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It’s only appropriate that the origins of Modern Confusion are a bit muddled.
For eight months, the two-word phrase has appeared again and again, literally hundreds of times, on the social media posts of Stillwater Artisanal. In each instance, it’s preceded by a litany of other hashtags – anything from flavor descriptors to hop varietals to playful sloganeering. But it is always the final word, the “over and out” on another smirkingly cryptic dispatch from founder Brian Strumke.
#soft #fluffy #mosaic #centennial #huellmelon #lifestyles #modernconfusion
What does it mean? Where did it come from?
On the latter front, Stillwater’s de facto creative director Mike Van Hall doesn’t offer much.
“I have no idea,” the narrow, long-limbed artist tells me on an early June evening in the basement of DC’s Smoke & Barrel. “It just popped up one day. I never asked Brian where it came from.”
Such an admission isn’t entirely surprising. Stillwater may be a seven-year-old “gypsy brewery” whose output sees distribution across 40 states and a dozen countries, but it is still a somewhat freewheeling endeavor. Strumke’s concepts for particular beers – and the “art project” as a whole – come quickly, and then they bend and twist in new and unexpected directions, often as a result of his discourse with Van Hall. Sometimes these ideas turn into something else entirely; sometimes they die on the vine. Sometimes, Van Hall shares, they’re never explicitly spelled out for him. That’s when the artist will direct you towards “B” for more information.
When I do ask Strumke about Modern Confusion, though, he points a finger in the opposite direction. He says he first encountered the phrase on the beer company’s own website, which was redesigned early last year… by Van Hall.
On that site, Van Hall had catalogued Stillwater’s beers (or “works”) amongst a handful of series and sets: The Psychedelicate, New Standards, #popculture, and so on. Running your cursor across any given series revealed a trio of buzzwords. The Beginning, for example, evoked “beauty,” “intrigue,” and “innovation,” while the Elevation Set projected “dank,” “euphoric,” and “relaxed” vibes.
Toward the bottom of the page sat the section for Stillwater’s Contemporary Works, the pivotal 2015 series where Strumke consciously began breaking away from an identity he had spent five years cultivating. There, the buzzwords repeated thrice over: modern confusion, modern confusion, modern confusion.
“When I saw that, I freaked out,” Strumke recalls over the phone from his Brooklyn home. “I told Mike, ‘Modern confusion! I fucking love it!’ And he was like, ‘That was a gift for you. I thought you’d like it.’”
Of course, Van Hall has no recollection of such a gift.
“That was a long time ago,” the former lawyer rationalizes. “That may have happened – I mean, if that’s how he remembers it, it probably did. At the same time, even if I did put ‘modern confusion’ on there, Brian has definitely adopted it as its own thing. It’s part of his understanding of Stillwater now. Modern Confusion is his way of describing what we’re doing for any given beer or concept.”
In other words, whatever Modern Confusion was is largely irrelevant in the shadow of what Modern Confusion has become. In that sense, it is yet another instance of Strumke’s proclivity towards appropriation and recontextualisation.
“Ultimately, Modern Confusion was Mike’s tagline, but I was like, ‘I’m going to run with this,’” the brewer shares. “I was like, ‘This is going to be the theme for Stillwater – in 2017, at least.”
Themes are important in the Stillwater universe. Strumke has always considered the brand an outlet for free-ranging creative expression, but he and Van Hall employ constructs – sets, series, recurring messages – to channel Stillwater’s commentary on the beer industry, popular culture, and all of society. Think of it as a painter creating and curating work around a succession of exhibition calls.
“Stillwater is an art project, and I’m constantly evolving as a person,” Strumke explains. “Every year, it’s like, ‘Here’s my philosophy. This is what I’m trying to say.’”
But those looking for a tidy message behind Modern Confusion won’t find one. It’s a broad idea that Strumke injects into everything Stillwater has done in 2017. It’s a reflection of how breweries produce, brand, and market beer for an oversaturated and overstimulated market. It’s about allowing Stillwater to be anything he and Van Hall want it to be – even if doing so risks baffling some part of the their audience.
“I didn’t want it to be a personal thing,” he tells me. “I’ve done enough emo albums. I’ve had my statement pieces. I’ve made my punny beers. This year, I wanted to get back to Stillwater’s roots, which is about breaking styles apart and rearranging them. I wanted to be able to deconstruct anything, to use any type of ingredients, to just kind of throw shit out there. Modern Confusion is a tagline of freedom.”
Brian Strumke didn’t set out to make saisons. When the homebrewer left his cubicle-bound IT job to start Stillwater in 2010, he had visions of inventing an entirely new style.
“I was taking very traditional, old-world styles and modernizing them,” Strumke says of his approach. “I was giving Belgian beers an American fuckabout, twisting them all up, hybridizing them in different ways. I wanted to do away with the style guidelines altogether. I was like, ‘I’m creating my own world of beer!’”
Strumke called his earliest offerings “American farmhouse ales.” According to the Beer Judge Certification Program – the organization that essentially determines what constitutes a style of beer – there’s no such thing as an American farmhouse ale, and that was Strumke’s point. The term was a catch-all for Stillwater’s various interpolations of saison yeast strains, assertive new world hops, modern brewing techniques, and often unusual adjuncts. In his mind, these beers didn’t fall within the confines of a single established style, so why cram them into one?
“I thought I was going to overthrow the BJCP,” the Baltimore native recalls with a laugh. “That ended up being a bigger battle than one person could take on, but, hey, we can all dream.”
The majority of Strumke’s dreams did not go unrealized. Stillwater enjoyed near-instant success, garnering immediate attention and increasing production quickly. Nevertheless, as the years passed, he grew frustrated with how the marketplace could not resist categorizing his beers.
“Everything in the Stillwater portfolio was perceived as a riff on the Belgian farmhouse style – and, fair enough, I had initially set it up with the ‘American farmhouse ale’ thing, but I was truly trying to create a new style,” Strumke explains. “I was using a specific yeast strain tied to the farmhouse tradition, but it could have just as easily been Chico [ale] yeast.”
Approaching Stillwater’s fifth anniversary at the start of 2015, Strumke decided he needed to change – or at least detour away from – the trajectory of his beer company. This would be the inception of the Contemporary Works series.
