Economy of Means

When I was a young man, I was a minimalist.

I do not mean to say that I favoured any school of movement in art, music or literature that referred to itself as “minimalism”. I was, rather, persuaded that most artistic achievements that gestured towards greatness also gestured towards the minimal, the blank, the still, the silent. This seemed to me as true of Beethoven’s final string quartets as it did of John Cage’s 4’33”, say, or a Mark Rothko canvas, or Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”. I was and remain impressed by the discipline of Jean Sibelius, whose music wound tighter and tighter through the course of his career until, as if suddenly aware of the limits of its austerity, it yielded to a quintessentially Finnish silence for the last 30 years of the composer’s life.

I only gradually came to recognise that to define the success of works of art according to this somewhat brutish sense of “economy of means” is hopelessly reductive.

There can be as much expressive power in the sprawl as in the jewel. But there is still more to it than that. There is also the question of which “means” a great artwork is economising. Perfectly realised minimalism demands many hours of tremendous mental effort and numerous frustrated iterations: “Had I more time, I’d have written you a shorter letter,” as someone once put it.

Most importantly, because the objectives of art are so, as it were, subjective, and because its expressive means are so boundless, the question of whether a work of art deploys enough or too much in pursuit of its statements must remain a site of irresoluble contention.

If a symphony by Gustav Mahler really is “like the world”, containing everything—why, then, despite its length, its orchestral forces and its general sense of excess, it is a masterwork of concision. Is the defining characteristic of Anton Webern’s Opus 21 Symphony its brevity and sense of stillness or the unfathomable, multiplicative complexity of its layers upon layers of palindromes? Is Hamlet an unusually long play or a miraculously short one?

The answer must be both.

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So much for art. Craft is a different matter altogether. When it comes to craft, the stakes are higher.

That is because art must answer only to aesthetic criteria, whereas craft must answer to commercial and utilitarian criteria. Craft occupies the tricky space between beauty of form and aptness of function, between use-value and exchange-value. Craft has an economics (it concerns the marshalling of resources and labour to a specific functional end), and therefore it has an ethics: those ethics are grounded in the economy of means—and there is no mystery as to which “means” are the subject of the economy.

In art, otiosity can be suggestive, sentimental, a mere flaw. In craft, otiosity is theft.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a very, very short story concerning a very, very big map, reproduced here in its entirety:

On Exactitude in Science

by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Norman Thomas de Giovanni

… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

purportedly from Suárez Miranda, Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658

Through the aesthetic alchemy of art, a symphony can be “like the world” despite being unlike the world in obvious ways. By contrast, the utilitarian reverse-alchemy of craft means that a map cannot be “like the world” despite being like the world in obvious ways.

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The craft of barrel ageing and blending has a long history in wine and spirit making. Before a taste for the purity of single grape varietals or single malt Scotch whiskies started to develop 40 or 50 years ago, blending was considered a necessary craft to smooth out the idiosyncrasies that come with a wide range of natural variation—from region to region, cask to cask and year to year. Once a satisfying blend was achieved, the blender’s task was to recreate that flavour profile as consistently as possible from one batch to the next.

Barrel ageing and blending has a less well-known but equally venerable history in beer. In England, fresh Mild Ale would be blended with one- or two-year-old Stock Ale to create a more characterful drink. In Belgium, spontaneously-fermented Lambics are still blended into Gueuze, to balance the different characters of old, medium-aged and young beer, to achieve consistency from a wild and unpredictable raw product, and to create fizz in the bottle. Today, a resurgence in the production of barrel-aged beers, especially Imperial Stouts, has necessarily led to a resurgence in beer blending—again, simply because barrel ageing introduces natural variation into a product that is generally required to show consistency from batch to batch.

But imagine, if you will, a brewery whose aims and approach depart somewhat from these traditions. Instead of trying to contain variability, they embrace and even encourage it. Instead of consistency, they aim for striking, one-off flavour combinations that highlight their eccentric ingredients, fermentations and barrel selections.

One recent Friday evening, at a local bottle shop, I tasted some of this brewery’s newest and most limited beers, including a barrel-aged and blended Stout, and the latest seasonal barrel-aged and blended variation on its well-loved Flemish Red Ale.

