Editor’s note: Normally, we would not post a blog entry such as this, where a writer abuses a fine Belgian ale. But because this is Brian Anderson, who happily translated “Grandpa’s Workshop” for all of us, I am willing to cut him some slack. This time. If he abuses anything more than a saison in the future, however, we will have to come down hard upon him.
Among the rolling hills and pastoral landscapes of southern Belgium, a countryside of old stone houses with red-tiled roofs and fresh-faced rosy-cheeked milkmaids, a community of Trappist Monks has been lovingly crafting truly divine beer since 1862.
Among those beers is Chimay Blue. As the monks write, “This authentic Belgian beer, whose tinge of fresh yeast is associated with a light rosy flowery touch, is particularly pleasant. Its aroma, perceived as one enjoys it, only accents the delightful sensations revealed by the odour, all revealing a light but agreeable caramelized note.”
The other evening, I happened to be sipping a glass of that particular nectar of the gods, bubbling it gently in my mouth, and then exhaling through my nose, delighting in the yeasty freshness and the rosily caramelized aromas. Was that indeed a floral hint of vanilla beans? But anyway, after finishing an estimate for some translation work and jointing some drywall, I was rummaging around the net for old paint recipes, and there it was:
“Distemper made from beer is prepared by mixing pigment and beer (Dark lager as “Rød Tuborg” or “Gamle Carlsberg” is said to be the best (this is an English site but a Danish source) in a way that the paint is having great covering power and is easy to apply.
When working with minor works, for instance decorating like woodgraining or marbling, the beer-colour is often mixed on the palette. The pigment is placed on the palettte, if necessary mixed with other pigments. You dip the brush in the beer and mix the colour on the palette. Use an artistic brush.
Beer paint is often used as a glazing but is not waterproof. If you apply a lacquer afterwards it will make it waterproof.
Qualities: Mat with a beautiful reflection of light. Some of the pigments are glazing but they do not come off.
Drying: 1-2 hours.
Use: Only indoors and only on absorbing material: Paper, setting coat (dry), rough or planed wood.”
Wow, how cool is that? But while I have known folks to get pretty distempered while drinking beer, especially if you spill theirs on the rug, what the heck is distemper paint? Paint in which the binder is a diluted glue, I learned.
Well, why not. They say beer is watery bread, and bread is made from flour, and flour mixed with water was long used as a glue….
The bad news: you have to use good beer. At the store the next day, I was torn between Guinness and the Chimay, but the Chimay was really the only choice because I didn’t need all that much beer to make enough paint for an experiment, and I like Chimay better than Guinness, which is the good news about the bad news about the good beer. No waste. Unless you mix too much paint.
The other thing about beer paint is that apparently the beer should be flat. So that afternoon I found myself whisking beer in a small bowl to get the gas out of it. Cue Roger, my neighbor, who gives me tools, and knocked on the kitchen window, needing a hand.
“Brian, why are you stirring beer in a bowl?” he asked me when I opened the window, taking in the open bottle of Chimay Blue on the kitchen table.
Roger is a kind neighbor with an unusually flexible mindset when it comes to stuff like this. But he was a painter before he was a roofer before he was a plumber. Beer paint was not working for him. He shook his head. “Come on, I have to hang a water heater on a wall down in the Port (an ancient little neighborhood down on the Cher River in my village). The damn thing is too heavy.”
The water tank was sleek, streamlined even, like a re-entry vehicle for a space probe, and the manufacturer had thoughtfully coated it with some kind of greasy wax for the kind of special sheen that spells quality when you are shopping for a water heater. It was impossible to get a grip on the thing: the perfect mix of form and function in design if you would like to torture the people who need to actually install it.
After Roger taught me a number of French idiomatic expressions that one could be jailed for using in public, and dislocating a disk, I mixed up the paint. After messing with it a bit, I found that with the Chimay beer at least, it works better as a kind of wash or stain, but it works best if you gently warm the mix and let the alcohol and some water evaporate.
So I grabbed a stool I made a while back out of some offcuts in glue-lam birch and scraped and sanded the wax/stain off the top to see how it worked.
Looks like a fine beer distemper. Dries hard with no smell.
After a coat of shellac. Works just fine.
— Brian Anderson
IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP when speaking of distemper, monks, shellac, woodworking and mad chefing: A remarkably efficient way to receive an early morning tonsure by your distempered wife using an antique saw is to leave a coffee jar full of shellac flakes, of the same brand that your wife uses in her warm milk in the morning, on the kitchen counter where she might mistake it for a coffee jar full of coffee.