1866, Paris, France. Tall layered buildings with rooftops like rows of tightly packed mountains line narrow boulevards sprouting as spokes from Place de Clichy. It’s late, and the darkening sky forms a conduit that carries sound from one corner of the city to the next. Tonight, the sounds of Édouard Manet arguing with a young Claud Monet at the Café Guerbois drive onlookers to pull their chairs a little closer. Camille Pissarro tries to get a word in edgewise, and though he’s one of the most respected members in this group of prominent French artists, the conversation is too good to drop.
This almost sounds like the remnant of a foreign past. Some argue that the internet makes such interactions fairly commonplace, and those people might not see a benefit to having heated, face-to-face discussions about current philosophies, cultural trends, and sciences. They can get it in the click of link from experts in their respective fields. A shame, really. Too often we fortify cages by deciding who is worth building our foundations of knowledge based on media prowess, and neglect the viewpoints of those challenging the status quo from a spotlight in the shadows.
And this is where I see an opportunity for breweries. Brewmaster of The Fermentorium, Kris Volkman, likens his tasting room to “a beer café because I did want conversation. I don’t want blasting you in the head with music. … I don’t want the tvs. I want people to come here in a group and have a conversation or come here as an individual and talk to the bartender.”
And through various design choices—sometimes peculiar, sometimes pointed, but always provocative—breweries can create spaces where it’s more uncomfortable to not be engaged in conversation. A long German drinking table is the centerpiece of Kris’ tasting room, and he wants more. He’s fighting against something he’s noticed. “I think American culture has allowed people that don’t like meeting new people to continue not meeting new people.” Once those people start talking to each other, connections are made. Connections that potentially lead to groups of thoughtful and driven persons frequenting an establishment for what it adds to their conversations.
Alongside Kris, I also spoke with artist and co-founder of Create Space MKE Jeff Zimpel. Jeff has dedicated his life to putting himself in environments that challenge his beliefs and foster his creativity. He sees a lot of connections between what he does as an artist and what Kris does as the owner/brewmaster of The Fermentorium. “I get a sense that what comes with the territory of getting to discover your own beer and setting that atmosphere for something to happen is a sense of risk taking. … I’m curious what that looks like in the beer-making process.”
Kris’ response. “Did I open a brewery to make a yellow beer for people that are Miller Lite drinkers that want a place to drink locally. No. It pays the bills. There’s a certain amount of bill-paying beer that needs to be produced. When I wanted to open a brewery, this, gesturing toward the barrels, this is what I had in mind. You like the annotation? Doing some of these crazy hibiscus beers, putting in red-wine barrels and sours and mushroom beers and sage beers. Is that going to be the next world seller? Well, no, but it’s fun, and the people that come in and are expecting to see something new and adventurous, they’re gonna try that. … The beer is my art, and that’s where I get to express myself.”
The creative spirit in Kris is evident in how he chooses to breathe life into his beer café. Thought-provoking art spans the walls, tuft furniture surrounds a common table, then there are long spaces where patrons are forced to sit next to one another. Breweries all over Wisconsin are attracting a range of clientele through these types of decisions.
In many ways, that’s what the art of café is all about: getting people from different backgrounds together to have a discussion. Nowhere is it written that all things creative must come from the ivory tower of institutionalized education. In fact, it’s more intriguing to me when it doesn’t. Breweries often serve as a beacon for the daring and the experienced to congregate, and it’s through those that have taken life by the horns that everyone else can gain an invigorated sense of spirit.
I want to hear what the carpenter has to say just as much as I want to hear from the art historian. There’s something about beer that implores these two worlds to collide. And in the halls of malt and hops, everyone starts from square one. When a person can admit that their experiences only ring true to themselves, they can start to understand the importance of establishing merit to his or her neighbor when discussing the world at large.
And I yearn for the days when I walk into a beer café and hear the voices of people attacking complex issues, truths, and realities them from all perspectives. There’s something about Wisconsin that makes me think such a reality can be more commonplace. I’ve been a carpenter, a teacher, a brewer, an arborist, and now a writer. If that has done anything for me, it’s made me believe that the art of café demands consideration of the uncomfortable to create a world where the environment and humanity influence one another in positive ways.
Maybe that’s really what we need. To get uncomfortable on purpose and pop the bubbles we call personality to recognize cohesion. It’s okay to talk about difficult issues, and it’s okay to demand more from one another. It’s also okay to buy the person next to you a beer and strike up a conversation.
To the indifferent, may they always inspire a better tomorrow.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Be sure to check out The Fermentorium for one of the best Hefeweizens I’ve ever had.
The Brewing Project
for truly innovative beers
pay attention to these up and comers
all around solid beers