Under the construct, Strumke challenged himself to produce a line of beers that no one would expect from him: a dry-hopped pilsner, an oak smoked wheat stout, a session lager, an imperial rice IPA, and so forth. These were Stillwater’s Contemporary Works. And no one would mistake any of them for a farmhouse ale.
The series would be about more than yeast strains, though. Strumke also wanted to break from Stillwater’s “old world psychedelic” visual identity, which for a half-decade had been conjured by Baltimore tattoo artist Lee Verzosa. To create a new look, the brewer approached Mike Van Hall, a self-trained artist whose only previous experience designing beer labels had been a pair of limited-run collaborations for Stillwater and England’s Siren Brewing.
Bearing the influences of modernism and minimalist design, Van Hall’s work stood in sharp contrast with Verzosa’s cryptic, finely detailed illustrations. The former lawyer covered bottles in geometric patterns. He did away with product fronts. He snuck in visual puns. He even riffed on Alfred Stieglitz’s photo of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.”
This was a different side of Stillwater. It was provocative and jarring and disruptive.
Over the proceeding years, the spirit of the Contemporary Works series would seep into the whole of Stillwater. By the end of 2016, a double IPA called SuperHop and the “big, overhyped” imperial stout On Fleek had become two of its best-selling beers ever. Its portfolio of tart ales had grown to include a “gose-style session IPA,” a dry-hopped Berliner weisse with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and a line of Swedish sours that bordered on literal fruit juice. It had taken Brettanomycses and inoculated everything from porters to a “multigrain saison” to a series of IPAs inspired by specific strains of marijuana.
Van Hall’s work, meanwhile, did more than keep pace with this experimentation. It helped fuel it.
“As you can see with what Stillwater has done over the past two years, it’s grown out of control in all kinds of directions,” Strumke told me last year. “As an artist, it’s been the most freeing thing. We’re not stuck in any one particular style. With Mike being versatile and more of a digital and modern artist, we can incorporate and change things all the time. He doesn’t have one particular style of drawing that’s going to translate through everything. It’s like a whole new pallet of concepts and ideas that we can pull from now.”
This expanding universe of concepts and ideas no longer constituted a different side of Stillwater. This was the new Stillwater.
Recognizing such an evolution, Strumke decided the time had come to commit full bore to it. For two years, Stillwater had alternated between two radically different aesthetics: Verzosa’s ornate drawings for its farmhouse-inflected ales, and Van Hall’s malleable modernism for everything else. Now, the latter artist would handle everything. Furthermore, in an effort to alleviate what Strumke diagnosed as a kind of brand schizophrenia, he turned an eyes towards two early Stillwater offerings: Cellar Door and Stateside Saison.
If there existed sacred cows of the “old Stillwater” era, they would be these beers. Cellar Door and Stateside Saison put Strumke on the map. Around the world, their recipes and visual identities are known.
But, as it turns out, neither things were safe.
“After I broke out of the mold of being The Saison Guy with Really Dark, Gothic Labels, I was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just blow it all up,’” Strumke says. “That’s what we’ve done this year: We’ve set off the last pieces of dynamite. We’ve taken our two most longstanding products and actually tweaked the recipes, and then we completely blew the designs out of the water. I was like, ‘If you didn’t understand Stillwater before, we’re about to really fuck it up.'”
If Stillwater was a brand built on bastardizing tradition, the time had come to bastardize its own.
“The origin story of Stillwater ties to Brian making saisons in a distinctly American way, which was confusing to people back then,” observes Van Hall. “The fact that Stillwater is all over the place now is just an amplified version of that. It’s a modern confusion.”
Musical references and analogies reverberate through a discussion of beer with Strumke.
The aerodynamically coifed brewer likens working on a shiny, new brewing system to recording in a state-of-the-art studio. He describes breweries that enter the market hot on the heels of a particular trend as potential one-hit wonders. He views accessible, broadly appealing recipes as his “pop music.” He cites Conor Oberst lyrics and quotes Bradford Cox interviews. And none of this is to mention the Stillwater beer sets that interpreted individual songs and paid tribute to rap emcees.
All of this makes sense when you realize that Strumke’s first creative outlet – professionally, at least – was music. Before he produced beer, he produced electronic music. Before that IT job at John Hopkins University, he DJed – for ten years. But according to Strumke, he left that world in 2004, primarily because of the onset of digital technologies.
“When dance music moved away from vinyl, I was like, ‘I don’t want to relearn all this gear,’” he recalls. “I was ready for a change, but I didn’t want to become some digital DJ.”
Brewing, in contrast, possessed an allure of staticity.
“I got into beer because it was an analog concept,” Strumke explains. “While the technology of making beer has improved, it’s still pretty similar to making beer 200 years ago. I thought it would be a stable concept.”
Strumke wasn’t wrong, per se. Technology hasn’t drastically changed how he makes beer. Whether homebrewing in his old Baltimore backyard or producing a 200-barrel batch at Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing, the process is essentially the same today as it was a decade ago for him. What technology has changed, according to Strumke, is the type of beer he’s brewing on a given day. It’s changed how the entire industry operates.
“We live in the digital age, and our attention spans are very short,” he explains. “Digital communication has changed the way people advertise and promote their products. Word gets out at a faster rate and in a different format. As a result, the market always wants something new. The first question anyone asks a brewer is: What are you making next? What’s new? That’s part of modern confusion.”
“Everyone’s business has changed,” Van Hall adds. “The fact is that new stuff is required constantly, and everyone has kind of adjusted to that world. Flagships aren’t what they used to be, at least in the world of beer that you and I are involved in.”
For seven years, the closest things that Stillwater has had to flagships are Cellar Door (a spin on the Belgian white ale, brewed with white sage and mix of herbal and citrusy American hops) and Stateside Saison (a hop-forward saison radiating intense notes of sweet fruit and earthiness). Over that time span, these original American farmhouse ales have sold steadily for Stillwater, even as the ingenuity of their style-bending constructions has faded.
“Those are modern day classics – or, at least, they’re on their way to being so in my eyes,” Strumke says. “Cellar Door got us into most of the top-rated restaurants in the world. It’s one of the OG food beers.”
