Do you think of beer as being a part of religious expression? Woven amongst ancient wall art, stone carvings and papyrus scrolls, references of intoxication - through beer, wine, spirits and hallucinogenic herbs - are thought to be the means through which common man connected to the world of supernatural beings. And this evidence can be traced back thousands of years.
Rabbi Eli Freedman, Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, PA and founder of the Homebrew Club there, has studied surprising references to beer in both the Torah and the Talmud. Michael Homan, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana agrees. In his Sept/Oct 2010 article in Biblical Review, he analyzes the word Sheichar (שכר), which, he notes, is used twenty times in the holy writings. It is most often used parallel to the word wine. Archaeo-anthropologists in ancient Israel have found evidence of residue in ancient jugs that point to the existence of a liquid made from barley, along with donut-shaped fermentation stoppers and vessels with strainers. Among ancient seed stocks, two-row barley is an abundant grain, along with emmer wheat and einkorn.
It is even thought that translators and researchers of ancient writings may have had prejudicial beliefs against beer, (believing that wine was a more civilized drink), leading them to discard any reference to it in their analyses. However, given that ancient beer may have also included the ingredients of figs, dates, and honey, it would also have been a healthy drink, providing higher caloric intake when food was less ample.
Embracing beer as an ancient gift from On High, Rabbi Freedman and Father Kirk Berlenbach, Rector at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Roxborough, PA challenged each other’s Homebrew Clubs to a smack-down competition of biblical proportions. On Saturday, May 10, 2014, clubs from both congregations came together in a competition called the Biblical Brew-Off, pitting the He-Brews versus the Angli-cans, to determine which club made better beer.
Four highly experienced BJCP judges followed blind evaluation procedures as they tasted their way through six beers – three from each club, made by members of the two congregations. The competition raised money for local Philadelphia charities chosen by each side, with two-thirds of the money going to the winner’s choice, and the remaining third to the other’s choice. Clearly, there were no losers in the competition. How could there be, when the end product was beer?
The beers were impressive, with names that evidenced their own familiarity with ancient writings. BEERsheba, Rodeph Shalom’s non-traditional Hefeweisen crafted with cardamom and orange peel, was the “people’s choice,” although it strayed too far from BJCP standards to gather high point levels from the judges.
Abraham & Sarah’s Saison, a four-grain Saison brewed by Tyler Flynn of St. Tim’s Club, emerged as the clear winner, drenched in classic flavors that can only be met by using high quality Saison yeast. Close followers JezebALE (Poor Richard’s Porter) and Job’s Stout (Mocha Stout) gathered high points as well, closing the gap among each of the clubs in the competition.
Other clever beer names included Barabbas Bitter ESB, and Saison & Delilah, showing a sense of humor and biblical understanding among the competitors.
But biblical titles are not only found in congregational settings. Thr3e Wise Men Brewery of Indianapolis, Indiana calls-up the Old Testament with King Solomon’s Imperial Stout, while The Lost Abbey of San Marcos, California brews an entire portfolio of beers with biblical references in their titles.
These beers are worth seeking-out. Judgment Day, a Belgian Quad of 10.5% ABV, is loaded with flavors of dark fruit, rich caramel maltiness, anise and a full mouthfeel; Amazing Grace Ale, an American Wild Ale, captures the essence of fruit and funk with 9.5% ABV drenched in ruby-red vines; and The Angel’s Share Bourbon Barrel Aged Strong Ale is hard to beat with its boozy profile immersed in chocolate, coconut maltiness. The list seems endless, touched with other heavy hitters, including Inferno Ale, Agave Maria, Gift of the Magi and Road to Helles. Tomme Arthur and team simply cannot hide that deep devotional love they have toward brewing world-class beer.
All this makes me wonder where the inspiration lies for future Biblical Brew-Offs. Will there be a ZachaRYEale or ElisaBEER? Sapphira’s SaphirALE or Tequila Aquila? The future is an open book.