Holy Water: What Do Craft Beer and Born-Again Christianity Have in Common?

Feature by | Oct 2011 | Issue #57

Illustration by Ellen Crenshaw

Let’s start in the brain.
Let’s open the dopamine spigot for a second and watch the juices start to flow. If you had brain imaging software, you’d see the frontal lobe start to glow, coming alive in flushes of red and orange as the neurotransmitters get to work. You’re watching someone pray.

Well, that’s debatable. You also could be looking at someone taking a lot of drugs. Or, according to a BBC special that aired in May, someone thinking about his iPad. And the reason why all of this matters is that you could very well be looking at someone drinking a Double IPA.

“There’s no question that you see activation [of the brain’s pleasure centers],” says Johns Hopkins professor of neuroscience David Linden, author of The Accidental Mind and The Compass of Pleasure. “There’s a final common pathway for pleasure in the brain that seems to involve dopamine release in that pleasure circuit. That misses a lot of the complexity … but I think that if we get to the point, if we looked at you drinking alcohol in a brain scanner and looked at you having a meditative or religious experience, is there overlap in terms of activation of pleasure centers? I think there appears to be.”

Beer and religion have walked hand in hand for thousands of years, from ritualistic brewing in ancient Turkey (the inspiration for Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch) to the Trappist monasteries of Belgium, to St. Arnold of Metz (b. 580 AD, d. 640), the patron saint of brewing, whose final miracle came after his death, when he rewarded the pilgrims who carried his body home by providing them with a never-ending mug of beer.

That relationship appears a little more fraught today, as mainstream religion’s gone political and beer’s gone wild. But dig deeper, and you’ll see that the relationship has merely evolved. As religion in America has just experienced a half-century of upheaval—a period known as the “Fourth Great Awakening,” in which Eastern religions and evangelical Christianity have exploded in popularity—craft beer has traced a similar curve. Americans have gravitated toward ideology that’s personal rather than inherited, while the established institutions have fallen and a new guard has risen.

And just like born-again Christianity rose from the ashes of burned-out spiritual lives, so did craft emerge from a beer culture that had pretty much dried up. And the parallels run even deeper. From the language we use to talk about beer to the craft drinker’s urge to evangelize; from the global supportive community all the way down to chemicals charging across the brain, the experience of a craft drinker (and brewer) so closely mirrors the born-again experience that the two appear almost identical. So, maybe religion’s more than just a metaphor. Maybe, in some sense, to convert to craft beer is to feel reborn.

“My personal theory is that the reason why a lot of people are letting religion go by the wayside is that it’s something that tends to be handed down generationally,” says Tim Herzog, founder of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Flying Bison Brewing Company and self-described “lifelong Roman Catholic.”

“You find people who have the born-again experience, and they’re the ones who are out there actively selling church and faith and religion and community. People whose grandparents went to church so their parents went to church and then they went to this church, so now their kids go to this church—that makes things watered down from generation to generation. Kids get it ground out of them. For people my age, there wasn’t craft beer, so we discovered it ourselves,” Herzog continues. “Whether it was imported or homebrewed, you had to have that epiphany by yourself. So now, you’re the zealot. You’re the convert. You’re the one who brought the 10 Commandments down from the mountain.”

The story begins, as it always does, in darkness.
This one could start in any number of dark places, but for the sake of the pun—brewers are probably the only people in the world who don’t think of the philosopher when they hear “Plato”—let’s start in The Cave.

You know the story. A bunch of people, stuck in a cave, chained up so they can only see shadows dancing on a wall. To them, that’s the world. Shadows. Then, one of the people is let out into the daylight, free to see the actual creatures walking in front of the caves. At first, the light’s blinding. He can’t focus. It’s all too much. But he also finds that he can’t look away, and he sure as hell can’t go back into the cave, back to ignorance. Back to shadows.

There’s a little more to the story, but the meaning’s simple: Your reality is only what you know. And once that changes—once you open your eyes—well, you’re done for. It’s an allegory that pops up over and over again in the world, from the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh to HBO’s True Blood.

And it’s everywhere in the Bible. Take the verse in 1 Peter 2:9, which goes like this: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Sound familiar?

“In the beginning, you’re in the wilderness, alone,” says Cigar City founder Joey Redner about discovering craft beer. “You’ve seen the light, but you’re by yourself.”