But seven years can feel like nearly an eternity in the current craft beer climate. Attention spans have indeed grown shorter, palates have shifted, and plenty of beers have gotten lost in the infinite shuffle. With that in mind, Strumke decided to revisit the two beers.
“I haven’t touched those recipes since the beginning, and I was like, ‘It’s about time to give them a change,” he shares. “I mean, my palate has changed. My recipe development skills have changed. The equipment we’re working with has changed. Everything was different seven years ago. The world is changing at a rapid rate, from our taste buds to our politics to fashion.”
Strumke “leaned out” both Cellar Door and Stateside Saison, removing some of their specialty malts and drying out the final product. He also boosted the amount of the hops in the brew, and added a dry-hopping regime to boost the aromatics of both. They’re subtle changes that bring the beers in line with the preferences of the day.
“It’s lighter, in a way – it’s updated,” the artist says of trying the new Cellar Door. “It was novel seven years ago, and it reminded me of why I liked it the first time around. I knew it was a new recipe, but if I hadn’t, I just would have thought, ‘Oh, this recipe has aged well.’”
The packaging for these beers hadn’t aged poorly, but they were out of step with the current stage of Stillwater. After all, Stateside Saison was the first label ever designed for the company.
“I think what Lee was trying to do was make a beer label,” says Van Hall. “It’s straightforwardly branded with the cool snake-bird thing. It’s a tattoo. That’s Stillwater, though: We learn as we go.”
Like a lot of people in the industry, Strumke had also learned that future of craft beer is in cans.
“That’s the marketplace right now – 100%,” the Stillwater founder says. “Why should it not be the most popular style? I’d much rather pick up a four-pack of cans as opposed to a four-pack of bottles. It’s easy to transfer, you can throw it around, it’s not as heavy, they look cooler, and as a brewer friend told me years ago: Cans go where the fun is.”
Van Hall’s new design for Stateside Saison screams out for such fun. Playful waves of red, white, and blues splash across its 16oz cans. Its variation of Jolly Roger font jumps off the can. This is a can crafted for BBQs, pool parties, and warm weather.
“I wanted it to be iconic,” the artist explains. “It’s like Classique: It has Stillwater behind it, but it’s its own thing. If someone came up and said, ‘Here’s a billion dollars – we want Stateside,’ they could take it, and it could stand on its own as a brand. It’s holistic branded beer. High Life is a good example – it doesn’t need Miller, but it’s there.’”
As usual with Van Hall, he’s reluctant to explain the full background of the design, saying only that his work is layered with meaning that he’d rather let people interpret than prescribe himself. Regardless, he’s content in achieving his biggest objective.
“We wanted to remind people that Stateside was great,” he explains. “The recipe wasn’t out of date, but it wasn’t the thing that everybody grabbed anymore. It was important to revive it, and to move into the new stage of Stillwater fully. The same goes for Cellar Door.”
Befitting the vibes across its aluminum skin, the new Stateside Saison was relatively a breeze to design. Strumke had let Van Hall run wild creatively, and he was satisfied with the result. Reimagining Cellar Door, on the other hand, was a significantly more contentious process.
“That was a battle,” recalls Van Hall. “We could not get to the answer on that one. But Cellar Door was always going to be the hardest one because of how meaningful it is to Brian. Nothing was going to be right because nothing could be right. That beer is tied up with his personality.”
After wrangling through over ten different concepts, the two collaborators opted for one of understated elegance. Like many of Stillwater’s designs, its rooted in synesthesia – the sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated. For Strumke and Van Hall, certain flavors evoke certain colors. In the case of Cellar Door, the green dots and their purplish black backdrop evoke the tastes – most notably, the sage – and surreal glow of the liquid.
“The ways that those two colors play off of each other is meant be textural,” explains Van Hall. “When you go to grab a can, you almost think that those dots are going to be bumpy on your hand – like you’ll feel them standout. That’s how this beer feels on my tongue. It’s always been unique in the way that it hits my palate. I was trying to capture that.”
“Cellar door” is said to be one of the English language’s most beautiful phrases.
“From my perspective, it’s complicated, but visually it’s simple,” the artist continues. “It’s just some circles. That’s because Cellar Door at its core is not a crazy beer, but when you taste it, the flavor is amazing. I was trying to achieve that same thing: I wanted to balance the simplicity with a complexity that surprises you.”
In the music industry, artists sometimes release a “remastered” version of an album a decade or so after its release. The songs are the same, but the “flaws” have been exorcised from the recording. It’s a cleaner, sharper, more refined product, recalibrated with hindsight and better technology.
When Stillwater released the reimagined versions of Cellar Door and Stateside Saison, it called them “remastered.”
“I wanted to pay these concepts respect by giving them a breathe of new life,” Strumke says. “These were beers that even I found myself neglecting because we’d been making them for so long. This got me excited about them again, and I’m hoping that the audience will feel the same. It’s like, ‘If you’ve been drinking Stateside for seven years, well, check out: I just made it better. And we put it in a format that you’re going to like more.’”
The brewer recognizes that this is not a move without risk.
“A lot of big companies would say, ‘Why would you destroy the imagery of a brand that you’ve been building for seven years?’” Strumke shares. “I just say, ‘Why the fuck not?’ You get tired of things. You don’t want to look at the same shit for seven years. Either you reinvent a product to keep it relevant or the consumer is going to move on to a new product.”
Not everything in Stillwater’s catalogue got the “remaster” treatment. Last year, Strumke and Van Hall took a look at the company’s annual production schedule and sales figures, and they decided to suspend a few “old Stillwater” classics like Existent and Folklore.
“It’s not to say that they won’t come back, but we shaved them off for the time being,” Strumke explains. “We tightened the portfolio, and that gave us more room to produce some new products.”
Themes change year to year. Sets come and go. Recipes are tweaked or scrapped altogether. But if one thing has remained constant within Stillwater over seven years, it’s a sense of brewing as bricolage.
“Stillwater’s philosophy has always been to make something original, even if it’s constructed out of borrowed parts,” Strumke says. “When I came to this world, I took the style of saison and I started deconstructing it. Now, I’m doing it with modern styles. Whether it’s a stout or a Berliner, there’s a Stillwater profile. You can feel that the design is part of a family.”
