Spreading the gospel of beer
Jo Caird looks into beer and religion
Saturday 08 May 2021
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It was Kaylee Vance’s ex-boyfriend who first told her about Castle Church Brewing Community in Orlando, Florida. The relationship hadn’t lasted but the pair had stayed friends, often sharing recommendations about new craft breweries they came across.
Kaylee, a licensed mental health, marriage and family therapist, went along to Castle Church’s large warehouse-style tap room with a friend one evening and was enjoying her beer when she spotted signs advertising worship services.
“I was kind of confused because I’d never heard of anything like that,” she says.
Pastor Jared Witt, who founded Castle Church in 2018, was there that night too and Kaylee “grilled him a million questions”, she recalls with a laugh.
“I was really impressed with his answers. He very much talked in a way that was very refreshing to me as a millennial Christian. I’m 34 years old so I hit that demographic of young people who fell out of the church in our twenties just because we kind of live a different way than a traditional church expects.”
Kaylee’s ex had talked to Pastor Jared too, it turned out. “I reached out to him and he was like, ‘The way that the pastor talks about God is very much the way that you used to talk about God.’
It was this similarity of views – as well as the delicious beer, of course - that had led Kaylee’s ex to recommend she visit for herself. And Kaylee is glad she did.
“I went to a Sunday service and a Wednesday service, and that was enough to get me hooked,” she says. Sometimes she goes for services, which take place in an open plan space within earshot of the bar, usually staying for a drink or a bite to eat afterwards. Sometimes she just goes along for a night out.
“Worshiping in a bar is always interesting because we expect people to continue their conversations while we’re worshiping and the bartenders are working while we’re worshiping,” says Kaylee.
“There’s always that time that it gets a little rowdy and we just giggle about it. And it’s fine. It forces you to not be so snotty.”
This is exactly the environment that Pastor Jared was hoping to create when he dreamt up the idea for Castle Church back in 2015. Feeling increasingly that more formal church settings seemed to inhibit “authentic relationships” between his parishioners, he went looking for an alternative model.
“What if we created an environment where people felt naturally at ease and there was more of a liminal space where people can rub elbows on both sides of the fence, whether you’re formally involved in the community, or you’re not?”
A long-time lover of craft beer, a brewery suddenly seemed like an obvious solution to his problem. Craft beer, Jared believes, “has become this thing that builds this big tent, where people can really be in community together. We’re a very segregated country - politically, in addition to class and race and everything else.
“Craft breweries are one of those places where you actually do rub elbows with people with different beliefs, different lifestyles.”
He approached his higher ups in the Florida branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) with his plan.
“They’ve been talking for a long time about how the church needs to adapt and evolve if it’s going to reach these generations that currently want very little if anything to do with the conventional church the way it is right now,” says Jared.
“To their credit, they were quick to say, ‘You have a really solid idea here, there may be some funding available’.”
Jared found a 1,000 square foot warehouse being built as part of a new development that was willing to take Castle Church on “as a start up with no real big bank roll behind us”. Jared and a group of like-minded friends began meeting for worship services on the building site where work was starting on the brewery and taproom.
It’s a church, but they’re actually really cool.
“I carried around 25 camping chairs in my Subaru for a year,” he recalls, chuckling. “People would take out a cooler and we would sit out here illicitly drinking our beers on a construction site. That was a lot of fun. And that was when the identity of the community really started to take hold.”
Castle Church is affiliated with the ELCA but Jared has mixed feelings about the ‘E’ in that acronym. “’Evangelical’ has come to mean someone who is dogmatic, tends to hold their beliefs with an iron fist, tends to lean very conservative on social values and tends to frankly be a little bit judgmental,” he says.
Not only is that approach diametrically opposed to the progressive, welcoming worldview espoused at Castle Church, it’s also not very effective at bringing people on board, says Jared. He cites the Greek origin of the word, a verb that translates as ‘good news’: “If what you’re doing feels patronizing, judgmental, then it’s not good news to them. It’s only good news if it’s received as good news. So how do we ‘good news’ people?”
By just being there, apparently. “No one’s going to give you a hard sell,” he says. “First and foremost, I have to create a safe place.” It might be weeks, months or years before Jared or another member of the church invites a tap room customer to a service.
It’s telling, notes the pastor, that his bar staff, most of whom don’t identify as Christian, can often be heard saying to customers: “It’s a church, but they’re actually really cool.”
Hackney Church Brew Co.
It’s a similar story at Hackney Church Brew Co. in East London, a brewery set up in 2018 in partnership with Hackney Church, the historic parish church of the London Borough of Hackney.
Co-founder and head brewer Ryan Robbins was on the verge of quitting his job as a software developer and setting up a brewery with his wife when he was introduced to a group of Christian investors keen to finance a brewing venture that would give back to the local community.
“Fortune smiled on me,” he says, “and I got to make it on a much grander scale than my wife and I envisioned.”
