Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Craft Beer and Christian Spirituality

Based on the title above, it might be hard to appreciate that what follows could in anyway be a serious exposé – especially given that in some Christian circles alcohol is, well to put it bluntly, entirely of the devil. To my way of thinking though, linking Christian spirituality and craft beer has some promising possibilities.

Let me have a go…

In the church genre that I grew up in, alcohol was something frowned upon. Those involved in church leadership were required to refrain from drinking. A staunch adherence to this (not something practiced by all leaders) meant a cold pint on a hot summer day was off-limits. By implication it also meant that if time travel had been possible and you could have attended that famous first-century wedding in Cana, you would have been prohibited from toasting the bride with that most divine of red wines! Imagine that, imagine not being able to sip away on a lovely glass of “Mother’s Command, that one-off Canaan Syrah, heralded by one sommelier as the finest of the fine wines! [Vintner Jesus Christ. Vintage approx. 29 AD). Certainly, for me, the thought of turning down a glass (or two) of this delectable oinos in favour of a raspberry lemonade, well, it puts my head in a spin.

Writing in Tasting Beer, connoisseur Randy Mosher makes the following comment regarding those who came-of-age during America’s prohibition; “A whole generation grew up viewing alcohol as forbidden fruit, which makes it all the more tempting, but in a dirty, creepy sort of way.”[1] This is a keen observation, and something that is often true, especially when that which is forbidden is actually something that can be engaged-with in an appropriate manner. Likely, some who came-of-age in a “church of prohibition” ended up with a perverted attraction to alcohol as well, at least in their younger years. More common though, would be a more basic and legalistic type objection to alcohol: it is evil, bad, wrong, unwise, to be avoided at all costs, dangerous and corrupt. Essentially, you could say, something to be feared.

Too much fear though (and too much worship), empowers realities within creation that were never intended to be feared, worshipped or empowered. It establishes them as what the Bible calls principalities and powers; false gods. Most ancient cultures venerated a god of wine or beer; Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, Liber the Roman. Ninkasi was the Sumerian god of beer, Sucellus the Celtic god of ale. In our twenty-first century context, we may not refer to these gods by name, nevertheless many people still live either in the worship of, or the fear of, alcohol as a false god. There is a better way.

Alcohol is neither to be feared or worshiped; this is the domain of God alone. Alcohol is an entity within creation and should be related to accordingly and not empowered inappropriately. This requires wisdom, something which should be about as clear and obvious as the chocolate in Behemoth’s Triple Chocolate Milk Stout. i.e. pretty darn obvious! But this is the point. When you practice wisdom in situations where it is obviously required, it makes it that much easier to practice wisdom in areas where it doesn’t seem so necessary. By making alcohol a “forbidden-fruit,” even with the best intentions of keeping people safe, it removes the need to learn wisdom, and instead, promotes avoidance, disengagement, and disapproval. Certainly, these are appropriate concepts at times, but wisdom trumps them all. 

Further, when we don’t learn to exercise wisdom where it is obviously needed, it makes it that much harder to learn how to exercise wisdom in areas where the need is less obvious. We get lulled into a false dualism where things are either “bad” and to be avoided, or “good” and anything goes. The world doesn’t work like that though. There is no such thing as anything goes. Every facet of life requires wisdom in some way, shape or form.

Sin hasn’t only damaged humanities relationship with God, it has also damaged the internal relationship we have with our very own self, with other people, and with the rest of the created world we live in. As a result, everything can and does get out of hand if one’s not careful. Wisdom is needed in all things; the food we eat; how much we sleep; the technology we develop and how we use it; the exercise we engage in; how we look after our lakes and rivers; how we engage with social media; the way we manage our fisheries; the forests we cut down to plant crops; how we organise social infrastructure; the sugar we consume; the television we devour; the stories we allow to frame our lives; the stories we resist. And on, and on, and on.

Avoidance doesn’t teach wisdom.


So firstly, when it comes to alcohol the movement needs to be away from worship (at one end of the spectrum and sadly highlighted by alcoholism), and away from inappropriate fear (at the other end of the spectrum and often expressed in legalism), and towards a relationship of wisdom.