Stillwater didn’t make an IPA for a half-decade, but since the Contemporary Works series, the style has been a constant presence in the Stillwater family, from the progenitor Surround to the wildly successful SuperHop to the fruited Nu-Tropic.
But even taking consideration of those existing offerings, 2017 will go down as the year of the Stillwater IPA. As of early August, the beer company had released five new hop-forward ales and announced the imminent arrival of another three.
“From Shoegaze to The Cloud to Wavvy, Brian is doing with IPAs what he originally did with saisons: putting his signature on a thing that people like and think they know,” Van Hall observes. “He’s saying, ‘Here’s my version.’”
One reason for this hop explosion is wholly practical: Three years ago, Stillwater entered into a series of substantial hop contracts, and now those arrangements have borne copious humulus lupulus.
“When Stillwater started out, there was a hop crisis – I couldn’t get shit,” Strumke says. “Plus, I was a small guy, brand new, a contract brewer with no real plan. I wasn’t able to get any cool new hops. Now, I’m finally feeling rich in hops, and I’m showing it.”
The first place Stillwater flexed this muscle was Shoegaze, a “distorted farmhouse pale ale” released in February.
The name refers to a loosely defined subset of rock music that emerged from the U.K. during the late ‘80s and was subsequently popularized by bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride. As AllMusic wrote, the music these acts created was “overwhelmingly loud, with long, droning riffs, waves of distortion, and cascades of feedback. Vocals and melodies disappeared into the walls of guitars, creating a wash of sound where no instrument was distinguishable from the other.”
Strumke had grown up a fan of the style, but as with a lot of people, it had more or less slipped out his everyday consciousness. Then, for reasons not quite explainable, he was moved to make a beer in its honor.
“The word just popped into my head one day,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Shoegaze. That’s a beautiful word. I want to make a beer called that.’ And then I started taking inspiration off of the sound and the vibe of shoegaze music. I was like, ‘Distortion. Fuzziness. Soft and airy.’”
The brewer calls Shoegaze the most quintessentially Stillwater beer in years. The 6% ale inhabits a nebulous space between a saison and the New England-style IPA – a once-controversial style that’s taken the craft beer sector by storm over the past year.
“Shoegaze is a very zeitgeist-focused beer,” Strumke observes. “It combines the New England IPA craze’s lactose and oats with an expressive saison yeast, and then it’s hopped in a very Stillwater matter. It’s exactly what the Modern Confusion sector is all about.”
Oats and lactose milk sugar appear not just in Shoegaze but also in the new rotating-hop double IPA Wavvy, a “soft and fluffy” IPA called The Cloud, and the Whole Foods-exclusive series Soft Pack. Neither adjunct is new to brewing, of course, but the combination of both is something brewers like Tired Hands and Omnipollo have recently popularized as a means of adding mouthfeel and varying degrees of sweetness to IPAs.
“Those beers are smooth, they’re kind creamy, they’re hoppy but not bitter,” Strumke says. “This is my way of playing with that scene. These are the elements that all of the cool kids are using right now. I was like, ‘Alright, here are some new crayons for the box. Let’s pick them up and see what I can draw.’ I want take a little piece of this and add in with that, maybe turn it upside down, and then we have something new. Maybe it comes from my whole idea of remixing: As soon as something comes up, it’s like, ‘What can I do with this?’”
To some degree, oats and lactose milk sugar help connect a beer like Shoegaze to the Stillwater’s lineage of American farmhouse ales.
“When I was making my saisons, I was always into soft and delicate recipe development,” the brewer continues. “Now that I’m playing with the IPA scene, I want to maintain that same element. I want floral components. I want a soft and lean body – not malt heavy. With lactose, you’re able to bring in some sweetness that doesn’t bring in an additional maltiness. It really adds to that juicy character of the hops. You have all of these citrus and bright notes from the hops, but it’s not juicy unless there’s some sweetness to it.”
Strumke prides himself on his ability to blend and coax flavors from certain hops. (“I don’t like the single hop concept,” he notes. “I think it’s cool as a learning point, but I think every hop works better in conjunction with others.) For Shoegaze, he devised a hopping regime that mixes Simcoe, Citra, Pacific Gem, and Centennial.
“I wanted those notes of wood, blackberry, anise, pine, and citrus,” the brewer explains. “I wanted all of these interesting flavors and aromas shooting though this fuzzy backdrop of oats and lactose and saison yeast, like rays of light.”
This is how you conceptually pay homage to a musical genre.
What Strumke didn’t know was that “shoegaze” means different things to different people – most importantly, Van Hall.
When Strumke told the artist the concept of a beer called Shoegaze, Van Hall’s mind connected it to “blackgaze” movement pioneered in the French heavy metal scene. (Despite the fact that he might snap into several pieces inside of a mosh pit, Van Hall is indeed a metalhead.) As a result, his design for the can is heavier than Strumke had anticipated. The backdrop is black, with fuzzy layers of purple and green glowing across it like distortion. At the top, where can physically starts to bend in, are three slanted lines that represent the chords of a guitar.
“We battled a little bit on the color,” Van Hall says. “At the time, I was really fighting for purple, because we had no purple in our repertoire, and purple felt like that music. It kind felt like that flavor to me, too – the darkness, the black and stuff. I definitely wanted to have that in there, because the music is dark no matter what style you’re thinking of.”
It wasn’t until after they had agreed on a final design that the two even realized there was disconnect.
“I sent him a link to a shoegaze article in Spin, and he was like, ‘What the fuck? I totally thought you were thinking of something else,’” Strumke recalls with a chuckle. “But it managed to work out. The Shoegaze can is a little darker than I originally wanted, but that’s what Mike wanted to do, and we work as a collaborative effort.”
A few months ago, Van Hall played some of his “artsy” shoegaze metal for Strumke at his Brooklyn apartment.
“It was actually not that far off,” the brewer relays. “His shoegaze is a little angrier, but it had that same distortion. After that, I was like, ‘You know what, that black on the label? That’s the dark shit that you’re into. That’s what’s creeping into it.’ It’s cool because it represents both sides of what we think of as shoegaze, and hopefully it will resonate with both scenes of people.”
