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‘Brewery church’ is the latest in craft of luring folks to church

The tap lineup at Castle Church Brewing Community in Orlando, Fla. Photo courtesy of Keith Spencer

ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) — Martin Luther, the famed 16th-century rebel monk and Protestant Reformer, is known to have had a penchant for a palatable pint of beer. He even once exclaimed, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the first known congregation founded expressly as a “brewery church” is a Lutheran outpost, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its Florida-Bahamas Synod.

Castle Church Brewing Community describes itself as “Orlando’s newest premier destination brewery” but also makes clear that while beer is its passion, “as a spiritual community, we exist for people first.”

Castle Church Brewing Community co-founders the Rev. Jared Witt, left, and Aaron Schmalzle. Photo courtesy of Jared Witt

The community is the brainchild of co-founders the Rev. Jared Witt, now its pastor, and Aaron Schmalzle, its president, both in their 30s. The two began sharing their ardor for beer and fellowship in 2014 in Schmalzle’s garage, where he home-brewed, and soon a community of other folks had bubbled up around them. After small groups began to meet in homes, the pair started plans to found their own brew house.

With a church development grant from the Florida-Bahamas Synod and other fundraising, they secured a spot for the brewery in a diverse neighborhood near Orlando’s airport.

Since it opened in October, the community of about 50 has been meeting each Sunday at 11:11 a.m. for worship in the brewery’s beer garden, using apps on their smartphones in lieu of hymnals. Afterward they enjoy some frothy fellowship.

Jeremy Carnes, 29, started worshipping at Castle Church after moving to central Florida from Milwaukee. “There’s no beer during the service,” he said, “but people hang out and eat snacks together and enjoy a beer and get to know one another over a cold one.”

The brewery offers a sampling of Reformation-themed drafts: Indulgences double IPA, Wittenberg wheat porter (named for the north German town where Luther posted his 95 theses — on the door of the town’s Castle Church) and Katie’s Kölsch ale, memorializing the reformer’s wife, who was also the head brewer in the Luther household. The beer garden and taproom are open throughout the week and support the church and its staff. Said Witt, “We are not trying to get rich off this or anything, but we have to make a living.”

Not wanting the enterprise to come off as a gimmick, the founders have poured serious effort into their brews. The All Saints Einbecker ale, patterned after one of Luther’s favorites, is a unique offering unavailable at even the most niche craft breweries. Schmalzle replicated Luther’s brew by using an open fermentation process based on late Middle Age brewing lore and Luther’s own writings. The result is a yeasty brew that stands out for its funkiness.

Patrons interact at the Castle Church Brewing Community bar on Feb. 7, 2019, in Orlando. RNS photo by Ken Chitwood

“While we make cute references to the Reformation and some spiritual themes,” said Witt, “we knew that if the quality wasn’t paramount we would be dismissed as a novelty pretty quickly.”

While the Castle Church’s spiritual brews may seem novel, mixing beer and religion has a long history.

Sacred sages have been closely connected to liquor since ancient times, evidenced by the deities of divine drafts — from Silenus, the Greek god of beer, to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess who slakes the thirst of the world with the fruit of her bounteous hops. Mexicans recognized Tezcatzontecatl as the deity of drunkenness. Since at least the Middle Ages, European monasteries have produced monkish beers such as Franziskaner and Augustiner. Though no longer brewed by monks, the brands still fly off the shelves the world over.

Christian communities in the U.S. have long used unorthodox means of reaching people who aren’t likely to come to a church to find God. “Churches have long used sports ministry, movies and entertainment, music and other pop culture to target a non-Christian audience,” said Annie Blazer, associate professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary.

Castle Church Brewing’s Luther Lager. Photo courtesy of Keith Spencer

“What’s new is alcohol,” she said.

A November 2018 report from LifeWay Research revealed that although most U.S. churchgoers say the Bible advises against drunkenness, about 4 in 10 are comfortable with the occasional drink. LifeWay also reported that 41 percent of Protestants say they consume alcohol; 59 percent said they do not.

The fear, according to LifeWay, is that when Christians drink socially, this could cause some people to “stumble or be confused” — morally, one presumes.