In wisdom, one can then make choices about abstinence or consumption, free of both fear and lust (inappropriate desire), and free from any need to judge the choices of another.

The obvious need to develop wisdom in relation to alcohol serves as a catalyst in developing wisdom in areas of life that don’t immediately appear to require wisdom.


Everything so far, I think, is good stuff, but the link to Christian spirituality is still probably a little tentative. Craft beer turns things up a notch though, so let’s push on.

In contrast to growing up in a church genre opposed to alcohol, for many Christians in the monastic communities of Belgium, cottage industry craft brewing served as a standard means by which they’d raise the funds necessary to support the life of their order. Modern churches pass the bucket and look for wealthy donors, but the older monastic orders would brew fine ales and export them around the world. How cool is that?! Surely a possibility for St Luke’s, especially given St Luke is the Patron Saint of Brewers?

The more famous of these monastic breweries are referred to as Trappist breweries and are run by Catholic monks who live as cloistered contemplatives, in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict. Over the years many of the successful Trappist breweries have been bought out by industrial brewing companies, and their beers are now referred to as “Abby” beers. There are still eleven officially recognised Trappist breweries running today. Six of these are Belgium monasteries; Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvletren. The others are in Holland (2), Austria, Italy, and the United States.

To be designated a Trappist brewery there are certain criteria that must be met.

Firstly, the beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. The brewery cannot be relocated as an industrial enterprise.

Secondly, the brewery and the beer must be of secondary importance to the monastery. In other words, the monastery’s main reason for existence must be monastic pursuits; contemplation, prayer, the study of Scripture, service and the worship of God. The brewing of beer comes after these endeavors.

Thirdly, the brewery is not to be an unfettered capitalistic-type profit-making venture. The income drawn from the production and sale of beer is to cover the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the monastic buildings and grounds. After that, any other profits are to be donated to charity.

Trappist beer is thus brewed in smaller quantities than other beers. On average 4,400,000 litres per year. The least per year is 200,000 litres (Tre Fontane Abbey and Stift Engelszell), the most is 14,500,000 litres per year (La Trappe which you can find in your local New World Supermarket here in NZ). While this is a lot more than your average homebrewer, it is a long way short of companies like AB InBev which owns 500 different beer brands, with multiple beers brewed under each brand, including the likes of Corona (985,320,000 litres), and Bud-Light (something like 14,662,500,000 litres). That’s a thousand times more beer than the largest Trappist produce, and that’s only one beer within 500 different beer brands.

La Trappe (Holland - 1884) 

These smaller quantities are not to suggest that Trappist beers are second rate; far from it, Westvletren is widely regarded as the worlds “best” beer. It is hard to get one’s hands on though, as it is generally only sold at the actual gate of the monastery in Belgium. By the time it does get to New Zealand, if it does get that far, being so rare the price skyrockets. A 330ml bottle goes for $101 NZD (Belgian Beer Café off Queen Street, Auckland).

Here though, we’ve craft beer at its finest. We’ve monks brewing away, in all things working whole heartedly for the glory of God (Colossians 3:23). We’ve intense flavour profiles, delicious to some, off-putting to others – but that doesn’t matter, it’s not being brewed for mass consumption but rather for connoisseur-like enjoyment. The connoisseur part is important. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

How is this for a business ethic though!?!

1) The business, in this case beer, is secondary to the main pursuits of life; prayer, study, service, worship, community. Business is a means, but not the end in and of itself. But, rather than money being the end, other pursuits are the end.

2) Statutes of limitation are put in place; the goal is not maximum production and profit. One knows when to stop. This makes space for others; monopolization is avoided, which creates gaps in the market that other business can fill and in doing so creates jobs and opportunities for others to flourish in life.

3) The product produced is top shelf quality. It never sets out to be a mass produced, or appeal to as many as possible type product. In this case, one-size-fits-all beer-flavoured-water (Bud-Light). It’s happy to be unique even to the point of alienating some while appealing to others.

4) Once a certain level of profit is achieved the rest is donated to charity to make the world a better place. The business exists mindful of the needs of the wider community within which the business operates. There is a concern for one’s neighbours.

