So do spirits.
Through brewing and distilling I discovered history, heritage and honorable work.
I met people, heard their stories, celebrated and mourned with them. Beer and spirits have forced me to wrestle with the difference between art and craft, taught me the discipline of someone who makes things with their hands and commissioned me with the noble task of serving both customers and employees. They have surprised me, delighted me, and honed my creativity to a fine edge — which means that at times they have ground me down, sparks flying in the brewhouse.
Beer and spirits have taken me places I never thought that I’d get to go and provided me with a living and recognition. They have also embarrassed me on a few occasions and nearly bankrupted me.
I am a brewer of beer and a distiller of spirits. This is my art, my craft, my profession. I have built a business around learning the secrets of these traditions and imagining ways to create variations on their themes. Anyone who takes up a trade like this becomes shaped by the journey to master it: carpenters and chefs, blacksmiths and builders, painters and playwrights. These are ancient professions, and those aspiring to them feel the eyes of endless generations of masters watching his or her work, nodding in approval or shaking their heads.
As an American brewer and distiller, I feel the honor and weight of our particular pedigree: a pedigree rooted in the beer and spirits of mother countries, but with products, techniques, business models and a drinking culture all our own. Like all American arts and crafts, it integrates and innovates upon the Old World influences. But the history of brewing in America is also a window into the broader history of this country.
It is the story of local craftsmen and regionalism, industrialization and commoditization, and finally, a return to local artisanship. Many of the American founding fathers were brewers; their rough hands, fiercely independent spirits, idealistic patriotism and instinct for commerce are a part of every American pint and dram.
Before there was baseball, there was beer. Beer and bourbon are the quintessential American beverages. That’s why I age beer in bourbon barrels and bourbon in beer barrels — it is a fusion of our heritage, a celebration of our culture.
In my design classes, I first heard the endless debate about what can be called “art” and what is merely “craft.”
When I was a student at Hope College, which is across the street from where our pub now stands, I minored in sculpture. I’ve always loved shaping raw materials to make a tangible thing that resembles something from my imagination. In my design classes, I first heard the endless debate about what can be called “art” and what is merely “craft.”
This debate has been raging since ancient times. Some people think it’s a pointless argument about semantics and couldn’t care less, but I think it matters because I want to create things that really matter. I work hard at what I do, and I want to measure the reality of my accomplishments against the idealism of my ambitions. New Holland is a craft brewery and distillery, and we believe that we are creating art in fermented form. We are convinced that this is the ultimate art project.
Are we deluding ourselves?
“Craft” is generally understood as the art of making practical things. “Art” is generally understood as using craft to express something important, which has inherent, even transcendent, worth beyond what you can do with it.
Craft is about functionality; it measures success by how useful the product is. One of the measures of art is that it is valuable without being needed. Craft is painting a wall so the room can be enjoyed; art is VanGogh painting “A Starry Night” on canvas.
But the line between art and craft is not always sharp or bright.
I remember being assigned to design and build a chair in one of our college sculpture classes. At first glance, furniture building seems to be a craft: You want a chair to be attractive, but it must hold your weight, be comfortable, affordable, etc. On the other hand, can a chair be conceived with such genius and crafted with such grace that it becomes art? On the first day of the project, the professor showed us the raw materials — wood, glue, fabric, nails — and told us to imagine the nearly infinite ways they could be combined to make a beautiful thing that one could sit on. In the end, my chair wasn’t particularly beautiful or comfortable.
It fell into an awkward valley between craft and art, rising to neither.
But that professor’s words have stuck in my mind. When we started New Holland, we wanted to master the brewer’s craft and work the artist’s magic. Our beers and spirits are always measured practically (do people enjoy drinking them?), and our audience votes with its wallet.
Yet when I stand in the brewery and stillhouse, and look at the raw materials — barley, hops, water, and flavor ingredients — I try to imagine the nearly infinite ways that they can be combined to make something that elevates the drinking experience…and expresses something unique and important through it.
Editor’s Note: The following essay is excerpted from “Art in Fermented Form: A Manifesto,” a newly-released collection of stories by Brett VanderKamp, co-founder of New Holland Brewing Co., about his experiences in the beer and spirits industry including favorite historical anecdotes and frank thoughts on the future on craft.
Published by Black Lake Press, the book is available at New Holland’s online store, amazon.com and at New Holland’s Pub in downtown Holland (newhollandbrew.com).
Brett VanderKamp co-founded New Holland Brewing Company at age 24 in 1997. Learn more about this regional craft brewery and distillery at newhollandbrew.com.