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Food & Drink

First Draft: Homebrewing is but one path to enlightenment

| Thursday, June 4, 2015, 8:55 p.m.
BJ Woodworth, a homebrewer and pastor
Chris Fleisher | Trib Total Media
BJ Woodworth, a homebrewer and pastor

They say you can find God everywhere. BJ Woodworth finds God in a glass of beer.

Beer is its own trinity — yeast, hops and malted barley — made one through water. The labor that goes into brewing is a period of monastic contemplation.

And a bar serves no less an important social function than any temple of worship.

“This is God's goodness,” Woodworth says, nodding to the Belgian pale ale in his hand.

Woodworth, a 45-year-old pastor at The Open Door church in Highland Park, agreed to meet me on a recent Sunday to discuss beer and faith at the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship.

He has an easy manner and is comfortable discussing large questions with perfect strangers, especially while sipping a tulip glass of Corsendonk Agnus Pale Ale.

Woodworth is as serious about his appreciation of beer as he is Christianity. He is planning a sabbatical in which he will explore the interconnecting of the two, visiting with Trappist monks around the United States as he practices the art and science — some might say miracle — of liquid bread.

The agenda includes an apprenticeship at Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado and a visit to the only Trappist brewery in the United States in Spencer, Mass.

Beer and Christianity offer endless roads to explore for Woodworth, although it is unclear which he discovered first. Raised in a secular household in Rochester, N.Y., Woodworth's introduction to beer came when he was in grade school pumping a keg and filling cups for players during his father's semi-pro rugby games. Instead of baseball or football cards, he collected beer cans.

It was also a period of his life when he discovered religion. He was 10 years old and attended a church-sponsored summer camp. Everyone was talking about a guy named Jesus. He came home curious to know more and informed his family that they needed to start going to church. He never stopped.

Eventually, he found himself at Westminster College, New Wilmington, where he began advanced studies in Christianity and beer.

His love of big questions drove him to study theology. His conversion to craft beer came not long after he tasted Sierra Nevada pale ale.

“I think that was my love of hops,” he says.

Eight years ago, he began homebrewing as a hobby. He found something spiritual in it, as well.

He enjoys brewing alone on the day of his personal sabbath — Mondays — when his children are at school and he can toil away, alone with his thoughts.

He began to appreciate why Trappist monks make good beer. It is drudgery. It is hard, hot work. It is grinding grain, heating and hauling gallons of water, scrubbing pots, cleaning buckets. But, for monks, work is spiritual, and a long brew day provides plenty of time for contemplation.

“I love the solitude of the brew day,” he says. “The steeping of the grains, the mashing of the grains, the attention to detail. Smelling of the hops. Timing of cooling of the wort, all of those details that became contemplative and spiritual practice for me.”

Although wine has profound symbolic importance in Christianity, the religion has had, at times, a difficult relationship with alcohol in this country. The temperance movement's most ardent supporters included non-Lutheran Protestants.

Woodworth believes that alcohol, like any of God's creations, can be abused but should not be forbidden to those who appreciate it responsibly.

But he is sensitive to context.

When working with college students in Oakland, Woodworth refused to share a beer with them. For students surrounded by binge drinking, even one beer shared with a pastor could be seen as an endorsement for dangerous habits.

But beer can lead to enlightenment. It is a social lubricant that Woodworth says has stimulated meaningful conversations with believers and nonbelievers.

Brewing can even be a metaphor for religious devotion. The brewer aims for perfection, scrubbing germs from his brew house, preparing the ingredients and creating an environment to give life to beer.

And then he reaches the limit of what he can control. Yeast and time take over. The brewer must trust something beyond himself.

“At the end of the brew day, it's done,” Woodworth says. “And you have to put your hope in the miracle of creation, that the yeast will start eating that sugar and create what you hoped it would be.”

Chris Fleisher is keeping faith in the lambic he made in January but would welcome divine intervention. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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