The Facticity of the Barrel

The amber liquid settled into the bowl of the glass as a contented cat would settle into the corner of an old armchair. Viscous and still, when agitated gently it would rouse from its slumber and stretch up the smooth surface before letting itself slip, soporifically, back into repose. It seemed happy with itself, in that moment.

The liquid was a 2017 vintage of Brewer’s Reserve, a Barley Wine aged in Jim Beam barrels by Harbour Brewing in Cornwall. And, despite appearances, it was not happy with itself. Indeed, it was not clear at all what “itself” was. The beer tasted of honey, tangerines and vanilla—the first two from the dim traces of Jim Beam that had soaked into it from the barrel, the third from the wood of the barrel itself. The remaining sensation was one of coursing, hot fusel alcohols.

On the one hand, this drink was defined by the immutable characteristics of the vessel into which it had been thrown—geworfen, to use Martin Heidegger’s terminology. On the other, it was defined by those aspects of itself that were inchoate, as yet in the radically uncertain Brownian motion of becoming. Between the facticity of the barrel and the transcendence of what this liquid might become there was the nothingness of what this liquid was, the gap between en soi and pour soi, a vertiginous ambiguity perfectly captured by its oscillating non-designation as “Barley Wine”.

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“We still consider ourselves a craft brewer,” I once heard a staffer from Meantime Brewing say, 18 months after the business was acquired by SABMiller. “I mean, we still craft our beer.”

Was it semantics? A fair point? Simple bad faith?

We tend to take “bad faith” to mean thinking of and presenting oneself as one thing when in reality we are another thing, and deep down we know it. But Jean-Paul Sartre complicated the issue by explaining that bad faith generally has its origins in the quietistical insistence that we are governed by our facticity alone—the stuff around us that is just unavoidable as a matter of fact, the stuff that reflects how we have been “thrown into” this pre-existing world, as Heidegger describes it—rather than acknowledging that we have the freedom to reflect upon that facticity and thereby transcend it.

The craft-beer partisan who accuses Meantime of bad faith would expect the staffer to explain its acquisition by a mega-brewery by referring to the facticity of the capitalist mode of production in a consumerist economy. Instead, the one I overheard reflected upon that mode of production and concluded that it was not in conflict with the decision to “craft”: in her mind, that decision transcended the facticity of the mode of production.

“I believe it, that is to say, I allow myself to go with all my impulses to trust in it, I decide to believe it and I stick to this decision, and in the end, I conduct myself as though I were certain.”

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Beavertown Brewery sold a minority stake in its business to Heineken in 2018 and is using the money to build a huge new brewery and visitors’ centre, “Beaverworld”. At the same time, it is maintaining its current site and intends to use that space to expand its Tempus barrel-aged and mixed-fermentation beer project.

“We still craft our beer,” the gesture says.

Each month the brewery opens its Tempus barrel warehouse for a “taproom” event, at which drinkers can sample some of the aged beers currently on offer, seated between two floor-to-ceiling walls of whisky, bourbon, wine and other barrels, filled with maturing beer. Moreover, the space includes two Flemish-style foeders and two large beeswax-lined terracotta amphorae, traditionally used for maturing wine.


Its own being, its own facticity

This conspicuous display serves to reify a statement of belief in the possibility of transcendence over the facticity of consumer culture and the capitalist mode of production: this investment of time, space and capital makes sense only as craft, not as commerce. It seeks to move us from a situation in which we believe that we still craft our beer to a situation where we know that we do—because here it is, material, unavoidable, endowed with its own being, its own facticity.

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At the Tempus Taproom, we tasted the second vintage of Entomb, a Gose soured with Lactobacillus and fermented with an ale yeast before sitting in amphorae for three months; Birds of a Feather, a collaboration with California’s Horus Aged Ales that is a blend of 70% Saison (fermented with the Tempus house culture), 15% Saison aged in Muscat barrels and 15% sour beer aged for three years in Burgundy barrels; and BA ’Spresso, a Bourbon barrel aged coffee Imperial Stout.

BA Spresso, Entomb II, Birds of a Feather

BA ‘Spresso, Entomb II, Birds of a Feather

Entomb’s acidity took it closer to the realms of Gueuze than Gose, beginning with citrus and apple, opening up into a raspberry boiled sweet flavour and finishing with a blend of honey, beeswax and sharp minerality. It was light and refreshing. The contribution of the ageing vessel, beyond that hint of beeswax, was difficult to discern.

Birds of a Feather was more complex and satisfying: a very dry beer, with a vinous character, starting out with Muscat grape, plum and green apple before finishing with a substantial hit of barrel tannins and coriander spice.

BA ’Spresso was a surprisingly chocolatey stout, with very smooth alcohol warmth working well with the Bourbon whiskey background. The coffee was intense in the aroma and then returned as an earthy bitterness in the finish.

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For the existentially-minded there is perhaps a distinction to be made between ordinary barrel-aged beers and those of mixed fermentation. The bacterial cultures of the latter, with their tenacious resistance to high concentrations of alcohol, both derive from and impregnate the porous vessels in which the beers age. The unique flavour profiles of the venerable foeder-aged ales of Flanders come not only from the cultures of the brewery, but from the microflora that have been allowed to evolve from that culture within the foeders themselves.

If the en soi of a Bourbon barrel constrains the pour soi of the beer that is geworfen into it, the culture of a wild beer is the nothingness—or rather, the incipient, the contingent—that creates a space for the transcendence of foeder-facticity.

Whereas we can only hope to make our peace with the Bourbon barrel facts-of-the-matter by seeking harmony with them, through the judicious use of Chocolate and Carafa malts, as though the bitterness of coffee somehow echoed the bitterness of an acknowledgement of bad faith, wild cultures put up a fight, inserting themselves deep into the substance of the world into which they are thrown, changing that world and exerting themselves into the existence of the beers that come after them.

In their transcendence, they will their own facticity… une reprise de l’être pourri par lui-même que nous nommerons authenticité

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