Witt said Castle Church has not experienced any strong pushback about the potential pitfalls of blending beer and fellowship, while admitting that “bad stuff happens, sin happens. There’s no escape from that.

“We are aware of the things that happen if people drink too much alcohol,” Witt said, “but we are hoping that when people get together and share a couple of beers they can talk about dealing with some of the greater dangers in our world committed by people who are perfectly sober.”

Perhaps ironically, the temperance movement that urged Prohibition on the United States in the early 20th century grew in part from concerns of Protestant women who felt unsafe around heavily drinking husbands and other men in the Industrial Age, according to Blazer.

“Women in the early 20th century didn’t have much power outside the home, and alcohol consumption impacted, impoverished and threatened them,” she said. And so, Blazer said, they fought for Prohibition as a means of safety and social justice.

Witt admitted that craft beer tends to appeal more to men than women, but there is a good mix of both at Castle Church.

Castle Church Brewing Community co-founder Aaron Schmalzle, left, participates in a Thursday night “Bible + Beer” Bible study with others at the brewery in Orlando, Fl., on Feb. 7, 2019. RNS photo by Ken Chitwood

“We are a mashed-up community of different people,” Witt said. “We have bikers here for meetups and hipsters here to play Settlers of Catan, Puerto Ricans from the neighborhood and suburban moms doing hatha flow yoga on Monday nights.

“We are here to sell beer and stay afloat as a business, but the idea is that we can gather a bunch of people together who would otherwise not show up at our door if we just started a regular Lutheran church here,” he said.

Castle Church’s vision for diversity is what brought Carnes and his wife to the community.

“The brewery aspect didn’t really function into our decision to come here,” said Carnes, the former Milwaukeean. “What mattered is that they are an open and affirming church. And cool, they drink beer together too.

“What that might mean is that this church is open to a different way of doing Christianity,” he added, “but otherwise the beer is just a bonus.”

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Ken Chitwood

53 Comments

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  • I am afraid not.

    If you go to the website of the Florida-Bahamas Synod, mentioned in the article, you’ll find a congregation map.

    http://fbsynod.com/

    Center on Orlando and “+” until you can make out the individual “communities”.

    Click on the icon just southeast of the center of Orlando and you’ll find:

    Castle Church Brewing Community

    6820 Hoffner Ave, Orlando, FL 32822

    It does not, however, show its website:

    https://www{DOT}castlechurchbrewing.com/

    This is about par for the course for the trajectory the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been on since 1976 when the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (congregations that had left the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in a schism precipitated by disputes over biblical inerrancy and ecumenism as part of the overall Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy) joined it.

    It can be fairly accurately described as the Lutheran version of the Episcopal Church, with which it is in full communion.

  • “While we make cute references to the Reformation and some spiritual themes,” said Witt, “we knew that if the quality wasn’t paramount we would be dismissed as a novelty pretty quickly.”

    Too late for that.

  • This is too funny, or sad – I’m not sure. Ludicrous would probably be a better word. If they cannot make money on the gospel, they’ll make it on the booze, eh? Did you read some of the beer names on the taps?
    Makes me think of the scripture to the Corinthians when they were admonished for how they did communion meals.

  • …because they are partaking in a funding scheme used by Christian communities since the fall of Rome? And using it to attract people to the gospel?

  • Cool idea. There is something similar brewing up in Columbia S.C., although it isn’t as directly tied with a Lutheran Church.

  • Do you need anything more to tell you that bible can be interpreted to say whatever you want it to, whenever you want it to, and for whatever reason you want it to?

  • I can barley understand wheat you are trying to say, hopping around theology as you are, but I’m sure it is something bubbly of the first water.🤪

  • Monastic communities have funded churches and charitable work by operating breweries.

    Honestly, its better than running worlds most god-awful retirement nurseries and calling it church.

  • First, this particular church is not a monastic community nor is it funding charitable work by operating breweries.

    Second, the reason why monasteries ran breweries is that drinking water was unsafe, brewing was capital intensive, and therefore since they had the resources they brewed beer and made wine for drinking purposes and made them available to the general populace.

    They also ran iron furnaces, bakeries, libraries, and a number of other things to community benefit which required capital.

