and the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.



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  2. Rebeca Sutton

    There is a lot of critique saying that social practice art is talent/craft-less. I think this is often coming from people who have not done a lot of research into what art and social practice really is as a field, because there is undoubtedly a great deal of talented people working in this realm. This is a perfect example of that. Starting with the feminists in the seventies, there has been a lot of work put in to shifting the paradigm of fine art away from just painting and sculpture and including “craft”, which has been separated from “art”. Creating beer is such a fine example of how these are not mutually exclusive things, as well as the importance of realizing that the term “art” can be applied to so much more than it has traditionally.
    What I am more interested in, however, is the prevalent use of alcohol in many projects or events that are social practice tinged. I find this appropriate on many levels. First of all the obvious: in social events that are often asking participants to enact behavior that is slightly to very much out of the norm, it helps to provide a social lubricant in order to push things along. Although, I think using alcohol as a tool for good art comes along with its own disposition. You directly address that you do not think of your art as a tool to get people drunk, but how is that something that is avoided? Or is it not strictly avoided, just not emphasized? Gallery openings have traditionally always served free alcohol and that is definitely part of the “gallery experience” for a lot of people. Turning the alcohol facet of the gallery experience into a crafted artistic experience is logical but profound. It highlights and makes into art not only the beverage itself, but also its social importance due to the neurological effects of drinking it. Consequently, it makes the entire event “art”, not just a venue for looking at art, which is a notion illustrated in many social practice events.

  3. Pingback: Beer and Social Practice | Social Practice History Spring 2011
  4. Jacob

    I think that if I have to imagine “the tap handle as a type of exhibition space”, and imagine that the “homebrewer or commercial craft brewer in your city becomes the artist,” then the work is falling short. I won’t deny that craft and fine art can be the same thing – but if you want people to see and feel that – you have to create work that demands it – otherwise why should anyone see you as anything but a home brewer trying to play around as an artist. It’s the job of the work to communicate that it is art.

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