Given its often abstract can designs, Stillwater labors over how to characterize any beer’s style.
“A style description can be the most important part of the packaging because when you look at the design, if it’s super esoteric or artsy or something, people aren’t going to know what type of beer it is, especially if they’re not Stillwater people,” Van Halls says. “We’re trying to sell these beers, you know? We want to explain what you’re getting, and make sure that your expectation matches the flavor.”
With Shoegaze, the collaborators debated what component styles should take prominence. Yes, the beer is fermented with a saison yeast strain, but given Stillwater’s history, “farmhouse” is a loaded word.
“We’re cautious about using that word because these beers are different from when ‘farmhouse’ was used previously,” the artist explains. “But if that flavor profile is there, if that yeast is conveying something, then we want to make sure that we acknowledge that.”
Ultimately, Stillwater settled on Strumke’s first idea: the distorted farmhouse pale ale. Based on the response to the beer, consumers didn’t have trouble parsing its messaging.
“Shoegaze is one of the fastest selling beers we’ve had from the start,” shares Strumke. “We started with a 200-barrel batch, and it was gone within the first two weeks, which is pretty cool for an abstract beer. It renewed my faith because it’s the most Stillwater beer in a long time. I was stoked that it both caught a lot of new people’s attention and pumped up the old heads.”
The first thing that Brian Strumke does when evaluating a potential location to brew is drink a bunch of beer.
As a gyspy brewery, Stillwater doesn’t own or operate a production facility. Instead, it rents excess capacity and fermentation space from other breweries across the country – and, sometimes, outside of it. At each brewery, the in-house brew team executes the recipes Strumke has written or revised specifically for its system.
According to Stillwater founder, the number of breweries currently producing his beers is “at least a half dozen.” The particular breweries doing so can change as those facilities alter their own output, take on other projects, or even change ownership.
In other words, almost nothing lasts forever in the world of gypsy brewing. Thus, Strumke is frequently in the position of getting to know a new facility. The fastest way to do so is to chat with the brewers and taste what they’re producing. This gives Strumke a “baseline for what their operation is all about.” This lends an understanding of how adventurous they’ll let him get, particularly when it comes to wild and sour ales.
“Every brewery does things a little differently,” he shares. “There are pros and cons to each, and that’s kind of the interesting aspect: I design beers based around the facilities. I may have my foundation and structure already planned out, but then I’m like, ‘OK, what toys do I have to play with?’ It’s like going into a new music studio.”
There are rarely, if ever, test batches. In most cases, the first run of a beer is 100 barrels or more. Needless to say, the stakes are high.
“If you fuck up, it’s expensive,” Strumke says. “If you’re trying to get experimental on a five-barrel system, and shit doesn’t work out, and you gotta dump it, it’s not the end of the world. If we brew 200 barrels of beer and it doesn’t work out, there’s two scenarios. One, it goes out, and it’s detrimental to the brand because I released a turd. Or, two, we have to eat a big sum of money because there was a lot of it, and it’s all going down the drain.”
“Traditional brewers always bag on gypsy brewers, but it’s hard in a different way,” adds Van Hall. “Some guys still have a chip on their shoulders about Brian. I understood it once, but not anymore. There’s a whole other level of difficulty. I mean, how many systems can you brew on?”
Strumke started homebrewing with an old keg and a cooler in his backyard, and he draws confidence from those roots.
“If I could make beer in that environment, I can work with whatever is thrown at me,” he shares. “I’ve always prided Stillwater on working with whatever we have. It’s like the ‘Iron Chef’ of brewing.”
One thread of Stillwater’s recent expansion into IPA-laden territory is the challenge of making extravagantly fragrant and intricate beers on a massive scale. In July, Stillwater produced the first batch of The Cloud at Two Roads Brewing. In total, some 1100 pounds of hops went into the 200-barrell batch of IPA – 60 barrels (or one-third) of which were lost during dry-hopping. Few, if any, have attempted to execute a recipe like that at such a proportion.
Also bold is the particular varietals with which Strumke opted to hop The Cloud. While Mosaic and Centennial – the kind of big American hops typically showcased in an IPA – are in the mix, they’ve have been relegated to supporting roles. In their place, Strumke has hoisted two next-generation German hops, Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon.
“When I first heard about Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon, I was like, ‘Those are fucking Stillwater hops. They’re traditional meets modern,’” Strumke told me in June. “I might venture to guess that no one has dry-hopped a beer with these hops to the extent that I’m going to with this beer. It’s almost four pounds per barrel of dry-hopping, which is…. intense. But again, this is Modern Confusion: I’m doing shit with these new world German hops that hasn’t been done before, and I’m excited to do it.”
As with Shoegaze, Strumke brewed The Cloud with oats and lactose milk sugar, which lend the beer the “soft and fluffy” character he hoped to evoke with its name. That moniker also alludes to the trendiness of those adjuncts, and the fact that Strumke is pulling inspiration from a figurative cloud network of brewing ingenuity – or, viewed more cynically, groupthink.
“Brian is taking some of the things that the hazy IPA guys are doing and making it available in a way that you don’t have to wait in line for it,” says Van Hall, who also designs the labels for Virginia buzz magnet Aslin Beer Company. “The Cloud will be in stores, and it’ll taste like it should. He’s attempting to do the shelf-stable version of those beers.”
As he sometimes is wont to do, Van Hall used the label of this new Stillwater beer as a vehicle for subversive social commentary. A cloud stretches across three-quarters of the can’s width, thinning out from right to left. If you wish to see it as just another cloud, that’s fine – there are no wrong interpretations in modern art, Van Hall would likely say. But what may escape your glance is that this is a particular type of cloud. It’s pattern in the sky would mark it as homogenitus, which indicates it was induced by human activity. Knowing this, the white panel on the side of the can emerges as something slightly more sinister. Wait, is that cloud drifting out from a smokestack?
