On the east side of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, the Deathstar Wal-Mart has vaporized competitors and left in its destructive path a loose confederation of non-competing category stores downtown—a sizable number of them consignment and used goods shops. West of Ephrata, the craft brewery St. Boniface stands. St. Boniface Craft Brewery is in many ways as far from Wal-Mart as the east is from the west. Small vs. Big, Main Street vs. Wall Street, Craft vs. Corporate, Luke vs. Darth, Light vs. Darkness.
The story of the tree-slaying, pagan-defying St. Boniface—for whom the brewery is named—is actual history. In Geismar, Germany, missionary St. Boniface cut down (with the help of a wind gust) the oak tree that was associated with the god Thor and the pagan ritual of child sacrifice; conversions to Christianity followed when its worshipers saw that Boniface was not immediately punished for his actions.
Bland “Big Beer” is the oak tree that has been slain, which has kept the world in shaded darkness, and St. Boniface Craft Brewery is our axe-wielding hero.
Pennsylvania’s arcane liquor laws, arising soon after Prohibition, keeps Wal-Mart from selling beer and competing with craft breweries like St. Boniface (for now). Prohibition itself was driven by religiously minded folks, concerned about the real abuse of alcohol and the social ills arising from it. The U.S. evangelical church historically has had an uneasy relationship with alcohol. We have all heard the legalistic Christian, whose bona fides, biblically speaking, is literal dos and don’ts, trying to explain that the wine at the wedding in Cana wasn’t really wine when it obviously is—and a lot of it, at least 120 gallons. Brad Whittington, in his book What the Bible Really Says about Alcohol, notes of the 247 biblical references to wine/strong drink, 59% are positive, 25% are neutral, and 16% are negative.The strong winds of craft beer are blowing culturally and commercially in a fresh direction, even within the church.
Back in the 80s, the Christian band The Swirling Eddies had a song titled, self-explanatory, “Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here.” It was a theme song of sorts for the evangelical take on alcohol consumption, a Christian drinking version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Last year, at St. Boniface, I ran into my former pastor who was there quaffing beers. He lists drinking craft beer as one of his hobbies on the church’s website. Today, it seems more like, “Bring out the Beer, the Pastor’s Here.” Stories like this are not just anecdotal. The strong winds of craft beer are blowing culturally and commercially in a fresh direction.
According to Mike Price, one of the two original co-owners of St. Boniface, there are now 4,000 craft breweries in the United States, up from 1,600 in 2010. When he and Jon Northup, the other original co-owner, started home-brewing beer non-commercially, they were competitors—simply making beer for friends at church, trying to outdo each other. At some point, they became co-laborers in their home-brewing efforts. In my memory, I recall Mike and Jon bringing their beers to a St. George’s Party, a feast of food, drink, and cigars that included a poetry competition. (During the interview for this piece, I was reminded by Price about the poetry contest, and now that I remember, I am still sore about not winning.)
The call for Price and Northup to start a legit commercial craft brewery came through Northup’s physician around 2010; because of Northup’s arthritis, his doctor told him to leave his auto mechanic days behind. The brewers launched St. Boniface, and soon it proved viable. Northup even found that the systems of the automobile (mechanical, electrical, etc.) have craft-brewing analogues. Northup went full-time as St. Boniface grew and about two years ago, Price went full-time also. Price’s small business skills in painting, wallpapering, customer service, and billing—as well as doing the accounting for his church—gave the brewery complementing, hands-on experience. Even today, the business partners—Price and Northup, as well as the recently added Dain Shirey, who was not present during my interview—do much of the work themselves, which saves money and makes them more self-sustaining.
Both Price and Northup say they had no expectations when they got into the craft beer business. Instead, they took it a day at a time. According to them, it is assiduously difficult to plan long-range with craft breweries because craft beer drinkers have many choices of brands and styles to choose from; the vagaries and volatility of the industry are much harder to predict and plot out. However, neither seems shocked by St. Boniface’s success. Both expressed appreciation for the loyal customers supporting their establishment. As an interesting aside, Price and Northup explained that the current shortage of hops is being driven by the growth of craft breweries and the need to stay consistent with the hop varieties in specific flagship styles (over 50 percent of current U.S. craft beer sales are generally within the IPA style—India Pale Ale), the purchasing of hops by the big brewers for their own purposes, and some media over-exaggeration.
Craft breweries form a collaborative and mentoring community. As a relatively small part of the beer market but one which is growing rapidly, craft brewers work together because their competition is huge—these are the Buds/InBev, the Miller/Coors, and the like. In Central Pennsylvania, the craft brewers share supplies and knowledge to help each other out. A common adversary can create a common cooperative purpose.
As I spoke with the St. Boniface owners, I was pleasantly refreshed not just by the Hegemony that I was drinking, but also by their humility and hard-work, as well as their goal to make better and better beer, to be good to their customers, and to support their employees and families. It’s refreshing, because craft brewing can attract those who act like big shots. Price and Northup seem intent to do good work and let the beer speak for itself.
After two hours of talking to Price and Northup, as my second glass of the Hegemony came to a close, I asked if they had found any theological reflection on craft brewing. Price offered that critics of alcohol forget that it is man’s sinful heart that is the problem, not what comes in from the outside. Drinking good craft beer is a libational refutation of Gnosticism—that is, pleasure derived from the physical world is intrinsically evil. Northup said that humanity, as image bearers of God, are to create and craft, beer or otherwise, and it is an essential part of our calling: “The quip I usually tell people is that when I start the brew day I say to myself, ‘This is going to be the best beer ever.’ I think it tells the listener that there is a sort of zeal or passion behind what I do, and while it may not be the best beer every time I still strive for that goal.”
Back in 2010, after earning my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, I had about six weeks off before resuming work from a sabbatical. I decided to do a 40-Day 40 Pennsylvania Microbrew Tour. Nascent St. Boniface was one of the stops in the epic adventure. Since then, I visit it every couple of months, and it has been exciting to see St. Boniface prosper. In fact, after six years, 39 of the 40 craft breweries that I toured are still in business (a couple have changed locations). The bottom-line is craft beer has a loyal and growing following of people who want better and not bland beers. Craft matters.
Talking to Price and Northup, Ecclesiastes 2:24 came to mind: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.” And to that I say Amen, and Cheers.