The Beer Option: A Generous Pour of Catholic Culture
New Book Shows How Beer Can Help Quench the World’s Thirst for the Truth
The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday and Today by R. Jared Staudt. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018. 264 pp. ISBN: 978-1621384144. $26 Hardcover; $17.95 Paperback.
Without the benefit of modern central heating, 13th century Norwegians probably had no trouble keeping their beer cold—and their water as well. Perhaps for this reason, Norway’s clergy had a hard time baptizing souls. “Look, Father Olaf!—the font’s frozen solid again!”
But whatever the reason, as R. Jared Staudt relates in his book The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday and Today, back in the day, Norway’s chilblained clergy had opted to baptize with beer instead of water. It was apparently just something one did in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
That is, at least until warmer heads in Rome prevailed—and Pope Gregory IX put the pontifical kibosh on the whole suds-as-salvific idea. Quoting from Gregory’s official buzz-killing letter regarding the Norwegian innovation, Staudt writes: “‘Since according to the Gospel teaching, a man must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost,’ Gregory writes those are not to be considered validly baptized who have been baptized with beer.”
Acknowledging the dangers of this and other more earthly instances of beery excess, Staudt has written a sober book-length case for restoring to its proper Catholic context the frothy brew that made Milwaukee—and many a monastery—famous.
A Case for Beer
But if Staudt comes armed with effective arguments, he disarms his reader by presenting his case as a love affair with one of God’s—and nature’s—greatest gifts to man:
“For over twenty years I’ve been fascinated by beer’s role in Western culture,” he writes. “Beer opens a door to many elements of Catholic culture: its history, social and economic influences, and even its spirituality. Catholicism has a rich sacramental culture, which recognizes how physical things mediate spiritual realities.”
Staudt’s book finds its handle by taking beer as one of those things mediating “spiritual realities.” Thus, it’s easy to see how a paean to pilsner might make it into a publication dedicated to all things liturgical. Indeed, while beer may not be the last word on culture (yeasted, Catholic, or otherwise), Staudt’s work provides a refreshing finish to Adoremus’ year-long commemoration of Varietates Legitimae, the Instruction on “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy,” which turned 25 this year.
Issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship on January 25, 1994, the Instruction sought to clarify how the Church adopts and adapts those things from human culture and repurposes them for the liturgy’s supernatural realities. The document notes that with the spread of the Gospel throughout the world, the Church witnessed the rise of Catholic liturgy in all its rich and varied forms “under the influence of different cultural traditions. Under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit, discernment was exercised to distinguish those elements coming from ‘pagan’ cultures which were incompatible with Christianity from those which could be accepted in harmony with apostolic tradition and in fidelity to the Gospel of salvation.”
Of course, beer has no direct connection to the liturgy (as Norway discovered the hard way); nonetheless, Staudt insist, beer is among those elements that harmonize well with the Church’s vision of the world.
“Catholic culture is sacramental in the broad sense, finding meaning in every aspect of life and ordering it all to God’s glory,” he notes. “Catholic culture includes eating and drinking as signs of joy, fellowship, and even of the spiritual life.”
Our Lord said, “Man does not live by bread alone” and this teaching presumably includes even “liquid bread.” At the same time, just as ordinary bread rises to the occasion of extraordinary grace, so too, Staudt says, beer can ferment a rising culture that points us to God.
“The Beer Option calls for a renewal of culture by finding God in the ordinary things of life and ordering them to Him, including beer,” he writes.
According to Staudt, the book presents three perspectives that place beer squarely in the Catholic worldview: “beer’s relation to Catholic cult or worship, its place in Catholic thought and history, and the way in which it enables us to be in touch with nature and the craft of production.”
That’s quite a tall order, but Staudt delivers a generous pour for each.
Beer and Cult(ure)
With the help of Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, Staudt provides a foundational understanding of culture – from which the reader can draw freely to understand the Catholic cultural significance of beer: Dawson “notes that there are four major elements of culture: a group of people, working in a particular natural environment, forming social institutions and economic practices, and guided by common beliefs and moral convictions. All of these elements are necessary as we shape both nature and human life as a community, but Dawson argued that religion is the very heart of culture, giving an organizing vision and the highest perspective to all its other elements.”
As one of these elements, Staudt contends, beer brings people together—even if one among them prefers a dark stout, another a crisp lager, and a third a nut-brown ale.
“Holiness embraces the wholeness of human life, our full flourishing, which requires the reintegration of what sin has torn asunder,” he writes. “In this vein, beer provides a small but concrete sign of restored Christian culture: it is fashioned from the goods of the earth, it fosters community, and when ordered to God it can help us catch a glimpse of the joy of heaven. The baptism of beer is a call to return to reality, to rediscover the simple but necessary elements of life.”
For this reason, as food, beer (like bread and wine) can be put to Catholic use—and enjoyed in a Catholic way—taking as its model the supernatural reality present in the ultimate object of consumption – the Eucharist.
“Just as faith builds upon nature, the Eucharist builds upon human culture,” Staudt writes. “Bread and wine are just two of the most important and fundamental works of culture. They do not just grow out of the earth, but we use our intelligence to form them from the fruits of the earth. The matter of the Eucharist cannot be wheat and grapes, but the work of culture made from them. The sacrament transforms our works of culture into acts of cult (worship), making them supernatural and divine.”
So beer, as a kind of cultural sacrament, also points in a more limited way to this same reality.
“If beer has a place in Christian culture,” Staudt writes, “it must be understood in light of the essential drinking of Christ’s blood. The Eucharistic cup draws upon the work of human culture.”
