Houses of the holy

Brewing and churches

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When church wardens Steve Reynolds and Roddy Monroe came up with the idea of brewing beer in the crypt of St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill as a way to fund the church’s youth work, they expected to be laughed out of the vicar’s office. That didn’t happen. Instead, she called the bishop, who approved the plan that same day. 

The bishop’s only conditions? He was getting the first pint. Oh, and they would need to brew a non-alcoholic beer alongside whatever else they decided to produce.

Once the bishop had given his go ahead Steve and Roddy set about converting a section of the crypt of the north London church. “It was just a storage place, full of religious paraphernalia going back 100 years, old Victorian boilers and bits of equipment,” says Steve. 

Access proved challenging. The only route down to the crypt is via a narrow staircase, so modestly-sized brewing equipment had to be sourced with that in mind. When it came to pouring a new floor, necessary in terms of creating a wet room for the fledgling St Mary’s Brewery, they had no choice but to drag 128 buckets of concrete down by hand. 

Set up complete, Steve and Roddy tackled their first brews, applying lessons learnt at a so-called ‘open brewery’ that offers homebrewers the chance to scale up their operation. 

“We made terrible beer,” Steve recalls with a laugh. “Then we hired a proper brewer.” They roped in people to help with aspects like branding too – their colourful labels bear the words ‘Faith Hops Charity’ – and opted to do all their bottling in house in order to keep the operation as local as possible. 

Four years on, says Steve, they’re “still amongst old religious paraphernalia” but produce around 100 litres a day, beer that’s sold locally at a farmers’ market, a few shops and restaurants, as well as at ad hoc events. 

The brewery is a “special place”, says Steve. “It’s full of atmosphere. It’s just a bit claustrophobic at times with the steam of the beer. To get the church full of that smell of roasted malt is fantastic.”

Steve Haysom of The Church Brewing Company, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, can identify with that feeling. St. Andrew’s United, the church he and his brother, Matt, converted into a brewery and gastropub between 2017 and 2019, was deconsecrated long ago, but the building “has a spiritual energy” nonetheless. “People feel connected when they go there,” he says. 

Steve and Matt decided to put the production side of the business in a new outbuilding so as to retain the beautiful 1914 stone church as a space for the community to come together (it’s no coincidence that ‘Congregation’ is the name of their flagship pilsner). But that doesn’t mean that the brewery is a purely utilitarian environment – over the brew tanks hangs a church bell, one of eight rescued from another historic Nova Scotia church that was due to be demolished. 

“Some of these bells are almost as tall as me so we had to get a flatbed truck to bring them in. After we finish a brew we chime the bell: it’s a beautiful sound,” says Steve. 


After we finish a brew we chime the bell: it’s a beautiful sound 

The bells were just one element in Steve and Matt’s ambitious restoration plan for St. Andrew’s. Repairs to the roof, repointing of the stonework and installing a modern drainage system was just the start. Keen to keep the project local and of the period, they sourced antique materials and fixtures, including neo-Gothic chandeliers from the same church where they found the bells. 

“It has been a monumental task,” says Steve. “I would often wake up in the morning, at 2am or 3am, and sit on the edge of my bed sweating because we were double budget. But it’s the tougher things you do in life that end up being the most worthwhile.”

Steve and Matt weren’t bound by quite the same strictures as Steve and Roddy at St-Mary-the-Virgin – because St. Andrew’s was already in private hands there was no need to involve the clergy. They still had to convince the local community however.

“A lot of people from the town used to go to the church, so they didn’t know if this was a good thing that now a church was being turned into a ‘house of ill repute’,” he says with a smile. “But we assured everybody in town hearings we went to that it was going to be a place for people to congregate again.” 


This has become a place for people to congregate again

Steve even went to speak at one of the other local churches, many of whose parishioners had once attended services at St. Andrew’s prior to its deconsecration. “Before I gave the presentation the elder said, ‘I have to tell you, half the people support what you’re doing, and half the people don’t’.” By the end of the service, Steve had everyone on side, he says. “The entire congregation stood up and applauded!”

That enthusiasm for the project has carried through. The Church Brewing Co. has had 200,000 customers through its doors since opening the gastropub in January 2019, Steve reports, with people regularly queuing for over an hour to get in since they had to limit numbers due to social distancing. 

“This has become a place for people to congregate again, and people love it,” he says. 

When Bobby Harl first opened the taproom at Back Pew Brewing, a converted ranch-style church outside Houston, Texas, he got a positive response too. Customers would regularly tell him excitedly that they had been baptised there. 

Not every interaction was so affirming though. After wandering around the tap room for a few minutes one visitor told Bobby: “I just wanted to see what you did to this house of God. You know you’re going to hell, right?” 

Fortunately, mostly people were just eager to share local lore surrounding the church, which Bobby thinks was built in the late 1970s, and has changed ownership and denomination several times over the years. 

“At one time the church was relatively active so a lot of people have been part of the congregation,” says Bobby. Seeing skips out front during the renovation process, locals would “just drive up and tell you weird shit” about what once went on there, regaling Bobby with tales about the menagerie one of the pastors kept in the building that’s now Back Pew’s production facility, bizarre and theatrical mass baptismal events, and the most recent pastor’s use of the church as a tax dodge. 

Setting up the brewery itself was straightforward as it was just a matter of clearing the warehouse style outbuilding and moving in the necessary equipment. Refurbishing what Bobby calls the ‘sanctuary’ was another matter, requiring extensive structural work, plus a redesign of the entrance area to create a more dramatic effect, and an enormous amount of clearing and cleaning. 

“Everything was just disgusting, they had let it all go,” he says. 

Unlike Steve and Matt Haysom, who went out looking for a deconsecrated church in which to set up their brewery, Bobby stumbled upon the location for Back Pew by accident. But he was delighted to run with his theme, giving his brews puntastic religious names and dividing them into ‘Saints’ –sessionable offerings with an ABV no higher than around 6 percent – and ‘Sinners’ – usually darker beers with an ABV around the 7-10 percent mark. 

The customers didn’t get it, alas. “What I found out about the American drinker – it would probably work better in the UK – is that they don’t like play on words,” Bobby says with a rueful smile. He’s now in the process of phasing out the themed brews. “You have to change and adapt.” 


What I found out about the American drinker is that they don’t like play on words

He’s right: themed beer names do work better in the UK, and in Canada too, if the experience of the respective Steves at St Mary’s Brewery and the Church Brewing Company are anything to go by. Steve Haysom’s customers can choose between the Illuminate pale ale, a Trappist beer called Sanctuary and a fruit beer called Til Death Do Us Tart, among others. While at St. Mary’s, as well as Crypt (Steve Reynolds’ favourite brew), there’s a smoked wheat London-style porter called Holy Smoke and a Belgian beer named after Percy Dearmer, a writer and former vicar of St Mary’s. The list goes on, and Steve and Roddy have no intention of slowing up. 

“It’s hard to not keep experimenting when you’re so small,” says Steve Reynolds. “Then we run into trouble because people don’t know what we’ve got. We’re a little bit all over the place. We just brew what we like brewing.”

It’s a strategy that’s clearly working, even if they haven’t yet managed to fulfil one of the key targets of setting up the brewery in the first place. 

“We thought we’d have three pillars: make great beer, build a community around that beer, and raise money. We haven’t quite hit the third one - we haven’t really raised much money,” he says. 

That element of it will come about in due course, they hope. For the moment, their crazy idea of putting a brewery in the crypt of a working church has been a roaring success. 

“People love the story. They love the idea that this not an old, stuffy, CofE church that isn’t doing anything, it’s doing stuff for the community and getting people talking about it.” 


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