Over and over again, craft beer converts borrow vocabulary from born-again circles. After years of only macros, they say, opening up to craft beer and watching a new world unfold, layer upon blessed layer in front of them, is something like a revelation. An epiphany. Darkness turning, yet again, to light.

“You could see the light bulb over my head, you could feel the electricity,” Herzog says of the Guinness Extra Stout he bought as a half-joke for his Irish parents when he was 18. “I remember the moment, almost 40 years ago. If I close my eyes, I can still see that beer in that glass in my parents’ kitchen. Epiphany is absolutely the right word.”

“It was an epiphany,” says Butternuts Beer & Ale founder Chuck Williamson about his introduction to homebrewing, when he was handed Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing back in 1989. “I just thought you went and bought beer.”

“There were definitely a number of epiphanies,” says Bryan Greenhagen, founder of Mystic Brewery in Chelsea, Mass. “That’s definitely still happening, where it’s like, ‘Wow, you can do this? Your beer can taste like this?’”

Fred Colby, founder of Idaho’s Laughing Dog Brewing Co., refers to the craft drinker’s first taste as a “revelation.” Clipper City founder Hugh Sisson says that although his story is a gradual one, he felt “reprogrammed” the moment he tasted English ales in the 1970s. Sure, there may be some hyperbole here. But words have the ability to mold reality.

“Epiphany,” for example, rings at a different pitch than, say, “realization,” although they’re describing the same thing. Same goes with “liberal” vs. “progressive.” Or what about “bitter” vs. “hoppy”? The point is, although drinking great beer—even, say, Russian River’s Beatification—may not grant you passage into everlasting life (if such a thing exists), using religious terminology can intensify and elevate the beer-discovery experience. Just as evangelicals talk about their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and the moment when that began, craft drinkers have their own conversion stories. Every single person interviewed for this story was able to recall the moment that he or she opened his or her eyes to a whole world of possibilities in good beer.

Nearly half a century after he had his first sip, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman remembers tasting a fresh batch from the homebrewer who lived next door. For Redner, it was McMenamins Irish Stout “that lit a fire under [his] butt.” For so many others—like Yards’ founder Tom Kehoe—Anchor Steam was the guiding light: “I was absolutely blown away,” Kehoe says. Then, once the light’s turned on, it’s nearly impossible to shut it off.

“It’s like eating spicy food,” says Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing Co. in Minnesota. “When you get a hankering for that kick, it’s hard to go back to eating mac & cheese.”

“They say ignorance is bliss,” Redner says. “If you don’t know something exists, you’re not looking for it. But once you know it exists, you can’t ever forget it.”

Turns out, you also can’t keep it to yourself.  
“You get people who drink what they consider the beer, and they’ve got to tell everybody in the world: ‘You’ve gotta have that beer, you gotta have that beer—it’s the best thing in the world,’” says Colby, from Laughing Dog.

In 1970, America hosted only 50 megachurches (defined as churches with sustained weekly attendance of at least 2,000 members). By 2009, when Forbes published a story on the subject, that number had balllooned to more than 1,300. In 1980, America had just eight craft breweries. Last year, according to the Brewers Association, 1,759 breweries operated “for some or all of 2010,” the highest total since the 1800s. In tracing each phenomenon, it helps to remember that both movements—for all their differences in personality, reputation and social slant—have some pretty passionate people with some pretty big mouths.

“Evangelism is when two different things meet,” says John Hopkins professor Linden. “One of them is obsession and the other is extraversion. If you’re into craft beers, you know a lot of people who are obsessed.

“Some of those are real evangelists who want to spread the word, write about it and convince their friends,” he continues. “Other people are generally more shy by nature, and they may be more enthused by it, but it’s filtered through their personality. Evangelism requires two separate things to happen.”

Craft drinkers are notoriously obsessive folk: trading beers, lighting up message boards, studiously checking off new beers at festivals and spreading the Good Word to the rest of their friends still living in The Cave. But sometimes, it’s to a fault.

“Everybody goes through the phase when they’re the insufferable evangelist who won’t just shut up,” Redner, of Cigar City, says. Eventually, Redner adds, that phase does come to an end. Generally, it happens when the wanderer joins a community of the like-minded. Once there, he’s able to indulge the passion, learning all he can about the subject from his own research and talking with other converts—even if it’s on message boards.

Christians, of course, have mass and Bible study. Craft drinkers have beer festivals and their own set of extracurriculars.