Beer and History
In his book, Staudt also traces the history of beer, from its first mention in the Bible to its contemporary rebirth as part of a larger project—the rejuvenation of monasticism.
“Beer’s role in the Bible all comes down to the meaning of the [Hebrew] word shekar,” he writes. “Scholars generally translate it ‘strong drink,’ leaving no word for beer in the Bible, a decision dating back to St. Jerome. Beer would be a surprising omission from the Bible considering that the Israelites lived between two beer-drinking cultures, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and lived in exile in both places.”
As the Gospel message spread throughout Europe so did beer, Staudt notes, pouring forth from those first institutions of concentrated Catholic culture.
“Beer, as we know it, comes from the monks,” Staudt writes, and it was the early monasteries, adopting the practices of northern European barbarians, which first formalized European beer production. But the Catholicity of beer turned stale and flat in the 16th century with the Protestant Revolt.
“The Reformation began the process of secularization in the modern world, by insisting on the essential interiority of faith,” Staudt notes. “For the reformers the Church became essentially invisible and the Christian life consisted of faith apart from reason, and grace divorced from nature…. This matters for our discussion of beer because of a fundamental shift in Catholic culture: isolating faith from the ordinary affairs of the world.”
Indeed, these “ordinary affairs of the world” were relegated to a univocal purpose. Beer was beer and faith was faith, and never would the two be associated in any substantial way again, as far as Protestantism was concerned.
But Catholic culture will out, Staudt maintains, and out it came—rejuvenated, ora et labora.
Beer and Being
“In the midst of declining faithfulness to the Rule [of St. Benedict] and consequently in vocations to monastic life,” Staudt writes, “we have seen a conscious return by some monasteries to a more traditional monastic life.” Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy, are only two of the many examples Staudt cites of contemporary monasteries that “have all preserved or returned to the Rule’s directives for prayer, the daily schedule of monastic life, and more traditional Gregorian chant and liturgy.”
According to Staudt, these monasteries know that, as a cultural microcosm, the monastic way of life must be restored as a package deal. Where there’s prayer and work, there will be culture—and for many of these new or newly renewed monasteries, that culture includes beer.
“What is it about monks and beer?” Staudt asks. “Even after centuries of disruption, the two just can’t be kept apart! And as craft beer continues to rise in popularity in the United States, the holy craftsmen responsible for creating European brewing practices are reclaiming their own.”
The monastic efforts at spiritual excellence, therefore, spill over into other sorts of excellence, Staudt concludes.
“Why is it that those devoted to prayer develop the best beer?” he writes. “It is because the monks know how to rightly order it. And when beer is rightly ordered, it can promote a small foretaste of the joy and unity with others that we are meant to experience in heaven.”
Such an assertion implicitly acknowledges what Staudt states more clearly when he notes that this life ought to be a reflection of the next life—and that reflection includes a pint-sized bit of heaven that tastes great, is not necessarily less filling, and in its own humble way fulfills us with a kind of perfection here on earth.
“Beer brings us into contact with the fruits of the earth, the smell and taste of something real, and a cold glass in the hand, as we sit with friends and argue about reality,” Staudt notes. “Intuitively, it brings us to assent to the truth of the five senses: we recognize the world as it is and know that it is good.”
Beer and Pretzels
To this end, Staudt contends, beer and spirituality pair as well as—well—beer and pretzels. (In fact, the author notes, medieval Benedictines may have developed the twisted breadstick as a meatless companion to a specially brewed Lenten beer. “Their shape also suggests hands folded in prayer, as well as three loops for the Trinity,” Staudt adds.)
But as those medieval Norwegians soon discovered, we must find the proper context for beer as part of that spirituality:
“A proper spirituality of beer focuses not upon drawing beer into sacraments and sacramentals,” Staudt writes, “but rather on helping Christians draw drinking into a life rightly ordered to God. Beer finds its place in Catholic culture in light of the Eucharist, the spirituality of the monks, and the life of the saints.”
Beer is certainly not a direct channel to grace, Staudt cautions us, but it is, as the prayer for the blessing of beer found in the Roman Ritual notes, “a salutary remedy to the human race.”
“Salutary does not mean that beer leads us to salvation, but should bring us health, as part of our overall flourishing of body, mind, and soul… This does not mean that drinking beer will automatically make us holy or healthy; actually we know that too much beer will do just the opposite!”
But, Staudt continues, “Health in body and peace in soul at the end of the prayer point us to the goal of our drinking. We want beer to contribute not just to any physical flourishing but to our whole lives.”
Beer and Conclusion
Varietates Legitimae places a premium on the liturgy’s role in evangelizing; however, it also makes clear that such evangelization in cultures “marked by a disinterest or indifference to religion” must find “the most suitable means to reach spirits and hearts.”
This same desire to reach our current culture is one of the driving motivations behind The Beer Option. Calling for a “Brew Evangelization,” Staudt notes “beer draws people together for a good theological conversation and provides inspiration, which results from leisurely and thoughtful conversation.”
In other words, a healthy glass of hops and fellowship wets the whistle of today’s irreligious culture—thereby whetting this same culture’s appetite for the truth.
“Beer is a work of culture,” Staudt writes, “an act of perfecting God’s creation by drawing out its hidden possibilities. Its foundation is water: the source of life, needed to continually refresh us. To this we add barley, providing beer its nourishing power. Finally, yeast makes this barley water turn into something distinct, beer, with alcohol to lighten the heart and foster joy.”
With The Beer Option, R. Jared Staudt pours out a delightful yet sober blueprint for reclaiming the world for Christ—one beer at a time.