Finding God at a Beer Festival

By: AP
By: AP

DENVER - In the beginning, there was a long line for Judgment Day ale.

Shortly after the doors opened on the 27th Great American Beer Festival, a crowd congregated at the booth offering that and other pours from The Lost Abbey of San Marcos, Calif., where the tap handle is a Celtic cross and the legacy of beer-brewing monks endures.

Standing under a banner promising "Inspired beers for Saints and Sinners Alike," proprietor and former altar boy Tomme Arthur had a confession: He's using God to sell some beer.

"It's the oldest story ever told — the struggle between good and evil," said Arthur, 35, a product of Catholic schools in his native San Diego. "There is a battle being waged between those who make good beer and those who make evil beer."

Without question, unholy excess is in evidence anytime 18,000 gallons of alcohol is served to 46,000 people over three days. See: women in Bavarian maid outfits and "Beer Pong" tables.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, God could be found at last week's Great American Beer Festival — in the crassly commercial, in homage to religion's long history in brewing, in needling faiths that turn a suspect eye on drinking, and (if the prophet of home-brewing is to be believed) at the bottom of every glass.

While alcohol and religion don't always mix, no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin once said: "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Charlie Papazian, author of "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing," the undisputed bible of the craft, can cite many intersections of beer and the divine. Mayan and Aztec priests controlled the brewing of beer in pre-Columbian days, monks in Bavaria brewed strong bocks for sustenance during Lent and the first brewery in the Americas was founded by Belgium monks in Ecuador in 1534.

Before Louis Pasteur pinpointed yeast as the culprit in the 1850s, brewers didn't know what caused fermentation, said Papazian, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. So they invented one run-on word to describe the mysterious stuff at the bottom of the bottle: "Godisgood."

"As you drain a glass of beer, look at the yeast at the bottom and be reminded that God is good, because that's the way it feels," Papazian said.

Like most business owners, brewers tend to avoid politics and religion out of fear of alienating customers. At the same time, microbrewing has become an intensely competitive industry, so putting a saint on a bottle can help a guy stand out.

When Brock Wagner was looking to name his new brewery in Houston 14 years ago, his search took him to the library of a local Catholic seminary. There, he found the story of St. Arnold of Metz, the French saint of brewers and one of many patron saints of the brewing arts.

As the tale goes, Arnold (580-640) urged his people, "Don't drink the water, drink beer" because he believed water boiled in beer was safer than tainted water sources.

Centuries later, St. Arnold Brewing Co. became Texas' first craft brewery, with a "divine reserve" single-batch beer and 21 fermenters named for different saints.

"One purpose of religion is the formation of communities, and our brewery kind of has that effect, of bringing people together," said Wagner, who describes himself as spiritual but wary of organized religion. "Some of our regulars say going on our brewery tour is going to church."

Jeremy Cowan, the marketing mind behind He'Brew (the chosen beer), was absent from his company's booth on the festival's first day; it was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

Established in 1996 (or 5757), Cowan's Schmaltz Brewing Co. uses Jewish humor, scripture and imagery in packaging its beers, all of them kosher. There's Genesis Ale ("our first creation") Messiah Bold ("the one you've been waiting for") and Jewbelation ("L'Chaim!").

"I am passionately Jewish," Cowan said. "I don't get as caught up in the legal minutiae. I'm more fascinated in the project of Judaism as a civilization. This is the way I participate."

Some faith traditions reject alcohol as an intoxicant that invites bad behavior and abuse. Observant Muslims and Mormons, among others, abstain from drinking on religious grounds.

Last year, an evangelical church targeting young adults in the St. Louis area got in trouble with the Missouri Baptist Convention for holding a church ministry at a microbrewery. (The Southern Baptist Convention opposes making, advertising, distributing and consuming alcohol).

At Denver's Great American Beer Festival, four ex-Mormons who met at Utah State University ran a booth selling "X-Communicated Mormon Drinking Team" T-shirts, sweatshirts and other products.

"Our business model is to sell enough T-shirts to pay the cost of a group of our friends getting together and having fun for the weekend," said Mike Hansen, 36, of Whitefish, Mont.

Another entrepreneur peddled "WWJB: What Would Jesus Brew?" T-shirts, with an image of a smiling Jesus with a mash paddle in one hand and a pint glass in the other.

Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., brews a series of religion-themed beers that began with "Damnation." A strong golden ale, the beer's name is a nod to the great Belgian beer Duval, which comes from the Flemish word for devil.

A restaurant around the corner from Cilurzo's brewery refused to stock it.

"It all started with 'Damnation,'" said Cilurzo, who has no religious affiliation. "I felt like if we started with 'Damnation,' we needed to be redeemed. We needed 'Salvation.'"

Cilurzo's latest creation, Consecration, was a festival hit and an answered prayer — a richly textured sour ale aged for nine months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with black currants.

God is good.


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