“It’s acknowledging the negative effects of the rampant technological advance that have brought us to ‘the cloud’– the thing that we refer to in the common vernacular” Van Hall says of his work. “The grid on the label is there to connect it to technology. And it’s funny because it’s a ‘soft and fluffy’ IPA, but that’s kind of the point: The cloud is marketed to you in a way that masks the negative – the pollution, the income inequality, and so on. So… it’s heady. It’s pretty, but there’s meaning behind it; it’s trying to say something. And Brian is trying to say something with this beer, too. It’s quite a feat to have pulled this off of on this scale.”
One of the pleasures of sussing out Van Hall’s work is that it’s not always obvious which labels contain “poison gas.” Sometimes a label is just what it appears to be. The design of Wavvy, for example, is simply meant to evoke a hop cone whilst simultaneously being, well, wavy.
“Hops are the most prominent part of that beer, but I hate trying to draw hops explicitly,” Van Hall explains. “Everyone does drawings of hops. It’s like skulls – everyone does drawings of skulls. It’s really hard to pull something off that’s novel and unique and interesting. I was like, ‘How do I make the can look like a hop cone?’ This was my attempt, and I realized that if I created symmetry out of the hop cone and morphed it a little bit, I got the wavy pattern to the ridges and leaves.”
This design will remain the same from batch to batch, but Wavvy’s hop profile will change with each iteration. Strumke views the double IPA’s rotating-hop construct as playground to experiment with new hop blends. It doesn’t hurt as a marketing device, either.
“When you’re thinking about the market, it’s new, new, new,” he says. “No matter how good a beer is, once people drink it over and over, eventually they’re like, ‘OK, I want to try something different.’ Wavvy is an experiment to see whether I can make a beer that stays the same but changes. I kind of live to see change. Stagnancy kills. I want to see constant evolution, even if it’s uncomfortable.”
Like The Cloud, Wavvy will continue to be produced in 200-barrel batches, much to Strumke’s delight.
“To be such a small company producing beers on a system this size is kind of cool,” he tells me. “I like to play with the big boys’ equipment. I like to go into the big pop studio and make an indie album. I really dig on the fact that Stillwater is doing really cool, interesting, weird shit on a scale that’s never been done before. We’ve always just worked with what we’ve had access to, but it’s like we went from making everything on four-track to recording at Electric Lady. It’s like, ‘Fuck, all of a sudden, my music sounds better.'”
#modernconfusion is essentially the province of Stillwater. At last count, Instagram catalogued 310 photos marked with the hashtag. The vast majority of these were posted by Stillwater. The rest were more or less posted about Stillwater.
But another hashtag started appearing on Stillwater’s social media posts around the time of #modernconfusion’s emergence – one with a slightly more substantial 407,500 posts to its credit: #lifestyles.
Unlike “modern confusion,” lifestyle branding is a known quantity. To cite the great minds at Wikipedia, a lifestyle brand is “a company that markets its products or services to embody the interests, attitudes, and opinions of a group or a culture. Lifestyle brands seek to inspire, guide, and motivate people, with the goal of their products contributing to the definition of the consumer’s way of life.”
Over the past decade, this sort of thinking has permeated across practically every industry, beer included. In the context of Stillwater, though, it manifests itself in a few notable ways.
“I want Stillwater to be more like a lifestyle brand – that’s what the way old school beer branding was,” Strumke explains. “Or look at Coca-Cola. I’m not saying that I want to be one to that degree, but I think it’s kind of cool that everybody knows the word ‘Coca-Cola.’ Most people don’t know what it means, but they know the product, and they know the word.”
Coca-Cola is a single carbonated soft drink. For over a century, this liquid has been placed within a recognizably shaped bottle, stamped with a cursive logo that’s remained largely unmodified over that time period.
Stillwater, by contrast, makes a wide array of different beers, each of which goes into a bottle or can with a unique label. It’s also worth noting that the product fronts of these labels lack a Stillwater logo. Even the brewery’s name is often hidden on the back, as well. The effect is the creation less of one monolithic Stillwater brand than a series of independent ones.
“These beers are all our children, and I want them to have equal opportunity to go as far as they can,” says Strumke. “If every beer is branded the same, with a specific Stillwater logo up front, well, what if your first encounter with Stillwater sucked? What if you didn’t like it? Then you’re never going to touch another Stillwater again. By giving each beer its own identity, we give every beer its own chance for success or failure. If you don’t like Cellar Door, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to pick up Stateside – they look nothing alike. You won’t even think it’s the same beer company.”
According to the Strumke, each beer projects its own image.
Take Insetto. Released earlier this summer, it is perhaps the only Stillwater offering to be reverse-engineered. For almost two years, Van Hall had been sitting on the beer’s label, waiting for Strumke to create a recipe that would match its pattern – a colony of purple and pink insect-shaped blots. Eventually, inspiration struck in the form of a dry-hopped sour ale brewed with Italian plums.
“I kind of built the recipe off of the art,” Strumke says. “With the hops, I used Pacific Gem, which always gives me a blackberry profile and some woodiness that I thought would go well with the plum, which also goes well with the colors on the can.”
The two jokingly referred to the beer as “bug juice.” Searching for an alternative name, Van Hall plugged “bug” into a language website and discovered that the Italian translation was the sing-songy “insetto.”
“I told Mike, ‘Man, I wish we could call it Bug Juice,” Strumke recollects. “And he was like, ‘How about Insetto?’ And I was like, ‘That’s fucking great. It sounds classy and all that shit.”
Projecting classiness is important because Insetto was designed to be a classy beer.
“Insetto is one of those elegant, wine-inspired things,” Van Hall says. “It achieves those very refreshing flavors, and it brings people in that wouldn’t think they’d want to drink a beer. I’d love for that to be in Italian restaurants because I think those flavors work with food in the way that we think Extra Dry and Cellar Door do, too “
“It’s weird seeing a can cracked at a Michelin Star restaurant, so if someone is going to order a Stillwater at Eleven Madison [Park], that’s the kind of can I think would be presentable to share at the table with a $200 bottle of Champagne,” Strumke adds. “Back in the day, a can of beer in a fancy restaurant would never happen, but times are changing.”
Not all of Stillwater’s offerings are crafted with Eleven Madison Park in mind, of course.
“We want to design a beer for everyone and every situation,” Strumke says. “On Fleek is crazy and fun. Stateside is boisterous and cookout and tailgating – shit that I don’t really do much, but there it is. If there’s beer involved in the situation, we make a beer that will fit that.”