His brew pub occupies a large railway arch just around the corner from the impressive late 18th-century church that its profits go to fund. The design nods to church architecture, with big wooden beams and 6-metre pews borrowed from the church creating a “cathedral kind of feel to it”, Ryan says. There is church literature on display for customers to peruse and take away with them, and its staff include people that have come to the pub via the church’s training and career programmes.
Other than that though, it’s like any other brewery tap room, he insists. “This is a business so it’s not to push faith on anyone that’s not willing to hear it.
“It’s about being for the community, and not everyone in the community has a faith. Our staff aren’t always going to have a faith. That’s the openness and welcoming nature that a Christ-like person follows: be inclusive of everybody.”
Ryan himself, while a Christian, doesn’t attend Hackney Church. Neither does general manager Jonny Anderson, who grew up in a Christian household but stopped having any involvement with organised religion nearly 30 years ago. Today, as part of his job, he has almost daily interaction with members of Hackney Church.
“I do feel like I’m part of the church, but in a very sort of different way to other people,” he says. “They come across as very open-minded people. We have very good religion-based conversations, but I never feel that I’m here to direct people to the church.”
The pub, like most pubs in this country, has been closed for a lot of the past year. Ryan is looking forward to welcoming people back when lockdown restrictions are eased and scaling up the business so they can supply the major gigs and other events that take place at Hackney Church (the venue has hosted the likes of Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Florence and the Machine). Beyond that, he says, “like any brewery that’s out there, you want to grow the brand and get your beer into as many people’s hands as possible”.
Not every Christian brewer has big church funding behind them. Sheffield-based Emmanuales – tag line ‘What would Jesus brew?’ – began life as a home brewing operation in 2014. Founder Nick Law, at that point a worship leader in an evangelical mega church, started Emmanuales for fun.
He soon realised however, that home brewing provided a space for the sort of proselytizing he was expected to do as part of his membership of the church. Conversations that he’d always found difficult to initiate in other areas of his life were suddenly much easier in the context of working together over the creation of a delicious new beer.
“I’d have people come and brew with me and that was an amazing experience, just having these really deep and meaningful conversations in my kitchen,” he says.
It wasn’t just the process of brewing that was going well – Nick’s beers went down a storm with everyone who tried them. So much so in fact that in 2015 he was able to turn Emmanuales into a commercial operation, brewing in his spare time while continuing to work for the church.
While all this was going on, however, Nick was experiencing a real crisis in terms of his relationship with his church. “It was like someone turned a switch off. All the grace and enjoyment that I’d had from being involved in this church - my job and leading worship - it had just been removed. It was like the grace was gone,” he recalls sadly.
When it came to the world of brewing on the other hand, “it felt like everything I touched turned to gold,” he goes on. “It was like there was so much grace and favour.”
Nick left the church in 2016 – “I still struggle with the fallout of this” – but he found a welcoming home in brewing. A period doing branding for the Sheffield Brewing Company (TSBC) led to a job as its brewery manager, during which time Nick grew Emmanuales alongside brewing TSBC’s own more established offerings.
The only agenda is, ‘Do you want to try some great beer?
Going it alone in 2018 meant scaling back in a big way (he also runs a creative agency specialising in branding for brewing businesses) but Nick is determined to continue to build the brand back to where it was before he left TSBC. The pandemic in particular has given him the opportunity to examine his priorities.
Brewing, he says, “is the thing that makes my spirit sing. I want to make good beer in accordance with my values and to the glory of God”. He’s no longer interested in using the beer to proselytize. Rather, Nick regards Emmanuales as “a great tool to try and kickstart conversations where people can be honest and people can question their doubts.
“Let’s have a beer and chat. There’s no hidden agenda. The only agenda is, ‘Do you want to try some great beer?’ I’m not into hidden agendas. I worked for a church where there were hidden agendas.”
The combination of Christianity and brewing has plenty of historical precedence. Monks have been at it for centuries, after all. It was common for European monasteries to have a brewery on site from around the 11th century, as part of their remit of providing safe and nourishing food and drink for the monks as well as looking after the physical needs of visitors, pilgrims and the destitute.
A few monastic breweries still exist today but a combination of the Reformation and the rise of commercial brewing put paid to most of them. And at some point over the intervening centuries, society became nervous about mixing booze and religious beliefs.
“I’m not sure who made that decision but I don’t love it,” says Kaylee Vance.
Nick Law of Emmanuales and Pastor Jared Witt of Castle Church have each encountered a few people who’ve reacted negatively to their projects – whether the faithful worrying about blasphemy or the godless squicked out by the idea of being preached to – but in main, responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
That’s because, ultimately, their ambition – like that of Ryan Robbins at the Hackney Church Brew Co. – is to create opportunities for community and conversation through their beer. Whatever your position on religion, it’s hard to argue with that.
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