“It’s a trade of interesting artifacts you’ve brought back to your tribe,” Mystic’s Greenhagen says of the knowledge-sharing process. And it’s in that community impulse that the craft beer movement shares one of its greatest similarities with religion: Both are designed to be shared, to bind people together in the joy of exploration.

“Part of what’s made craft beer so exciting and popular is discovery,” says Grossman, who started Sierra Nevada 30 years ago, in a time when restaurateurs regularly told him Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was too bitter and they’d never serve it. “People who discover things often like to share it with their friends. When they’ve found a brewing style, it’s a merit they want to talk about, and share that knowledge.”

Adds Flying Bison’s Herzog: “If it’s a faith community or a beer community or a kaffeeklatsch, it’s the same thing.”

Let’s get back to dopamine.
Despite what pop psychology might teach us, dopamine isn’t the only thing responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness, not even when it’s paired up with its usual tag-team partner, serotonin. The truth, Linden writes in The Compass of Pleasure, is that the process of feeling pleasure requires a web of chemicals and their transmitters branching across the brain. And in matters both beer and Biblical, they’re all firing. So when avid craft drinkers use terms like “epiphany” or “revelation,” it’s because that’s largely what it feels like.

“It’s not an accident that you see ritualized alcohol consumption and religious drug-taking in religions around the world,” Linden says.

But craft’s never been about the booze, or “paying pennies for points of alcohol,” as Greenhagen describes it. And that’s precisely why it’s so powerful. As opposed to drinking to get drunk, the ritual of learning about, talking about and seeking out craft beer makes the actual drinking part just one blast in the whole neurological fireworks show. Your brain is speaking in tongues.

“If you get really into something, if you’re a craft beer enthusiast, you have friends who talk about it, you read about it, you pair beers with foods and you think about it a lot,” Linden says. “You’re getting pleasure from all kinds of different aspects. It’s not just the taste of the beer and the effect of the alcohol, it’s also the social context in which you’re consuming, the intellectual context where you’re forming opinions based on what you learn with what you knew already.”

As far as finding God’s image in that dopamine web, that part’s proven tricky. While an emerging field called “neurotheology” has used brain-scanning technology to try to pinpoint where God exists in the brain—and, by extension, whether God created the brain, or vice versa—it’s been plagued by half-baked science and agendas.

Some have been stronger than others, like Principles of Neurotheology author Dr. Andrew Newberg’s work, which shows how meditation lights up the frontal lobe and can significantly improve memory retention. Mainly, though, the studies have fallen victim to oversimplification and media spin. A Duke University study in March of this year showed that mainline Protestants had less hippocampus shrinkage over time than born-again Christians or Catholics. For one audience, this means certain religions can forestall brain deterioration. For others, it means that religion shrinks the brain. If you want to read more about God and the brain, clear your schedule for a month and go to the internet.

The trouble with studies like this, Linden says, is that they muddy up the issue of causality. Was the person wired for religion? Or did thinking about religion change the brain before the test? But one thing that is clear, he says, is that the type of brain that falls hard for craft beer would be the kind of brain that, perhaps in another body, would fall hard for religion.

“I think we all know people who seem really predisposed to become obsessed with things,” he says. “I think that’s something to look at. Obsessive behavior is something where the biological evidence correlating it with brain imaging and genetic variation is better.”

What’s more is that obsession—or at least a strong preference—tends to amplify pleasure. A great beer lights up the cranium of a craft drinker, while a macro elicits merely a few flickers. The key is the personal relationship.

“One of the things that’s really key in something like craft beer, is that, well, yeah, it’s an alcohol beverage, but people getting pleasure out of craft beer aren’t getting obliterated drunk,” Linden explains. “If you do brain imaging while people consume different foods, the intensity of activation of pleasure centers correlates very well with people’s subjective experience.”

But sometimes, you just need to shut the brain off. And here’s where beer and religion still, and forever will, walk hand-in-hand. Never mind the rhetoric, the fire, the brimstone, the headlines and the campaigns. Reduced to their essentials, both beer and religion offer a rare chance to lose yourself. To dissolve into the idea—the presence—of something greater.

Each pint, a chapel. Each sip, a sacrament.

“Charlie Papazian, years and years ago, would say, ‘Relax, have a homebrew,’” Sisson, of Clipper City, says. “This is an absolutely fucking crazy world right now, and having the ability to grab a great beer, and the fact that it’s so available to us to have these wonderful and affordable luxuries amongst this insanity, gives us an absolutely needed time to get perspective and catch your breath.”