Pub Theology


One of the great things about the internet is that, no matter how obscure your interest or hobby, the net allows you the chance to seek out and connect with other people who are just as off kilter.  When I began to take this whole faith and beer thing more seriously one of the first things I tried to do was see who else out there might be doing it too.  I was pleased to find I was not alone in the universe.  I came across and have since corresponded with a couple of kindred souls.

Among them are guys like Michael Camp, author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, which is next up on my reading list.  Another book on the subject is Diary of a Part Time Monk by J. Wilson which I just finished reading.  I referenced J’s quest to emulate the monks of old in this post.  In short, he attempted to follow the Lenten discipline of monks who fasted existing only on their dopplebock.  The book is his account of this remarkable experience.

Then there is Bryan Berghoff.  When I finished reading his book, Pub Theology, I knew we had to at least correspond.  We hit it off and found we had a lot in common, not just in terms of our love of beer but also in terms of our approach to ministry and the Church’s need to find new ways to connect with the ever increasing “spiritual but not religious” population.  We discussed the idea of a visit but never got around to making specific plans.

Then, a few months ago I got the bright idea to do an event on the whole “beer-faith connection” as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week.  (more on this in next week’s post).  Anyway, when I was thinking through other clergy who could work with me on this event, Bryan was on the short list.  I contacted him and he was very excited at the possibility.  But I thought it was important to meet the man I was going to work with.  Moreover, I wanted to see an example of one of his “Pub Theology” sessions up close and personal.

So last week I took the train down to DC.  Bryan met me at the station and we headed off to the pub where that night’s conversation would take place.  The whole concept of Pub Theology is “Beer, Conversation, God.”  The gathering is open to anyone who wishes to attend and the topics are sent out a few days ahead of time.  On the heels of the massive Oklahoma tornado the topic included God’s role in natural disasters, as well as more abstract topics like, “Was there a time before time?” and “Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen.  Can you call that faith?”

We talked over burgers and beers and then made our way to the back part of the bar to wait and see who would show up.   Over time the group grew to a very respectable 15 people.  Many were members of Bryan’s new church planting project, Roots, DC.   Others were visitors and one was a local clergy colleague.  People’s perspectives varied,  greatly (and thanks to the presence of a young woman from South Sudan, also went beyond just an American lens) and at least one person was by openly an atheist.

As the conversation progressed and folks ordered their 2nd or third beer, people definitely became more vocal.   Yet a no time was there a hint of disrespect or even frustration.

What Bryan has built here is no small accomplishment.  To create an environment where people, many of whom are strangers, can speak openly and honestly about the deeper issues of life is quite extraordinary.  As I have reflected on this I began to see the genius of Bryan’s concept.  While such a group could take place over coffee or in a park, the setting of the bar is really critical to its success.

Where else but in a bar can friends, acquaintances and strangers all engage impassioned debate yet still remain not just civil but even jovial?   Now it is true that often times those debates are about how the manager is mishandling the bullpen and not dark matter.  But there are many times I have heard focused discussion about politics, God and the meaning of life coming from the other end of the bar or the next table.

It seems to me that if the bar is indeed the new Forum, then Bryan has indeed hit upon a valuable insight into how the Church can connect with the world outside its walls.  The key lies first in a willingness to go out to where the people are rather than insisting that they come to us.  But just as important is the setting.  In order to get people talking about what they really believe about God and what  truly matters in life, then you can’t do much better than your local pub.  And, at least in my opinion, the best way to start any meaningful conversation is over a good pint.

So here’s to Bryan and Pub Theology and the rediscovery of a great way to talk about God and all things that matter most.

Lost, wet and tired. My visit to the Liberties.

dublin in the rainYou may have read my previous post about damp and frustrating pilgrimage to the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.  Upon leaving the Storehouse I realized that the hour was drawing near when I was supposed to meet my hosts, Kevin and Una.  They had been out and about tending to errands and we were due to meet and have supper together before heading back to their home in Wicklow.

My plan was to try and head back to the Temple Bar area so that at least I would be back in familiar territory so I could tell them where to meet me.  As previously noted, I am not gifted with a good sense of direction.  As a result my attempt to cut back across the city instead got me utterly lost.  After ten or fifteen minutes of walking the rain I decided I had enough and started looking for a bar to duck into in the hopes I would have a pint and get my bearings.

Now apart from Guinness itself there is not much in the Liberties neighborhood of Thomas-st-dublin-2010Dublin that would attract a tourist.  Eventually I found a likely enough looking pub and went it.  Given the fact that conversation among the patrons pretty much stopped upon seeing me, I quickly realized that this was not the kind of place that was accustomed to tourists.  I briefly considered whether or not I might be better off heading right back out again and looking for a friendlier environment.

Ultimately I mustered my resolve and sat at the bar.  After drying off my glasses and ordering a pint of Guinness (I was curious to see if it tasted ant different than the one I just had at the Gravity Bar) I started looking about to see who I might strike up a conversation with.  Unlike many other pubs I visited in Ireland, there were not any immediate takers.  But I still had time before I had to meet Kevin so I ordered another pint, this time of Murphy’s.

This was apparently enough of a sin to merit the intervention of the man sitting next to me.  “You shouldn’t do that.” he said, turning his head away the TV to speak to me.  “You’ll get sick.”  I was curious so I asked why?  He replied matter- of-factly,  “Once you pick a beer, you should stick to it.” This was all the opening I required.  From there on I asked about which beer he favored and why and so forth.  I expected some measure of  reciprocity in terms of asking me about the States or about myself but it quickly became apparent that what he really wanted to talk about was the breaking news of the day.

