The relationship between beer and art is nothing new. Many would say — as acts of creation — they are one in the same.
Now the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is mashing them together in a new way by collaborating with three local beer makers and a cidery to craft libations inspired by historic artworks and objects in the museum’s galleries.
The fruits of their labors are debuting Thursday evening at an event dubbed “Brewing PEM" at the museum and will be available at the contributor's tap rooms thereafter.
For the past decade, PEM curatorial scholar and beer aficionado George Schwartz has been dreaming up ways to combine his interest in brewing with his passion for art and historical objects.
“Beer has been an integral part of our lives since the dawn of civilization that’s sort of connected all cultures,” Schwartz explained, “and, you know, there are archaeologists who might argue that the agricultural revolution started because of man's thirst for beer rather than bread.”
Museums and brewers have banded together in the past. Last year, Night Shift Brewing in Everett independently crafted a Matisse-inspired limited-edition saison that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts served at the end of its "Matisse in the Studio" exhibition. Schwartz pointed to the Portland Art Museum, which asked 18 local brewers to formulate recipes based on paintings of Oregon landscapes from its collection for the institution's 125th anniversary in 2017.
Schwartz' first forays into incorporating beer into the museum experience at the PEM were more like “taste journeys.” For example, he asked a food historian and a local brewer to look at the Golden Age of Dutch painting from the perspective of brewers from that time who were patrons of the arts.
By commissioning original beers, though, Schwartz is taking his ongoing mission one step further while tapping into the vibrant craft beer craze.
For his project, the PEM reached out to the Cape Ann Brewing Co. in Gloucester, Bent Water Brewing in Lynn, Notch Brewing and the Far From the Tree Hard Cidery — both just down the road from the museum in Salem. Then Schwartz took the brewers on guided gallery tours where he would dive deep into the narratives behind the some of the objects.
Some brewers gravitated toward Salem’s history in the 19th century pepper and spice trade, others toward the American art gallery. Then off they went, free to dream up their brews.
Cape Ann Brewing’s Dylan L'bbe-Lindquist created a white beer seasoned with orange, cardamom and the ginger species (“grains of paradise”) that once flowed through Salem. He was inspired by the 1806 painting of five commercial ships titled, “America, Fame, John, Prudent and Belisarius: George Ropes, Crowninshield’s Wharf.”
“I chose to make a beer that would have needed all these ships touching many different ports of call to create the many flavors found in a wit style beer,” he explained. “Oranges from Valencia, spices from the near east — my beer, I feel, captures the travels these sailors experienced.”
Erik Pudas at Far From the Tree also responded to Salem’s international spice trade after seeing the museum’s intricate, full-hull model of the wooden tall ship, “Friendship,” made in 1804 by Mr. Odell and Thomas Russell.
“I have always been fascinated by Salem’s rich maritime heritage,” Pudas said. “The fact that models like these are the best resource we have to understand how these ships were built is fascinating to me.”
So Pudas used spices that might have been carried as cargo: “Ginger is the dominate flavor with nutmeg, allspice, clove and black pepper playing a supporting role.” These spices are common today, but would have been quite rare 200 years ago.
For him the relationship between art and making beer or cider is a given.
“We see craft beverages as an art and try to approach our cider making with that in mind,” Pudas said. “I live a five-minute walk from the PEM and have probably been there 50 times or more over the past decade but I really felt like I got a new perspective on what it takes to put a collection together for the public.”
Notch brewer Brienne Allan took inspiration not from the seaport, but from a portrait by John Singer Sargent — an oil painting of Sarah Lawrence Brooks from 1890.
The brewer joked that the subject of the painting looks a lot like her. "I graduated from Montserrat College of Art with a BFA in sculpture and have never made a self-portrait, so it seemed fitting to live vicariously through her,” Allan said.
Allan heads the Pink Boots Society Boston chapter, which supports women in the beer industry. She decided to brew a hoppy pale ale with locally-source grain from Valley Malt, which is co-owned and operated by Andrea Stanley. It’s infused with a hop variety named “Ella,” she explained, “and I brewed it — so it seems to be a female-driven hopped ale. Makes sense to me.” The beer’s name is “Marguerite” after another one of the paintings.
Brewer Adam Denny Golab of the Bent Water Brewing Company in Lynn homed in on the yacht known as Cleopatra’s Barge. It's captured in a painting, a model and a life-size replica of the boat’s fancy main saloon.
He imagines it would’ve been incredible to see such an opulent ship in the early 1800s. But instead of adding, say, flecks of gold to his concoction, the brewer decided to create a table beer as counterpoint.
“The idea of creating a beer inspired by both historical excess and the people who worked the fields to feed the rich was a wonderful juxtaposition. The saison I created uses traditional European malts and hops along with a French yeast.”
Like the ship, it’s named "Cleopatra." It has black pepper and light floral aromatic notes, “while spice and citrus shine on the palate,” he said.
However, Bent Water’s beer will not be served on Thursday. As the brewer explained, with humor, “When George [Schwartz] told me the story of Cleopatra’s Barge, he left out a crucial detail: The barge sank. It would seem that Bent Water was stricken with the curse of Cleopatra’s Barge as the brewery was flooded during last weekend's storm.”
While "Cleopatra" will be absent, Denny Golab said it will be available in his taproom soon.
For his part, the PEM's George Schwartz hopes visitors who taste the new beers and cider will reflect on ideas, people and places through a different lens.
“To other cultures, other time periods, objects created around the concept of the beer and paying homage to it, to broaden their horizons a little bit more beyond just simply tasting a beer in a museum,” he said.