By: Steve Fillmore
Long before science explained the chemical interactions that made the magic of beer, medieval brewers believed that beer could be demonically possessed. Somehow evil spirits during the brewing process made your beer flat or skunked or just off. Good beer, on the other hand, was the work of angels. So brewers hired priests to watch over the brewing process and ensure divine intervention.
This was an expensive service, given that priests were busy in those days casting out demons all over the countryside and calculating the number of angels on pinheads. To compensate them for blessing beer, called the Rite of Signage, brewers paid priests four pints per blessing. Those lucky priests had it good and the church benefited financially from a tax system that later developed from it.
Now that we know the science of beer, some churches are looking to profit from beer in a different way. Theology on Tap, Spirituality on Tap, Beer and Hymns — whatever you want to call it — there’s definitely a movement among certain churches to connect with their communities and foster understanding between religions and cultures. Notice that I didn’t say “get people to go to church.” It isn’t that way, and the men of the cloth I spoke with understood that very well. And they didn’t mind, because for them, religion isn’t the only deeper truth. So too is the collaboration and goodwill that goes into tasting and brewing a perfect beer.
For Father Bill Miller, an Episcopalian priest and author of “The Beer Drinkers Guide to God,” beer is the great connector. You’d think he wouldn’t need any more of it though. He owns a bar called Padre’s in Texas, lives in Hawaii on the island of Kauai (right next to the island’s first microbrewery), and travels the world “listening and learning about other cultures and religions,” in a sort of ministry with cocktails.
He’s traveled to most of the major continents, hung out with the Trappist monks at Scourmont Abbey drinking Chimay, traveled the distillery trail in Scotland and the brewery trail in Ireland, all while connecting with the locals over the “million dollar” question: “Want to get a beer?”
“Beer is practically a universal beverage,” he says. Almost every country he’s visited has some version of it, and it’s through beer that some of Bill’s most profound conversations emerge. That they do so naturally over a beer is exactly the point. Whether he’s overseas or in his bar, the goal is always the same – “to broaden my understanding of other lives, spiritual truths, and good beer.”
For those of us who envy his lifestyle, there is some satisfaction in knowing the beer isn’t always good. In the mountains of Tibet, a Buddhist monk would not share a local beer called Lhasa with Bill until they first had a Pabst Blue Ribbon together. It was “an interesting sociological event that tells you that people are always more interested in other cultures than their own. It’s a ‘beer is always colder on the other side’ kind of thing.”
It doesn’t get any colder, or more local, than at Padre’s bar. A line of taps loaded with Texas microbrews keeps patrons from Marfa, “one of the quirkiest cities in all of Texas,” satisfied. Naturally, the bar also serves as part of Bill’s ministry.
“I have three audiences. The ones I preach to on Sunday morning, the ones who show up at our gospel musical shows in the afternoon, and then the crowd that comes to Padre’s the rest of the weekend.” It’s the last group, “people who would never set foot in a church,” who occasionally engage Bill in spiritual conversations. “I think it’s because it’s not threatening at the bar. And the customers know who I am. If they want to talk about spiritual things I will, but if not, there’s always the beer.”
Although he doesn’t brew beer, Father Bill does see parallels between brewing and religion. “For homebrewers in particular, it’s an intensely local activity that relies on collaboration and quality ingredients to produce the best results. Spiritual people, like brewers, need patience, persistence, care, and consistency to reach their goal. And, of course, brewing is also a meditative, transformational process that is also a labor of love.”
Regarding the recent movements across the country to mix beer and religion like “Theology on Tap,” Father Bill takes it in stride. “I’ve got a friend who’s a Lutheran Pastor who runs a ‘Beer and Hymns’ night. All they do,” he says laughing, “is drink beer and sing hymns all night. I’m not sure how religious it is, but whatever works for them is OK with me.”
What works for Reverend Kirk Berlenbach’s homebrew group is love of beer. It’s what led him to a homebrewing collaboration between Berlenbach’s St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church and Rabbi Eli Freedman’s Rodeph Shalom Synagogue. “Eli and I agree on many things about homebrewing, but one of the most important is that the beer isn’t a gimmick to increase attendance. We aren’t looking to draw in people using beer as a hook. For us, it’s always been about the love of beer and we would do this whether those outside our congregations noticed or not. At bottom, it’s about understanding people of other faiths and making the world a better place.”
One of Kirk’s strides toward that better world is in a community garden on the grounds of his church. The garden provides parishioners with plots for vegetables and herbs. In true homebrewer fashion, Kirk’s own small sliver of ground features Cascade and Centennial hops.