One of the key attributes of wisdom is awareness. This is business awareness at its finest.

So before we even get to talk about conscientious consumption, Trappist beer hits us with conscientious production – this is awesome!


Most craft beers are produced with a “similar” ethos. Though the profit and the charitable aims wouldn’t align. Nevertheless, they are small batch brewing with little desire (or hope of) monopolizing the market. (And, when certain craft beer breweries take off, eventually “selling-out” to the big multinationals, more often than not, consumers are annoyed and often move on to other brands – Emmerson’s, Ballast Point etc.). In terms of flavours, craft beers offer deep, contrasting, complementary, complex, and sometimes even off-putting flavours.

Ultimately these beers aren’t designed for mass production or mass consumption, they are so flavoursome they actually fatigue the pallet. Like a good lemon meringue pie, the first piece is simply divine, once you’ve had that you’re pretty much done. “A second piece?” “Ah, no thank you.” Craft beer is a bit like that. Randy Mosher, again in Tasting Beer explains; “Large brewers know that their drinkers value drinkability above all else. Drinkability basically requires drinkers to stop drinking because they know it is time to stop even though they don’t want to. [Though of course many consumers don’t]. Hence the bitterness in mainstream beers is incredibly low, and corn and rice is often used instead of malt. The beer is light and watery. In contrast, the complexity of the hoppy bitterness and malty caramel in craft beer are intended to fatigue the pallet.”[2]  (Paraphrased).

Hence, craft beer is really an invitation to drink as a connoisseur rather than simply as a consumer. And this is the big game changer.  

The difference between a consumer and a connoisseur is ultimately one of awareness and appreciation. Consumers are mostly concerned with taste, convenience, price point, and quantity. Connoisseurs though, they want to know the bigger story. Where is the beer made? What is the brewer attempting to do? What flavour profiles should I be expecting pick up? What are the tasting notes that accompany this beer? How does this compare to other similar styles of beer? What’s the history of this style of beer? What is the alcohol percentage in is this beer? What glass would highlight the flavour profiles in this beer? What food should I match this beer with? Etc. etc..

The whole process is slower, more thoughtful, more engaged, more present. There is a deeper awareness of what is going on. Both in the production of the beer and in the consumption of the beer. As a result, one ends up paying more for less, but in return gets so much more. But the connoisseur is in their happy place.

With craft beer, it’s not about mowing the lawns, working up a sweat, and then popping the caps and chugging down a couple of bottles faster than you can say; “Heineken equals water,” rather as Mosher puts it; “Presentation is half the game. It’s not cheating. A great beer poured into a perfect glass at just the right temperature, in the best possible setting, with friends old and new should always be the goal. Anything else cheats the brewer and the drinker alike.”[3]

And then he describes drinking a beer as follows… “Consider the beer-filled glass in your hand. Look closely. Study the rich colour and slight viscosity [thickness] of the liquid. Observe the way the light plays on the shimmering highlights. Watch the bubbles as they form and rise lazily through the beer, adding to the creamy foam on the top, hushed and peaceful as a snowfall. Lift the glass to your lips, but first, pause to inhale and ponder the aroma. Draw in the bready, caramelly, or toasty foundation of malt, the brisk green counterpoint of hops, and the swirling cupboard of spices and fruit, earth and wood. These scents can fire off neurons in the forgotten happy corners of your memory, as powerful an experience as any art form. Finally, have a taste. The beer floods in, cool and crisp or warm and rich. Observe the first blush of flavour and the tart tingle of carbonation. As the beer warms in your mouth, it releases a new round of flavours and sensations: malty sweetness, bright herbal hops, a touch of toast, all building to a bittersweet crescendo. It’s not one single taste; it’s an ever-evolving cinematic experience unspooling as you drink. A soft inward breath stirs a new layer of beery perfume. The grand finale comes as a long-fading aftertaste, with lingering wisps of resin, toast, or honey, concluding perhaps with a gentle warming alcohol sensation in your throat.”[4] 

That’s just glorious.

