All hail to the ale

Beer and religion don't click. Or do they?


It’s early September and I’m at the Faversham Hop Festival, where the hop-picking season has officially begun. An early part of the schedule is about to commence at St. Mary’s, where the vicar – who, 20 minutes prior, blessed a 6ft hop pocket on the festival’s main stage – will lead a service celebrating Faversham’s historic ties with our favourite flower. I am one of a congregation of about 40, and among the youngest by about 20 years. 

Flicking through the hymn sheet and programme, there’s predictably a lot of ‘O Lord’s and ‘Amen’s. A line about God judging fornicators reminds me what kind of institution this is, while another passage reads: “Almighty God, we give you thanks for the goodness of creation and the work of human hands. We ask your blessing upon these hops and upon those who use them to make beer. Through food and drink taken in moderation, we may share in hospitality and celebration as we look towards the great banquet of heaven.”

I can’t do it. This isn’t me. There is no god. Fornicating’s great. Drinking irresponsibly isn’t always bad either. If leaving church before a service is sin, then let Him smite away. 

“We should start shortly,” a woman calls after me as I was out the door. Further down the road, a grey-bearded associate catches up to me, somewhat out of breath. “It’ll be a lovely service,” he says. “We’ve the bishop visiting!” Sorry folks, I’ve realised it would be like every other church service of my youth I tried, and mostly failed, to dodge. Let’s not add to the tally.  

A successful bunk this time, though beer’s relationship with religion isn’t always so easily dismissed. I mean, within cultures with an affiliation to Christianity – most other faiths forbid or disapprove of alcohol consumption. For Christians, it’s part of the deal. Down the road in Canterbury, hop harvest celebrations involve the 66th Hop Hoodening ceremony, culminating with a service at the famous cathedral. 

I can't do it. This isn't me. There is no god. Fornicating's great.

Hop hoodening amounts to a hybrid of two Kentish traditions: hoodening, where someone’s shrouded under a sackcloth usually resembling a horse, and hops, first grown in this county (just outside Canterbury in fact) in 1520. The result is a Hop Queen, which in simple terms is a lady wearing an enormous hop hat. Hop-related festivities, don’t you know, can only begin with the right headwear. 

Across The Channel, Belgians also indulge in less-than-usual traditions. To honour Saint Arnold, the Catholic Church’s patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers, priests bless a small cask of beer as The Knighthood of the Brewers’ Paddle look on. The Knighthood is a collection of red and black-garbed individuals who’ve significantly contributed to the brewing industry, with Frank Boon, the man behind probably Belgium’s most famous geuze producer Boon, at the helm. 

Traditions such as these often go back thousands of years. Some even to first human civilisation. As the Sumerian daughter of the goddess of procreation, for instance, Ninkasi was (naturally?) assumed to be the deity responsible for beer. Like with many other things we can now attribute to science, divine power explained why processes such as fermentation – which were not then quite understood – occurred. 

Much more recently, though still from a thousand-odd years ago, we have those monastery men and their ‘liquid bread’ that saw them through their Lenten fasts. Especially the Trappist variety, responsible for some of the planet’s favourite beers – Orval, Rochefort, St. Bernardus, and so on. Need we mention Westvleteren? Before recently launching their overdue online ordering service, abbey monks would sometimes receive 85,000 calls an hour for their Westvleteren 12.

And who can frown on that? Capitalistic tendencies have yet to encroach on Trappist monks’ business. Given it’s carried out in a way that benefits the monastic and local community, and where profits are put back into brewing and charity work, even the most secular among us can admit it’s a noble way to spend your time. 

Hop-related festivities can only begin with the right headwear.

In short, is there a group with a greater influence on the quality of beer as we know it today? How many breweries do we know and love that are inspired by monks, Trappist or otherwise, and their work? Broadly speaking, the industry owes a lot to monasteries and churches. As early as the 9th century, Christian clergy brewed for their communities, later introducing techniques such as lagering and the use of hops to settlements outside of their own. In the 15th century, it was likely Flemish Benedictine monks who convinced Britons to hop their ales. 

With secularism on the up, does God or any of the other gods have much influence on beer these days? You’d be surprised. In the US Bible Belt – a group of southeast states, Tennessee and Alabama among the most devout and conservative – churches are still segregated, with blacks attending one church, and whites another. Yet it is down at the local Christian-run brewery taprooms, such as those of Reformation and Black Cloister, where all congregations are seen together. “I often tell churches,” Black Cloister’s pastor-cum-brewer says to, “you can learn a lot about how to do community from a brewpub”.

You heard it here first: while I was raised on Harvey’s, it was an abbey beer (albeit a commercialised one) that truly won me over to the drink. Of Belgian beers, especially the Trappist and Trappist-inspired ones, many other drinkers say similar. So, any reverence to God notwithstanding, and even without much need to visit a church ever again, I reckon we can all say: Thank God for beer.

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