So how did a reverend get involved with hops and homebrewing? It was a “goofy idea” that started with a beer appreciation club. He invited Lew Bryson to the first event “about 6 or 7 years ago,” just to find out about the styles and history of beer. “We’d also have reps and brewers from various breweries come in for tastings. We dedicated those tastings to various styles or countries or seasonal beers. Before long, we thought, ‘Why don’t we try brewing our own?’ That’s what led us to team up with Eli’s congregation.”
The reverend and the rabbi met about three years ago. And it wasn’t divine intervention (at least on the face of it) that brought them together, but Home Sweet Homebrew at 20th and Sansom Street. Owners George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg told Eli about a priest who was homebrewing with his congregation.
They introduced the two and “a few hours and beers later” Kirk and Eli had begun planning their first interfaith brew. With George providing technical advice, the two congregations collaborated on a whole-grain American tripel. “We made ten gallons and split it between us,” said Eli. “Those first encounters were very polite, as you’d expect. We talked a lot about topics we agreed on. But after a few brewing collaborations, I noticed that our discussions moved past politeness to bigger and deeper topics. There was an understanding that allowed us to talk about all sorts of things, even those over which we differed. That’s when I knew our relationship had progressed to another level.”
Soon, the two groups began participating in each other’s Sabbath services and religious traditions, with beer as an integral component. Last year, they collaborated on a saison that was served at Rodeph Shalom’s Sukkot celebration, a fall festival which is traditionally held outdoors. They named their beer “To Everything There’s a Saison” (after the Ecclesiastes verse 3:1).
The sharing between the congregations has “been so important,” said Kirk. “It’s broadened my understanding of what faith means.” It’s also produced a wide range of beers, including saisons, Belgians, stouts, and porters. The relationship has grown to the point that the two congregations have begun engaging in friendly competitions, such as the “Biblical Brewoff” held a few weeks ago.
Each group produced three beers for the challenge and presented them to a panel of four judges, which included Danya Henninger, a beer writer, and Carolyn Smagalski, a veteran judge of many homebrew events. The result? St. Tim’s won the overall award, prompting Eli to joke, “I guess this means that Judaism isn’t the one true faith.”
The competition wasn’t without bright spots for Rodeph Shalom, however. One of the congregation’s female brewers Karenanne Jureki produced a hefeweizen that won the “People’s Choice” award. “What was interesting,” said Eli, “was that she used cardamom rather than the traditional orange peel and coriander, which really gave the beer a rich spiciness.” He was also consoled in defeat by one of St. Timothy’s beers, a saison that was “one of the best I’ve ever had. It was dry and spicy, and had all the funky, yeasty notes you want in a saison. Perfectly balanced too.”
Spoken like a true beer aficionado, and one who’s a passionate enthusiast about the craft of homebrewing. Kirk readily admits that Eli is the far better brewer of the two. Like many homebrewers, Eli started out with a truly forgettable first attempt. “I was a junior in college and me and a few buddies ordered a homebrew kit online. We wound up with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted. All I can say about the flavor was it reminded me of dirty feet.” He didn’t “turn up his game” until he moved to Philadelphia about four years ago, purchased new equipment, and really began studying the art of brewing.
A year later, he was approached by a member of his congregation, Matthew Wander about brewing beer in the synagogue. The idea caught on quickly, surprising Eli “because we had so many members who were already into homebrewing.” The experiences among his group, and the collaborations with Kirk’s congregation, have led both men to consider more challenging projects for interfaith brews in the future.
“Up until now,” said Eli, “we’ve been brewing using a mini-mash method, which makes things easier because you use a little bit of grain and a lot of dry or wet malt extract. The extract simplifies things because you’ve got all of your sugars readily at hand. But we’re planning on going to an all-grain brewing process, which is a greater degree of difficulty. You need to have better equipment and be more careful in order to get the maximum absorption of the sugar in the wort. You also have to choose your grains more carefully.”
As they increase the difficulty and scope of their brews, both men also continue to reach out to those outside of their congregations about beer and religion. As Kirk said, “what good is it to surround yourself with people who always agree with you?” This year, they spoke for the second year at Philly Beer Week in a presentation called “A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar.”
Although audiences have been overwhelmingly receptive to their message, there are still people shocked at the idea of beer playing any role in religion. At last year’s Beer Week event, Eli remembers a couple in the front row who had clearly had “one too many” and were fond of asking judgmental questions. When they asked if Abraham (the patriarch from the Book of Genesis) would’ve approved of their message, he turned the question around in “true rabbinic fashion.”
He said he didn’t know what Abraham would’ve thought, but he did know of a 20th century Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel, who included beer as one of God’s creations that induced “radical amazement.” “What that means is that even though we know the science behind brewing and can explain all the chemical interactions, it doesn’t make it any less amazing or sacred.”
I’m sure the medieval priests who chased demons out of beer understood the amazement part. As for the science, I don’t fully understand why Alka-Seltzer works when my head is hurting like the devil after a night of divine beers — but I drink it gratefully all the same.