Brewing beer is a lot of work. You have to gather ingredients, boil and steep, measure and time and sterilize, sterilize, sterilize. A batch of homebrew can take close to four hours, and that’s not including the time it takes to rack it off and then bottle or keg it. And yet, even though there are reasonably priced craft beers of excellent quality out there that would be much quicker and sometimes even cheaper for us to just buy, we keep on brewing.
Some of us do it for the education. After all there is no better way to learn about beer than to learn to make it yourself. Others are just DIY kind of people. But whatever the motivation, we all treasure that first sip and the pride that comes with enjoying the fruits of our labors.
So imagine what it would feel like to put in all that effort, to work and watch and wait patiently while the yeast worked it’s magic and the beer conditioned only to be told that we couldn’t enjoy that first sip?
My first response would be that you can have that beer that I worked so hard to make when you pry it from my cold dead hand. It’s not that I am not happy to share. Indeed, sharing my beer with others is one of the great satisfactions of brewing, but to demand that very first bottle, for which I have worked so hard, well that’s going too far.
Yet as unjust as it might seem, that is what the people of Israel were required to do. Not by their landlords or kings, not by the armies that conquered them. No this most unreasonable demand came from God. In Proverbs (3:9), Nehemiah (10:35), Ezekiel (44:30), Leviticus (23:10-14), Exodus (22:29), Deuteronomy (26:2-4) and many other places clearly state that the people are obligated to offer the first fruits of their produce and live stock.
That gesture of offering the first fruits is layered with all kinds of meaning. The idea was for the people to show their gratitude to God for the gifts of the land. But there is more to it. For by offering those precious first fruits the people were making a powerful statement about the place of God in their lives. God came first. Before anything else, before any other obligation, even before their own hunger, God was to be acknowledged and honored.
Of course it would be easy and even reasonable to look back at that tradition and dismiss it as a relic of the past. Without a doubt economic motivations likely influenced this practice since the offerings brought by the people supported the priests who helped to write the laws. But perhaps there is still something worthwhile to be salvaged.
Because without a doubt, people of all faiths and of none alike could benefit from a little more mindfulness, humility and gratitude. By willingly giving up something that by all rights should be ours, we are in fact acknowledging a very profound and difficult truth: namely that it isn’t ours at all. Everything we “have” comes, not just as a result of our effort or merit but because we have been given it as a gift.
Think about it. Even if we grew all the ingredients ourselves they are still a gift from a fruitful earth. The stove, pot and all the other equipment are the product of someone else’s toil and ingenuity. Even our own traits of creativity, focus and patience (all necessary for brewing) are bestowed upon us by our parents and teachers.
When we think about beer in that light it’s kind of humbling There so much to be thankful for. It would seem the least we could to acknowledge it all would be to postpone our gratification and offer that first beer to something more important than our own thirst. And whether it is God or Mother Earth or the Spirit of Life or even the FSM is really beside the point. What matters is that we take the time to stop and think about all that has gone into the wondrous thing we have just created. What matters is that we take a moment to be grateful that we have the financial and physical resources as well as the freedom (political and otherwise) to indulge in our hobby.
It won’t be easy. It is a genuine sacrifice to give the fruits of our labor to God before we enjoy them for ourselves. It is hard to resist the temptation to offer a portion of what we create to God as opposed to keeping it all for ourselves. And yet it is entirely worth it.
And so the next time I head into the kitchen and fire up the brew kettle I try to keep that sense of gratitude in mind. And when that next batch is finally matured and ready to be enjoyed, rather than seizing it for myself, I will gladly offer it to God.
Of course figuring out how to do that is tricky because God isn’t going to drink my offering. Unlike the first fruits of my vegetable garden I can’t take it to the local food pantry. I suppose I could do as they do in many other cultures and set it out as an offering for God and God alone. If you have suggestions as to ways in which we can offer the first fruits of our brewing as a gesture of gratitude, please let me know.
But what matters most, is not so much what I do with that first bottle or glass, but just the fact that I am willing to set aside my own desire for the sake of something greater. For in doing so I will be taking part in an ancient and sacred tradition. By offering God some of my first and best I take the time to remember that I would not be able to enjoy it at were it not for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me.