The theme here is one of inclusivity. There’s craft beer, and there’s obsessive and entitled craft beer culture, particularly as it exists online. The two are not one in the same, and Strumke is wholly disinterred in the latter.
“I was never a gamer or a collector of things, and a lot of the isolated craft beer culture carries that spirit with it,” the Stillwater founder says. “I don’t want to get tied up with just the craft beer market. I don’t want to be in a situation where we’re jumping on the trends. I don’t want to get caught up in the rat race. I don’t want to segregate the audience. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible to everyone.”
In order to reach everyone, you need to be everywhere – or, at least, a wide variety of places. If these places don’t scan as particularly “cool,” that’s all the better. In 2014, for example, Stillwater made a beer called Brass Tacks for the Aria Casino in Las Vegas.
“People were like, ‘You’re going to make a beer for a casino?’” Strumke says.” I was like, ‘Why would I not want to make a beer for Vegas?’ I know it’s gaudy and kind of cheesy, but those are the challenges. People are like, ‘That’s a crowd that doesn’t respect or understand you.’ It’s like, sure, not yet. Don’t give up on someone before you even attempt it.”
The Stillwater founder recalls the feeling of visiting the Aria for the first time, drinking one of his beers while partially submerged in its gargantuan pool.
“The tap list was, like, Heineken, Guinness, Shock Top, Bud Light, Leinenkugel’s, and Stillwater,” he shares. “Stillwater has no money in the game. We didn’t pay for that shit. That’s punk rock. That’s what we’re here to do: Make as much noise and shake things up for the better with our little voice.”
Stillwater has more recently applied this outlook to Whole Foods. Last fall, the high-end grocery chain approached Strumke about producing a beer exclusively for it. Understandably, he was enthused.
“I told Mike, ‘This is like you’re a musician and your video is getting played in Times Square. This is primetime placement. This is airtime on MTV. This is our big chance,’” he remembers. “Whole Foods reaches an audience that you don’t get at any beer bar. It’s a grocery store – your mom will see it. It gives you a chance to catch the attention of people who normally wouldn’t come across your brand.”
What’s more remarkable is the beer Stillwater chose to make for them: a kettle-soured, wild-fermented IPA brewed mango. Playfully dubbed Whole-icious, this was hardly a beer guaranteed to attract the casual buyer.
“I was like, ‘Fuck it. I really believe in this style of beer, this construction. This really speaks Stillwater. It speaks from my heart. It’s delicious. And I think the broader audience needs to experience this,’” Strumke shares. “So, we took the chance. It was a little risky because it’s like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t a straightforward sell, but as long as it comes out as planned, it’s going to work.’”
Two weeks after Whole-icious hit stores, Strumke was informed that it was the fourth best-selling beer across Whole Foods’ Eastern region, behind only Stella Artois, a Lagunitas SKU, and “some big hefeweizen.” As Van Hall tells it, though, those sales only tell part of the story.
“If we do something exclusive with Whole Foods, it’s not because we know Whole Foods can move a lot of the beer,” the artist says. “It’s because we know that part of their clientele has never seen Stillwater, they’re going to see this beer, and they’re going to get sucked into our world.”
If Stillwater has become a collection of individual brands, they nevertheless exist within that one world. If Stillwater is a lifestyle brand, it’s for people who buy into that concept.
“Stillwater fans are not the obsessive beer geeks,” Strumke says. “They like the aesthetic, they like the message, they like the taste.”
And what happens when Stillwater changes those things?
“When you create a ball of confusion, it ends up being attractive,” says Strumke. “I trust Stillwater fans to follow me and to trust that I’ll lead them to the right place, but by mixing things up and totally revamping our aesthetic and at times even flavor profiles, I’m allowing new people to come in, too.”
Twelve years ago, Stumke took a trip to Pennsylvania for a Salvador Dalí retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There, amongst all the surrealist master’s works, the piece that touched him most was a still life of a bread basket.
“It was beautiful,” the Stillwater founder remembers. “You could tell it was Dalí – it had his signature look and feel, but there was nothing surreal about it. It was just straight-up a basket of bread, and it was a small painting, and it was beautiful.”
The brewer continues, placing the 1926 work in the context of Dalí’s life and career.
“If you’re a surrealist, you’re always going to have the haters,” he explains. “Dalí had been criticized, like, ‘Oh, you paint surrealist because you’re not truly a proper painter.’ So, he did an entire run of realism. He painted everything from still lifes to religious portraits. That was his way of shushing the critics. He was like, ‘Oh yeah, you want to talk shit? Check this out. OK, now fuck you. I proved my point. Let me go back to being weird and reinventing art as it’s done.’”
This isn’t the first time that Strumke has cited Dalí ‘s exercises in realism. He did so when Stillwater announced the Contemporary Works series. Now, he’s doing so in response to my question about Stillwater’s use of the word “juicy.”
“Juicy” appears on two forthcoming cans from Stillwater, Tangerine Haze and Mango Dream. They’re both “juicy dry-hopped sour ales” – one with tangerine, the other with mango, as you might have guessed. They’re also both part of the Elevation Set, which means they were inspired by marijuana strains.
Neither beer is technically new. Stillwater released Tangerine Haze in bombers last year. Mango Dream, meanwhile, lived a previous life as Whole-icious.
“That beer just turned out awesome, and we didn’t commit to doing it exclusively for Whole Foods, so I was like, ‘I want to bring this back. It’s bigger than a one-off, and it works perfectly in the Elevation Set,’” Strumke explains. “I only tweaked the hops a little bit to emulate the Mango Dream strain.”
This sort of recycling isn’t out of place in the Stillwater world.
“A lot of the time, I’ll use smaller collaborations as a testing ground for new ideas and new recipes,” the brewer continues. “If we’re only making a small batch, let’s give something a whirl before I go brewing 400 barrels of it and printing 100,000 cans.”
As with all of the entries in the Elevation Set, the font on those cans resembles the letterboxing of a drug prescription, while the colorful, wavy patterns stimulate an elevated state of mind.
