I went to church last Sunday. Nothing unusual in that. I go most Sundays. What was unusual was that I actually went to church twice. The first time was to the church I usually attend – Augsburg Lutheran Church in Toledo, OH. The second time was to a church I had never been to before. It was also a Lutheran church – Threshold Lutheran Church. What makes Threshold different is that its worship services are held in a brewery – the Black Cloister Brewery to be precise. The Black Cloister Brewery opened its doors in downtown Toledo, OH in March 2015. Its CEO and Founder, Tom Schaeffer, is an ordained Lutheran pastor and Threshold is his church. And so every Sunday at 11am people congregate at the Black Cloister Brewery to worship.
I was not sure what to expect when my wife and I walked in the door of the Black Cloister on Easter morning. Threshold is a Lutheran church so I knew what to anticipate in terms of liturgy and the general structure of the service. I was curious, however, as to how the seating would be rearranged as the taproom’s functional space was temporarily modified from one where people congregated to drink beer to one where people congregated to worship God. But there was no change – the space remained exactly the same. And so people just sat at the tables in groups of three and four as they would if they were there to have a beer. One gentleman even sat on a barstool at the bar. The congregation is small and typically somewhere between twenty-five and thirty people worship there on a Sunday. I suspect that if numbers increase then seating arrangements may have to be reconfigured to accommodate larger numbers.
The Black Cloister Brewery itself is named after the Black Cloister Monastery in Wittenberg, Germany. The original Black Cloister was home to 16th century Augustinian monks, one of whom was Martin Luther who studied theology there. In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora and the couple raised six children in the monastery. Katherine, or Katie as she was known, was a homebrewer. In describing Katie’s household duties Lutheran author Susan Verstraete noted that these included “paying the bills, gardening, raising livestock, running the household and even brewing beer for family use”. In 16th century Europe the brewing of beer was almost exclusively a task done by women. For a fifteen year period, between 1525 and 1540, Luther spent most of his evening’s at Wittenberg’s Black Eagle Tavern where he drank beer with a number of friends including fellow reformers Philip Melanchthon and Nicolaus von Amsdorf.
Threshold is not the only congregation to meet in a brewery. The Kyrie Pub Church (also Lutheran) in Fort Worth, TX meets at the Chimera Brewing Company. Worship services are held on a Sunday evening during the brewery’s regular opening hours (which means the bar is open during worship). It is a church for “the wicked and the thirsty”, the music is described as “Rock-n-roll, Bluegrass, Indie, Singer-Songwriter” while the vibe is “Casual, Hip, Downtown, Progressive, Inclusive, Gay affirming, Young, Young families, Lively, Neighborhood-focused, Down to Earth”.
Beer and Christianity are not strangers. Indeed they share a long and, at times, symbiotic relationship. There is even a possible reference to beer in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy (14:26) says “use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” Beer was certainly brewed in that part of the world at that time and so it is possible that the reference to a fermented drink is beer. In the New Testament the very first miracle performed by Jesus was to turn water into wine. This occurred at a wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11). However there are some who offer the suggestion that Jesus did not turn the water into wine but, in fact, turned it into beer. I am no Biblical scholar, not am I an expert on the cultural traditions of that period, so I really cannot comment on the veracity of this interpretation of scripture.
The most famous Christian brewers of course are the Trappist Monks who have been brewing beer since the sixth century. Today there are twelve Trappist monasteries (six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, France, Italy, and the United States) that brew beer. The beer, which is produced under the auspices of the International Trappist Association, supports the living expenses of the monks, the upkeep of the monastery, and numerous ministries and charitable causes. The beer that the Trappists brew is regarded as some of the best of the world. Indeed Westvleteren 12 (XII) – a dark quadrupel – brewed at Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium, is ranked (at the time of writing) as the best beer in the world by the highly rated RateBeer.com website.
In contrast to breweries that function as churches, albeit temporarily for a few hours a week, there are a number of former churches that now function as breweries. I have been to two of these – The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, PA and Father John’s Brewing Company in Bryan, OH. Church Brew Works is located in an old Roman Catholic Church, while Father John’s occupies a former Methodist Church. Former churches being transformed into breweries are examples of what urban planners call adaptive resuse; reusing a building for a purpose other than that for which it was originally intended. Despite their historic and aesthetic value old churches are often difficult to sell. They can be expensive to heat and maintain and their interior design and layout limit their potential uses. Craft breweries, however, can be very adaptable and flexible when it comes to space and therefore are often ideal tenants for old unused buildings. Breweries in churches typically embrace their unique setting with the names of the beers reflecting this fact. So Church Works Brewery has Pipe Organ Pale Ale and Pious Monk Dunkel while Father John’s offerings include Black Friar’s Oatmeal Stout and St. Francis Steam Ale. Churches are not the only b uildings that are now breweries. Others include an old potato chip factory (Atlas Brewing, Chicago, IL), an old firehouse (Firehouse Brewing Company, Rapid City, SD), and a former hardware store (Huske Hardware House Restaurant & Brewery, Fayetteville, NC). In January when I was in Stockholm, Sweden I visited the New Carnegie Brewery which is housed in an old lightbulb factory.
Beer-based Bible Studies are also becoming increasingly common across the country. There are literally dozens of such groups meeting every week. They meet in people’s homes, breweries, and taverns. Many of these Bible studies have creative names such as Ale and the Almighty, Beer Bible and Brotherhood, and What Would Jesus Brew? In most cases the logic of meeting in bars to drink beer and discuss God is the opportunity to take discussions, that normally occur within the confines of a church building, to a more relaxed and less stuffy environment. In so doing one objective is to engage individuals who are unlikely to cross the threshold of a traditional church building on a Sunday morning. Pastor Matt Bistayi of Valley Church in Allendale, MI who facilitates a Christian-focused discussion group suggests that “the creativity inherent in brewing beer — the process takes patience and special ingredients — dovetails nicely with discussions about faith and God’s role in a person’s life.”
So whether it is a church in a brewery or a brewery in a church I say alleluia. Can I get an Amen?