February 18, 2022
I came across an article this morning in my local newspaper that reported the growing number of breweries now housed in vacant churches. One of the featured breweries is the Dirt Church Brewing Company. The owners purchased a small, abandoned church built in 1876. The site had no running water or septic, but rather than tearing up the church they built the taproom next door and transformed the church into an art gallery. The name comes from the local mountain biking community who would take “dirt church” rides on Sunday mornings. The brewery still hosts rides, runs, and hikes, always followed by a few celebratory beers in the tap room. The US has around 30 breweries in a vacant church, and at least 8 opened since the start of the pandemic.
Breweries in churches have a long tradition in Europe, although it was the monks who were doing the brewing. When I looked online, I found the Order of Cistercians was founded in 1098 when monks from the Benedictine abbey of Molesme left to form their own monastery in nearby Citeaux, France (Cistercium in Latin). The monks sought to return to a quiet life of prayer and living by the fruit of their labor. One of those labors included brewing beer. The Cistercians reached their peak in the 1300’s, then began a steady decline. The Reformation and the French Revolution nearly ended the order. With the main Cistercian abbeys in decline, La Grande Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France again instituted reforms in 1664. Like the initial reforms in 1098, they intended to return the order to a truer form of Benedictine monasticism. Those following the La Trappe monks became known as “Trappists”.
Monks created brewing as we know it, with the first large scale breweries in Europe and many advances to brewing techniques and technology. There were thousands of brewing monasteries, but as the monasteries disappeared during the French Revolution and its aftermath, the breweries went with them. Several dozen monastic breweries reopened in the 19th century but some of those did not make it through the World Wars. Today, monastic brewing is experiencing a Renaissance. The lone Trappist brewery in the US is Spencer Abbey in Massachusetts (ten world-wide) which released their Spencer Trappist Ale in January of 2014, but there are five other US breweries operated by Benedictine monks. These join the “non-denominational” breweries that opened in vacant church buildings.
THOUGHTS: One of the churches in Wichita, Kansas took the opposite approach when it turned an old saloon into a church building. The Delano area supported the booming cattle trade as the rail head expanded to the city in 1872. When the rail head and cattle moved west to Dodge City the saloons, dance halls and gambling houses faced a major depression. In 1897, the church purchased a frame saloon building and moved it several blocks to church property. As one man remarked, “Quite a change from fire water to the water of life.” Churches, bars, and breweries have always been subject to the events around them, even if those events may be different. The pandemic has forced many of these institutions to close even as others adapt and thrive. The difference is discovering new ways to reach (and include) people. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.