  • First, whether it is monastic or not doesn’t really matter. It is something Christians have done.

    Second, the drinking water thing is a myth. Just on the face of it, its easier to boil water and then drink it than it is to boil water with grain and spice, let it sit for weeks to ferment (risking worse contamination than the original water), and then move it to other containers.

    And yes, Churches and monasteries have been involved with all kinds of businesses. One that involves leisure is not outside the norm.

  • Yes, Christians have made beer, wine, bread, whiskey, and Beef Wellington.

    Second, the drinking water thing is no myth.

    The major problem was in the cities.

    Periodic bouts of dysentery, typhus, cholera, and typhoid took the lives of those who had to drink the water as populations rose and fecal contamination did its work.

    I do see some articles by alleged pundits claiming it to be a myth, noting the references to drinking water.

    Yes, you could drink well and stream water in the country, but if you did it in the city, you risked death.

  • They got dysentery, typhus, and other diseases because they were drinking water, and that didn’t end until the modern era and the sanitation movement. Alcohol was never an out, and they wouldn’t have known about it anyways given germ theory wasn’t formulated or accepted until the 1850’s.

  • Why not open an opium den and really pack ’em in? Just kidding. Hey, whatever works.

    One minor quibble. Martin Luther was an Augustinian friar, not a monk.

  • It does not require a knowledge of germ theory to note that Rolf drank the water and died in 24 hours while Sven drank beer and lived.

  • Look up the story of the Broad Street Pump, and you’ll see that it actually does take a voraciously defended concept of Germ Theory to make that connection. People thought disease traveled through bad vapors in the air even as late as the 19th century.

    On the other side, no one has ever wanted to drink dirty water. Medieval London had a complex series of pipes to bring in water from springs outside the city, and most medieval cities had some kind of water supply. They weren’t perfectly free of disease, because wells can develop cracks and piping systems can be compromised.

    But we know from medieval manuscripts that people drank water all the time, and no one assumed it was a source of disease. Physicians even recommended it.

  • Yes, medieval London had a complex series of pipes to bring in water from springs outside the city, and then dumped human waste into the streets and contaminated the water.

    You’re oversimplifying. What they did not know was why water might make you sick. What they did know was that some water was obviously unsafe.

    https://www{DOT}iwapublishing.com/news/brief-history-water-and-health-ancient-civilizations-modern-times

    “Alcmaeon of Croton (floruit ca. 470 B.C.) was the first Greek doctor to state that the quality of water may influence the health of people. (Aëtius, On the opinions of the philosophers V.30.1) Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places (around 400 B.C.) deals with the different sources, qualities and health effects of water in length. (Airs, Waters, Places. 1, 7, 8, 9) Various other Hippocratic treatises (mostly written around 400 B.C.) contain short comments on the influence of water on the health of people (Internal Affections. 6, 21, 23, 26, 34, 45, 47; Diseases I. 24; Epidemics II. 2.11; Epidemics VI. 4.8, 4.17; Aphorisms. 5.26; Humours. 12; Regimen IV or Dreams. 93).”

    “According to B.C. Vitruvius from the late first century, marshy areas must be avoided when the site of a city is chosen. (De Architectura. I.iv.1) Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. had in his works a long section concerning the different opinions on what kind of water is the best. (Plinius NH, XXXI, xxi–xxiii). One of the most famous doctors during antiquity Galen (2nd century A.D.) summarises the preferable qualities of water (Galen. De Sanitate Tuenda. I.xi).”

    “The quality of the water was examined by the senses: taste, smell, appearance and temperature. Also the health of the people and animals using a water source was considered (Vitruvius De Architectura. I,iv,9,10; VIII, iv,1,2). Throughout antiquity tasty or tasteless, cool, odourless and colourless water was considered the best, and stagnant, marshy water was avoided. These ideas were held until the end of antiquity as expressed by Palladius (5th century, Opus Agriculturae. I, 4) or Paulus Aeginata (7th century, Paulus Aeginata I.50). The ancient Greeks and Romans were also quite aware of the dangers of water coming from hills and mountains where mining was practised (Airs, Waters, Places. 7;Vitruvius. De Architectura. VIII,iii,5).”