It turns out that earlier in the day Whitey Bulger had been arrested.  For those of you unfamiliar, Whitey was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed.  This was apparently very big news, not only for my new friend, but for the whole bar.  So we chatted on about the movie and he very eagerly shared all he knew about the Whitey’s life and history.  I bought him a round and he, in good Irish fashion, returned the favor.

Before long my phone rang.  It was Kevin, wondering where to meet me.  In that moment it occurred to me that I still had no blessed idea where I was.  I told Kevin the name of the bar but not surprisingly it didn’t ring any bells for him.  I turned and was about to ask my friend for help when he just took the phone from me and gave Kevin directions.  Without a word he handed the phone back.  After agreeing to meet outside in 15 minutes, we shared one last pint and then I packed up to go.

My friend turned his attention back to the news.  At the door I took one last look around.  Life in the bar was back to normal.  The regulars we sharing the conversations and ordering their usuals. And as I walked back out into the rain, you’d never know that this wholly unremarkable place had just provided a safe haven for a wet and tired American with a lousy sense of direction.

The 1888 Tavern or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Craft Beer, Part 3

saranac_brewery10If you’ve followed the last two weeks, then you have come to know how the beers of FX Matt’s Brewing played a pivotal role in my discovery of craft beer.  While the beers themselves were the cornerstone, the accessibility of the brewery was also of critical importance.  We were first introduced to it when we were pledging Delta Phi fraternity.  Although we were too young to get any beer as part of the tour, we were sometimes called upon to drive the brothers who were of age to the brewery so that they could fully enjoy the pleasures of the 1888 Tap Room at the end of the tour.  In addition, two of my classmates were required to get the signature of FX Matt himself as a pledge task.  Interestingly enough, this proved to be not only possible but enjoyable.  After making an appointment they showed up at the appointed time and were warmly greeted by FX himself who spent a great deal of time sharing the history of the brewery and asking them about themselves.

This kind of family atmosphere translates to the tour.  The friendly guides and imagesCAYTSV55homey atmosphere made it easy to learn something of the basics of brewing and to understand some of the steps that can be taken to make a beer better than the mass produced junk that many of our peers were still happily guzzling.

In 2006, my relationship with Matt’s became intergenerational.  In the course of visiting old friends we found ourselves back in Utica, NY.  While there I could not pass up the chance to revisit my past and walk the tour I had so often walked many years before.   But even more so it was a joy to watch the excitement and curiosity on my kid’s faces as they learned about the science and art of beer.  Their favorite part was the bottling which is very cool to watch.  At the time they were bottling Brooklyn’s Octoberfest.  (Matt’s has done contract brewing for a number of other brewers including Brooklyn, Harpoon. Pete’s Wicked and even Philly’s own Dock Street). 

1888aAt the end of the tour is the 1888 Tavern.  As part of the $5 tour ticket you get 2 drink vouchers which the kids used on the delicious root beer, orange cremecicle and sparkling lemonade.

I tied two new Saranac brews… the Pomegranate Wheat and the Imperial IPA.  The Wheat was tart and definitely better than what I feared it might be (I am NOT a fruit beer guy)… my wife liked it so much she bought some to take home.  The IPA on the other hand was quite good indeed.  I also benefited from the fact that I stuck up a conversation with the assistant brewmaster (who had knocked off for the day) and after 10 minutes of what I hope were fairly good questions about their beers, he proceeded to keep my glass filled even though my two beer vouchers were long since spent.  This beer carried all the kick and IBU’s one would expect but went down with remarkable ease.  Some imperials really lend themselves much more to sipping as opposed to gulping but this new Saranac product was not only delicious but also very drinkable.

So there you have it… my trip down memory lane.   If you ever find yourself near Utica take the time to check out the FX Matts brewery.  For info on how to take the tour yourself, just click here.

Adirondack Trail Mix or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Craft Beer, Part 2

untitledOur trip down beer memory lane left off in the wild surrounds of Hamilton College and my discovery of Matt’s Premium Lager.  Back then (1988) craft beer was just emerging.  And normally such a trend would have been especially slow to reach an upstate backwater like Utica.

Anyway, at the time most of us believed that for a beer to be any good it had to be imported.  For a few years I firmly believed that Bass Ale had to be the best beer in the world.  Our quest for better beer also sometimes took us north of the border for Molson Canadian and Export Ales.

Fortunately the FX Matt Brewery again showed us that we could indeed hope for better, this time with their Saranac line of beers.  This bold move- for an industrial brewery to get out in front of the trend- proved not only to be the liquid salvation for me and many others at Hamilton, in the long run it also saved the brewery.  As tribute to this success they changed the commercial name of the brewery from FX Matt’s to Saranac.

When Saranac was first introduced in 1985, it did not come in the dizzying range of dozens of varieties that it comes in today.  In those early days you could only get Adirondack Amber, Black and Tan and Pale Ale on a regular basis.  While they came saranacblackandtanlabelseparately, we most often bought the Adirondack Trail Mix mixed case of all three and each proved to be an education in its own right.

The Black and Tan was one of the very first dark beers I ever tried and the Pale Ale was the first beer I had that could be considered remotely hoppy.  I did not know it at the time but it is also worth noting that the Amber won the “Best Premium Lager” category at the GABF in 1991.  Of course the way that same beer scores now on Rate Beer shows just how far our collective palates have progressed.

2019But for me the real gem was their holiday beer.  Called simply Season’s Best, it was a nut brown lager.  Come December we bought as much as our student wallets would allow and when we returned to campus in late January, we scoured the distributors for any leftovers.

But perhaps the best thing about living so close to Matt’s Brewery was the tours, which I shall leave to next week’s  final chapter.