“Those labels are meant to evoke, like, a generic European pharmacy from the ’60s,” Van Hall says. “Everything is lined up on the shelf, and everything looks the same aside from the distinguishing pattern on the side. They’re all meant to mess with your eyes a little bit – just to give you that trippy sensation”
Stillwater also relishes messing with certain beer consumers by explicitly labelling these beers “juicy.”
‘”Juicy’ is a hot word that been appropriated by hazy IPA guys,” Van Hall says. “People go crazy about that jooooice stuff. But this isn’t a hazy IPA, so I enjoy that frustration that some people will have with that confusion. At the same, it’s fun to be like, ‘No, this is literally juicy. This is better than dry-hopping.’”
“Tangerine Haze tastes like dry-hopped Sunny D to me,” Strumke adds. “If that’s not what it tastes like, then you tell me otherwise.”
These two Elevation Set beers share a space with a trio of fruited sour ale that Stillwater is producing with Sweden’s Dugges Bryggeri: Tropic Thunder, Mango Mango Mango, and Tropic Sunrise. Together, they constitute a response of sorts to what Stillwater sees in the market.
“Mike and I always like to fuck with whatever is trendy and whatever people are getting off on,” Strumke explains. “There’s all this talk about juicy IPAs, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, man. I will make a juicy beer if you want juicy beer. Here’s Juicy Juice.’”
The brewer displays a similar line of thinking when discussing Cocoa Cacao, a forthcoming imperial chocolate stout produced with Dugges. The decadent 11.5% ale is brewed with cacao husks, cocoa powder, and vanilla.
“It’s ridiculous,” Strumke says. “We’re like, ‘You want over the top? We’ll give it to you. This tastes like a melted chocolate bar.’”
This begs the question: Are these beers a gag? Is the sole point of a beer like Mango Mango Mango – a sour ale brewed types of mango and tropical Mosaic hops – to carry something to its logical extreme?
This is where Strumke tells me about the bread basket.
“It’s an artistic exercise,” he says. “I just look at some of these things as exercises in product development. At the same time, we’re making at least a certain portion of people happy, and we’re making a cool product. While it may be dramatically different from some of the other stuff I do, it’s still as integral as everything else.”
Strumke pauses for a moment.
“That’s part of the Modern Confusion thing. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. What does Stillwater do?’ Stillwater does whatever the fuck it wants to do.”
The third entry in Stillwater’s Pop Culture series, the imperial Brett porter was an homage to the singular rapper, producer, and designer Kanye West. It was also designed to taste like a deconstructed Dr. Pepper. As Strumke explained at the time, he did this because, “the exact flavors of the soft drink, like Kanye West’s persona, have long been a subject of debate, and are also often polarizing.”
Strumke cribbed the name from a track on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, while Van Hall’s label spoofed that album’s cover art. (“Imperial Brett Porter – One of Kind” filled the black-and-white box typically inhabited by “Parent Advisory – Explicit Content.”)
The beer garnered more attention than Stillwater could have ever imagined, but not all of it was good: Strumke was hit with a cease-and-desist from a legal team representing Kayne’s merchandising rights. As a result, I Miss the Old Kanye was recalled from distribution.
“I Miss the Old Kanye was of the ballsiest beers I ever made,” Strumke says now, almost a year later. “I don’t know if you’d call it a success or failure, but it was definitely one of the more audacious projects that we engaged in.”
Despite its reach, Stillwater is a small company. There’s Strumke, his assistant, his girlfriend, and Van Hall. He has a close relationship with his distributor, 12 Percent Imports, but that’s about it.
“I love the fact that we’ve always maintained a lean company,” Strumke says. “It means we don’t have a lot of restrictions. I’m free to take risks. At the end the day, I’m the one that’s going to suffer the most from the hit.”
I Miss the Old Kanye is what taking a hit looks like. Sometimes risky concepts just don’t connect as hoped, too. Van Hall cites last year’s 21st Century Means as one such disappointment. Brewed with Cigar City, the multigrain Brett saison bore a heady label that poked holes in the promises of technology solutionism via new age imagery and all-caps sloganeering.
“We were asking a lot of people with that one, but I think that’s why we should do it,” the artist says. “We should always experiment as Stillwater. For every Stateside, there should be something that sits on the shelf for the years – and improves with age – because people just don’t get it. The people that liked that beer really liked it, but not a lot of people tried it. Maybe that’s my fault because the label was weird.”
Much like 21st Century Means, I Miss the Old Kanye won’t get worse with time. The wild yeast will continue to eat sugars in the liquid, and the beer will change. Right now, that maturation is occurring in a warehouse in upstate New York. Stillwater has plans to relabel and rerelease the beer as I Miss the Old Stillwater.
“In hindsight, we should have called it that from beginning,” Strumke admits. “It would have been the safer route. I was just really inspired by that whole new wave of hip-hop, and I wanted to pay homage to my inspirations, but I pulled an Icarus and flew too close to the sun. I still stand behind the project, though. I thought it was a beautiful thing, and it was cool, and I was happy I did it.”
“I Miss the Old Stillwater” is a concept that resonates with Van Hall.
“The name I Miss the Old Stillwater is more important to me than Modern Confusion,” the artist tells me. “I like putting before people an acknowledgement of what I think they’re thinking. ‘I miss the old Stillwater’ is how people felt when the new stuff was coming out. People don’t like change. So, it’s like. ‘Oh, you miss the old Stillwater? We’re naming a beer that.’”
After seven years, Strumke is far removed from the life that created the old Stillwater.
“I’m 40 years old now,” the brewer says. “My life has changed. When I started this beer company, I was living in Baltimore. Now, I live in Brooklyn. I’ve traveled the world. My head is filled with different everything at this point.”
With news emerging last month that Stillwater will open some kind of production facility in Brooklyn next year, it’s safe to assume that Stillwater will continue to move further away from its past self. If that produces mixed emotions amongst the beer company’s followers, that’s OK.
“As a fan of the original Stillwater, even if I love the new Stillwater, I still miss the old Stillwater,” says Van Hall. “There’s something about the first experience with those beers that I love. But you can never regain it because we’ve all moved on. There’s a nostalgia to it. At the same time, I want to help create that same experience for someone else now.