    Btw, Hippocrates recommended boiling water to be sure it was safe to drink.

  • I once had a chance to spend some time around ELCA Lutherans. Sensible bunch, charitable bunch, as I recall. It would suit me fine if they converted some of our more-conservative denominations. Can beer do that? Can Brewery Church convince folks that having a moderate nip in a Christian setting is a better plan than having immoderate nips in other settings? All that said, I doubt I would be an attendee of Brewery Church, but I won’t knock ’em either.

  • There was no ELCA for the 250 congregations of the Association of Evagelical Lutheran Churches to join in 1976. The Association went it alone for a decade. But during that decade the AELC inviited the larger American Lutheran Church & the Lutheran Church in America to enter talks for all 3 denominations to merge. They had pretty much the same theology, but they differed in polity. On 1 JAN 1988, the three former Lutheran bodies ceased to exist and they united as the ELCA.

  • Even St Paul supposedly understood that wine might be good for what ails you when he suggested to imbibe for the stomach’s sake.

  • I guess I have to explain things to the brilliance of yourselves.

    A number of Christian denominations demand no alcohol, and declare the drinking of alcohol to be a sin. Since they just wouldn’t make up the stuff they spew, it must be in the Bible. Thetemperance movement, which gave us the absolute disaster known as prohibition, was primarily religion based.

  • Folk medicine cures for weak stomachs do not really add up to “drink wine, the water will kill you!.”

  • Yes, we are agreed that no one wanted to drink dirty water or water from swamps. They understood to some degree that it wasn’t good for them (on top of just be far less palatable.)

    But water was not permanently polluted in cities and their water sources. People went out of their way to get water from wells, fast flowing rivers, and springs. Most medieval cities had access to clean water sources, and didn’t have the population density necessary to pollute them. That didn’t come in until the early modern era and the explosion of population following the Columbian exchange and the rise of the nation states.

    And it makes sense because there were the same number of people living in these areas. Agricultural technology was only slightly better during the medieval era as opposed to the Roman era, and potentially less efficient due to decreased trade. People have been living in Europe in about the same numbers from the time of the Roman Republic to the high middle ages, only incrementally increasing in total population very slowly. Unless people were always getting outbreaks of waterborne illness constantly, there is no reason the water would be fine for the Romans and polluted for medieval people.

  • The Roman were also getting periodic outbreaks of waterborne illness.

    I am done with this discussion.

  • It’s all about what scriptures you choose. The Bible is pretty clear that wine is a gift from god. It also is very clear in warning of the dangers of abuse.

  • “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

  • And have since run churches that if you don’t like the scripture, they’ll revise it for you. You don’t need to follow the Lord there, they’ll make it so He follows you
    “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

  • If they were charitable, they would care more about their congregations going to Hell, and helping them to not end up there,

    English Standard Version

    “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” 2 Timothy 4:3

  • Our Brilliance is pleased to inform you that in the Bible, while drunkenness is condemned as a sin, alcohol is considered a blessing of God.

  • That’s exactly my point.

    Do you know why Baptist’s park their cars in the porn store parking lot? Because they don’t want their cars to be seen at the liquor store.

  • Liturgical evangelicals and their antics crack me up. That said, I’d be happy to stop in for a brew and a prayer. Cheers!

  • When I first moved to rural SC (1971) I heard this joke: Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up? Because people might think they’re dancing.

    In the 1970s my cousin was paid to go to the liquor store and buy liquor for the town’s leading Baptists, all discreetly. The customers included two of my neighbors.

  • Clearly, drinking anything has nothing to do with faith. Faith has nothing to do with reality because it is “faith”, not knowledge. So great drink! But realise it has nothing to do with truth. Maybe drinking beer helps people accept things they would otherwise not believe!

  • Exactly. They also don’t care about Hell because they believe all go to heaven, which is Universalism. Many ELCA leaders have said this including the current Presiding Bishop.

  • They say from ‘Happy Hour to Holy Hour’ can be a harmless productive way of proceeding. “We are aware of the things that happen if people drink too much alcohol but we are hoping that when people get together and share a couple of beers they can talk about dealing with some of the greater dangers in our world committed by people who are perfectly sober” – The Reverend Jared Witt

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