He adds; “If you can read the meaning in these sensations, the whole history of brewing opens up, and the long process reveals itself in the beer."[5]

Or, perhaps you could put it like this; when you learn to drink like a connoisseur you discover an invitation into a story far bigger than you ever imagined, a story of golden barley fields, brew houses large and small, hop harvests, toasting racks, tasting notes, fermentation, contemplation and taste sensations.  

Ultimately, to drink as a connoisseur means to drink slowly, carefully, considerately, with some knowledge, with some awareness, with some appreciation and understanding of what is going on, with wisdom, with an eye to the far larger story.

When you add your Christian faith to that mix you’re not far away from engaging in a sacramental appreciation of life. Perhaps you could say it like this; connoisseur like appreciation is the doorway to sacramental living. Perhaps you could even say it like this; a Christian connoisseur can’t help but be a sacramental Christian.

And what is a sacramental Christian? One who finds their way to God via the signposts of everyday ordinary life. They are aware that there is no such thing as everyday ordinary life – it’s all a gift and part of a far bigger story. A story of grace and love and hope and possibility. Of a God who created the universe and looked at it all and said; “Good, good, good, good, and very good!”

When it comes to craft beer, a Christian connoisseur, as a sacramental Christian doesn’t simply drink with restraint (or abstain entirely when that is appropriate, aware of the dangers of over indulgence and not causing others to stumble etc.), that’s just entry level wisdom. Rather, they drink with eyes-wide-open to the wonder and glory of God. There is an enhanced degree of wisdom.

At the end of the day a Christian connoisseur – a sacramental Christian – takes the things of the world far more seriously than folk who think of themselves as worldly. Every facet of life is appreciated as a gift from God; the birds of the air, the stars of the night, the laughter of children, the glory of a sunset, the embrace of a friend, the intimacy of a spouse, the bread and wine of communion, the waters of baptism – and even craft beer. 

The glory is not the beer itself, but rather, the glory of God that it points to.

The secret is not the beer itself, (Liberty Brewing’s Knife Party IPA rather than Steinlager’s nonsense) but rather, the mindset of a connoisseur.

The call is not for everyone to suddenly start drinking craft beer, but rather to quit being a consumer and to become a connoisseur of life.

Our consumer driven, capitalist, modern growth economy requires an almost superficial attachment to people and things. We need to be free to follow the market – the new, the novel, the next thing. Spouse 2.0, church 5.0, iPhone 8.0, purchase 13.0 – moving from one thing to the next, devouring, consuming, forking out more dollars in the hope of finding satisfaction – you won’t!

Quit being a consumer and become a connoisseur. 

Consumers; they don’t like this or that or the other thing, they are never satisfied, they are quick to judge based on personal tastes and instant gratification. They are surface deep and miss what is going on.

Connoisseurs realise there is more to the story – their insight, understanding, appreciation, knowledge, grace, wisdom, and ultimately love – helps them to see things with different eyes.

God is not far off, God is near. God is not stingy, God is generous. God doesn’t add heavy loads, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. God is present in all things, it is in him that we live and move and have our being.

It’s all a gift to be savoured and should be appreciated with the passion of a connoisseur.

The call is to become a connoisseur of life!

A connoisseur of friendship.
A connoisseur of marriage.
A connoisseur of creation.
A connoisseur of parenting.

Connoisseurs realise it is all a gift from God. And that changes everything. There is a new awareness of the divine that begins to shape the entirety of one’s life. When wisdom discovers Wisdom everything changes.  

Colossians 1:15-20
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.


The official Catholic prayer in relation to beer is as follows…

Priest: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
Priest: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Priest: Let us pray. Lord, bless (make the sign of the cross +) this beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

Craft beer and Christian spirituality – it’s a thing.
But really, it’s about a connoisseur mentality that leads to sacramental living.
Which actually makes it all about discovering the wonder and glory and gracious life giving the presence of God, not in the "things," but in the realisation that the "things" point to God.

Well, I'll drink to that! 

[1] Randy Mosher, Tasting Beer; An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009), 21.
[2] Ibid., 65.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., viii.
[5] Ibid., viii.