Saturday, June 24, 2017

What do the Mozambique and Fort Collins beer cultures have in common?

No surprise to find an exhibit about beer in the craft-brewing Nirvana of Fort Collins, Colo.

What is surprising is to find an art museum exploring beer making in Africa. The exhibit, "Crossing Communities: Beer Culture Across Africa," is up in the Griffin Foundation Gallery at the CSU Gregory Allicar Museum of Art through Sept. 23. The Griffin is in the new wing of the museum that opened last year.

I visited on a particularly hot afternoon in late June. Good day for a cold one. I didn't find that at the Allicar but I did find a fascinating exhibit of handmade beer-making equipment from Uganda, Cote d'Ivoire, Malawi and other African cultures.

Exhibit sponsor is Maxline Brewing, a newbie to FoCo, getting its name from its site along the Max Bus Line in Midtown. According to the exhibit catalog, Maxline joined the project in its early days. Brewery staff toured the exhibit, "examined the ceramic brewing pots and learned about traditional African brewing methods, rituals, and ceremonies." Maxline's brewer then went to work crafting a beer meant to imitate those traditional brews. The brew, named "Kulima" for the Swahili word for "cultivate," is made from millet, maize, barley, hops, gesho leaves, and grains of paradise. Maxline's Crowler label was designed by CSU's Liz Griffin.

The public-private partnership is music to the ears of this former arts administrator. A privately-endowed gallery at a publicly-funded land grant university teams up with an eager local start-up company to educate the public about a commodity -- beer -- and traditions of other cultures. The African ceramic vessels were donated to the museum's permanent collection by Robert F. Bina and Delores De Wilde Bina. An anonymous donor helped fund the purchase. Partnership such as this one have been going on for a long time. Often the catalyst is a local or state arts agency or the NEA. But not always, as I found no mention of Fort Fund or Colorado Creative Industries in the catalog. Not necessary. This is America and we don't requite the imprimatur of the culture ministry to approve an exhibit. We damn well can show anything we want. Almost anything, as attempts at censorship are often in the news. But if I was the culture minister, I would want to be associated with this fine show.

The exhibit is comprised of 39 pieces. They include water and grain-carrying vessels, brewing pots, and drinking vessels. All are handcrafted in a technique displayed in the film that accompanies the exhibit. The drinking vessels may be the most interesting. Some were large enough to serve an entire village while other were akin to mugs we use in the West. One featured five spouts, looking almost like an invitation to a drinking game.

Beer in Africa is not just for pleasure. It also serves a ceremonial function. Find out more about this in exhibit catalog essays by CSU student art major Laura Vilaret-Tuma and Dr. David Riep, associate curator of African art. Vilaret-Tuma's essay is "Ceramics Across the African Continent." Dr. Riep writes about "the spiritual aspects of terra firma in ceramic arts across the African continent." Get more info and photos of the exhibit at the museum's web site.

The making and drinking of beer is ritualized all over the world. Beer is a staple at football games and backyard barbecues. Friends sit in a pub drinking beer and swapping tall tales. some of them true. The advent of craft beer caused beer brewing to become almost ceremonial, with brewmasters concocting their creations in public view. Like ancient magicians, they combine intriguing ingredients, such as the aforementioned gesho leaves and grains of paradise, to the mixture. True, their brewing vats are stainless steel and not ceramic, but they serve the same purpose. We sample the beers with a reverence that startles, even annoys, the casual beer drinker slamming down a few cold Buds. Advancing age and good sense led me away from keggers to craft beers. I can sip them at my leisure, marveling at the brewer's art. Most of these beers have a higher alcohol content that mainstream varieties (I am talking about you, Melvin Brewing Co. of Alpine, Wyo.). This can ambush newbies. They won't see God but they may end up talking to Ralph on the big white telephone.

If you require an excuse to travel to FoCo for a ritual beer tasting. the museum invites you to the reception for the exhibit on Thursday, June 29, 5-7 p.m. View the arts and sample Maxline's Kulima out in the sculpture garden.

What better way to spend a summer evening?


Lynn said...

Not much of a beer drinker, but I appreciate connoisseurs of just about anything. I have had a few beer-related experiences in Africa, though.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, I sampled some honey beer once-a rarity in the mostly-Muslim country of Mali. The brewer was an old grizzled guy in NTarla, a village tucked way back in the bush. He was of the animist spiritual tradition, not Muslim, and also raised pigs (another no-no in Islam). I remember how frothy and clouded the beer was, and that it definitely tasted of honey.

More commonly we PCVs drank Castel, served warm since good refrigeration was rare. We nicknamed the beer "casse-tĂȘte," which in French means "head ache"--for obvious reasons. Hangovers in 100-plus degree heat were brutal. After my first one, I gave Castel a wide berth.

I, too, applaud any variation of funding that supports the arts, the more creative and diverse, the better. Though we must never forget the role that federal funding plays in providing art to our Wyoming outposts :-)

Michael Shay said...

I have imbibed a few beers on hot days. The hangover are brutal.

The arts make a huge difference in WYO. That federal funding has gone into every community in the state.