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The Stout was a complicated drink. It is a blend of four beers: a chocolate, coffee and vanilla Imperial Stout; the same beer, aged for two years in Pinot Noir barrels; a super-strong Imperial Stout yet to be separately released; and another Imperial Stout specially brewed for this blend alone. As well as the Burgundy barrels, whiskey, Bourbon and sherry barrels also had a hand in its creation.

barrel aged and blended stout

A triumph of rigmarole over substance

I enjoyed this beer, and perhaps I can even say that I tasted most of its elements: chocolate, coffee and vanilla from the base Stout; fruit and tannins from the wine barrels; a touch of sweet honey from the Bourbon barrels and a hint of smoke from the whiskey barrels; some warming fusels, presumably from the third Stout, which was brewed to a hydrometer-busting 16% ABV.

But was I entirely convinced that a skilful brewer could not create something very similar with a single batch of Imperial Stout given six or eight months of ageing in Burgundy barrels? Not entirely.

Did I suspect that the beer was a small triumph of rigmarole over substance? Just a little.

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I would have given the brewery the benefit of my doubt had I not followed up this Stout with the seasonal Flemish Red.

The base beer for this product is a good, well-rounded, fruity and unashamedly acetic beer. Fermented with an English Ale yeast and a Brettanomyces strain, and then with the microflora of the brewery’s foeders, the beer is then aged for 90 days in a mix of red wine and Bourbon barrels, before these are blended for the final drink.

Traditionally, the brewery has selected some of its “most exceptional” Burgundy barrels for further ageing of this beer. This year, it decided to do something different, ageing it in a mix of Bourbon, Burgundy, Pedro Ximenez and Laphroaig barrels before blending the final drink.

The result was a truly horrifying clash of balsamic vinegar and peat smoke.

Drinking this beer was like attending a prize fight hoping to see two masters of their craft jab and box their way to a lofty pinnacle of the sweet science, only to witness a pair of savages beat each other to a bleeding, pulpy mess of unconsciousness. One leaves such an event sick at the barbarousness of it all and sick at oneself for having been there.

The killer blow comes from the Laphroaig barrels. Their peat smoke intensity would adorn an Imperial Stout handsomely, but it was simply horrid against a tart, foeder-aged ale. What was intriguing on the nose and mercifully subdued in the first taste became unbearable after three sips.

What was this brewery thinking? I can only come up with three possibilities.

One is that this was an intentional foray into the dubious eccentricity of ingredients and flavour combination that have characterised some of its previous experiments. The second is that it simply ran out of the Burgundy barrels required to age the full batch of its Flemish Red, or even to balance the flavours of the Laphroaig casks it was forced to use instead—in other words, it let necessity, rather than good taste or blending skill, be the mother of this unfortunate invention. The third and most worrying is that someone thought this blend was palatable.

Just as the barbarity of my metaphorical prize fight would call all boxing into question, so the barbarity of this beer calls all of this brewery’s blending exploits into question.

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In my opinion, neither the Flemish Red nor the Stout that I tasted were well-crafted beers. The first took a decent beer and ruined it, apparently for the sake of being able to release a seasonal limited edition that widens the beer’s profit margin by perhaps 50%. The second seemed to pursue complexity for the sake of complexity, perhaps, again, for the sake of a substantial mark-up. Both were contemptuous of the economy of means that is the essence of craft, and the foundation of its morality.

If they were conceived as works of art, I can only assume that they were meant as satire.

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Imagine, if you will, an artist who spends decades designing and constructing a seething network of megacities, before revealing that the real object of this epic construction is to reproduce a minutely accurate representation of the Mona Lisa that is only visible from a single point in space, where a satellite fitted with a camera orbits, ready to take one photograph at just the right time, which is then reproduced in super high-definition detail and placed in 150 million picture frames that are each 77 centimetres high and 53 centimetres wide, to be hung above the television set in every single home in every single street of every single megacity the artist has built, so that everyone can marvel that, despite being accurate in each minute aspect, this Mona Lisa’s eyes, and her smile, are empty and lifeless.

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