A couple of years ago, beer lovers converged each month in Aaron Schmalzle’s garage in Kissimmee, Fla., expecting only to mash, boil and brew.
Then, the God conversations began. People started asking for prayer. Sharing meals. Opening up about their lives. Schmalzle and his friend Jared Witt realized something had been unintentionally concocted around the bubbly barrels – a church.
“We’ve got so much more than beer here,” Schmalzle, 34, remembers thinking.
Now, thanks to backing from the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the two Lutherans are refining plans to open a brewery/church in downtown Orlando. They say it'll be a place where a taproom and beer vats can coexist with an altar and sanctuary.
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Many young Christians are taking worship and prayer into unconventional places such as pubs as they seek to shed a holier-than-thou image. Opening a church-owned brewery pushes this idea even further.
The launch of the Castle Church – whose tagline is “brewing community, fermenting love” – could come by next fall at a location yet to be revealed. In the meantime, what began as a brew group has snowballed into a community of about 375.
A number of them are meeting in homes to study the Bible over craft beer. Wednesday evening yoga sessions called “Poses 2 Pints” draw people together to stretch, with a drink thrown in for good measure.
But Schmalzle and Witt, 30, of Apopka, Fla., say alcohol isn’t their focus. Their goal is to knock down the barriers separating many churches from their neighbors.
“We’re not gathered around a belief system. We’re gathered around a dinner invite,” said Witt, who formerly pastored at another Lutheran congregation and is Castle Church’s spiritual leader.
Schmalzle said breweries and beer create natural contexts for friendships to form and attract people who might never set foot in a traditional church.
Bartender Melissa Izzo said her boyfriend, who stopped attending Catholic Mass as a child, is now a regular at the group’s laid-back Bible studies.
“He was skeptical at first, and I said, ‘Just give it a try. We’re not going to outcast you because you don’t think the way we do,’” said Izzo, 22, of Winter Springs, Fla.
Her boyfriend was impressed that Witt didn’t pretend he had all the answers, and the atmosphere was inquiring and nonjudgmental, she said.
Still, Witt and Schmalzle understand their endeavor might raise eyebrows in some circles.
John MacArthur, a prominent California pastor and author, has penned blistering critiques of the youthful trend toward mixing evangelism with alcohol.
“The ravages of alcoholism and drug abuse in our culture are too well known, and no symbol of sin’s bondage is more seductive or more oppressive than booze,” MacArthur has written.
Paul Valo, pastor of Christ Church of Orlando, expressed his concerns more gently.
He said the Castle Church founders seem to have their heart in the right place, but he’d avoid “layering the controversy of alcohol” onto the Gospel message.
However, Lutherans have a long track record for appreciating a good brew, dating back to their 16th-century namesake.
The famous reformer Martin Luther had a documented fondness for ale. His beer mug was even inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer so he could commune with God while tossing one back, according to religious historian Jon Pahl.
“Lutherans by and large have kept this tradition of a healthy drinking culture,” said Pahl, a professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. They believe “everything on earth is a gift to humanity and, when used responsibly, enhances our our happiness.”
Owing largely to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s financial backing, Schmalzle said they’ve hit their $1.4 million goal to make the church a reality.
But Schamlzle, who sits on the synod council, and Witt are busy fine-tuning their concept for the brewery and accompanying organic restaurant. The business, which the church will own as an asset, will employ 16 people in the first year. The goal is to eventually plow profits back into the community, according to their plan.
Under the arrangement, the church will get a free meeting space in the brewery so all tithes from the congregation will go directly to ministry and not toward keeping the lights on.
Until the opening, the brewing will continue in Schmalzle’s garage. Castle Church has created 12 core beers, with names such as Indulgences Double I.P.A. and Mighty Fortress Doppelbock in honor of their Reformation roots.
Their first recipe, All Saints Einbecker Ale, is meant to recreate Luther’s go-to beer, as described in historical writings. Schmalzle said the finished product is light, complex and a crowd pleaser. Even his mother-in-law, who doesn’t like beer, downed two glasses in one sitting.
It’s a fitting brew for a church that’s trying to carry on Luther’s tradition of making religion approachable, he said.
“I just find it really an irony that his favorite style of beer is the one that’s maybe most accessible to all people,” Schmalzle said. “I smile inside … when people are drinking it and are saying, ‘I love this beer. This is so good.’”