A small spiritual community in Victoria, B.C., is paying its bills partly with the help of a centuries-old tradition: monastic brewing.

Since summer 2016, the Emmaus Community, a joint ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, has been crafting traditional Belgian abbey-style beer, along with an assortment of non-alcoholic cordials and kombuchas (fermented teas).

Making these drinks, says co-prior the Rev. Rob Crosby-Shearer, is only a small part of what the Emmaus Community does, and the output is tiny—he refers to the brewing project as a “nano-brewery.” The community produces one batch a month of 150 or so bottles.

But it serves a double role, he says, of helping the community build relationships with local people, and supplementing its income.

St. Alban’s Tripel Ale—a relatively hard, heavy beer with a sweet, rich taste—is the Emmaus brewing team’s main offering. Photo: Andrew Stephens-Rennie

The Emmaus Community gives the beer away, because it’s not licensed to sell it. Donations are accepted, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint what proportion of the donations received by the community have been spurred by offerings of beer, Crosby-Shearer says this figure could be as high as $5,000 per year, or close to 10% of the Emmaus Community’s annual budget.

The Emmaus Community began about three years ago, inspired by the new monastic movement, which seeks to develop forms of Christian community suited to the current age. The Emmaus Community’s co-founders include Crosby-Shearer and his wife, Meagan, both of whom had earlier spearheaded a Toronto new monastic project, the Jeremiah Community. Most Emmaus Community members live in their own dwellings rather than a central building, but they follow a “rule of life” and take vows of prayer, presence and simplicity. The community now has about 10 covenanted members, Crosby-Shearer says, with a number of other people affiliated in some way, either as novices or companions, and it also reaches about 30-40 people per week through a church plant that it started up in the neighbourhood.

The community was initially funded by grants both from the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Foundation of Canada as well as the diocese of British Columbia. Through its own fundraising, the group has come to “wean itself off” most of those grants, says Crosby-Shearer. In the meantime, it also began to look at social enterprise as another means of paying for itself, and eventually the idea of brewing beer was born.

The Rev. Rob Crosby-Shearer holds his son, Zion, aged 5 at the time this photo was taken. Photo: Contributed

The community was particularly drawn to the idea of making beer in the traditional style of Trappist monks, and started researching monastic brewing practices. It purchased a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment and recruited as a mentor the Rev. Craig Hiebert, an amateur brewer who serves as incumbent at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in nearby Oak Bay, B.C. It began brewing using Trappist recipes and even the same yeast strains they use, Crosby-Shearer says, and, although the community is not legally allowed to call its beer “Trappist,” it also strives to brew it according to Trappist principles.

In the Trappist brewing tradition, as outlined on the website of the International Trappist Association, the beer must be brewed within a monastery; brewing must not be the main goal of the monastery; the brewery “should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life”; and whatever proceeds are left from the sale of beer, once the living expenses and upkeep of the monastery are paid for, must be given to people in need.

The Emmaus brewing team’s main offering is what it calls St. Alban’s Ale, which is a Belgian tripel—a relatively hard, heavy type of beer with a sweet, rich taste, he says. It also produces a lighter, more summery ale, to which it has given the name St. Clare’s matersbier.

While the community has no immediate plans to actually acquire a licence and sell the beverages, it is not ruling out this possibility, he says.

A brewing kettle, among the equipment the Emmaus Community purchased when it launched its “nano-brewery.” Photo: Jeff Horncastle-McMenamie

“As a kind of church-planting model, I think we do need to get more innovative and go above ground with some of these social and community enterprise ideas,” he says. “We’re at a point where we could conceivably be done with grants in a year or two, and at that point we might want to say, ‘How do we expand?’ ”

Possibly, at that point, the community might then decide it wants to step up its production of beer and license the brewery as a business to fund its ministry he says. In the meantime, it’s more focused on growing that ministry, which includes various forms of “re-imagining church in this day and age,” including a possible co-housing project.

“As an emerging community, we have all these sort of audacious dreams,” he says.


This article first appeared on December 5, 2017.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The concept of a monastic community is great. But!! To participate in the production of an alcoholic beverage seems anachronistic and counter-productive. Everyone knows that alcoholic is the most prevalent drug legally available and is the source of family violence, crime, sexual assaults, financial despair and family breakdowns. Governments condone the sale of alcohol because it is a major revenue contributor and reduces taxes. The societal implications are tremendous, and I don’t think the Church should be a part of promoting drinking. How about making cheese, plum puddings, handicrafts, furniture?

    • Hello John

      I wanted to thank you for your challenge to us as a community, and as Christians as a whole. I also wanted to let you know that this is something that we as community have wrestled with and prayed about – and which we continue to do.

      There are a number of folks in our community whose lives have been hurt by alcohol, including some who are in recovery. As a (neo) monastic community, all of our open events (open meals, potlucks, quiet days, etc.) are decidedly alcohol-free. Also, during the Holy Eucharist we offer grape juice as an option for consecration; an option which is taken up weekly by those who are in recovery and are used to being excluded from receiving both elements in Anglican Churches. Those decisions, as well as the decision to create non-alcohol based drinks (elixirs, Kombucha) have all been part of the dialogue with those whose lives have been adversely affected by alcohol.

      I recognize those steps aren’t the full solution – but I did want you let you know that we are seeking to be thoughtful and prayerful regarding alcohol in our common life; even as we seek to responsibly follow in the footsteps of monastics who have brewed alcoholic beverages for centuries.

      Thank you again for your challenge.

      Yours, In Christ Jesus
      (The Rev.) Rob Crosby-Shearer
      Co-Prior and Co-Brewer
      The Emmaus Community

  2. I think that anachronistically producing traditional ale is quite acceptable in an ecclesiastical setting, indeed many of our unique liquors, wines and presumably ales were produced by members of the cloth. Benedictines have a centuries long association with fermented and distilled liquor, Dom Perignon is the Benedictine still associated with Champagne. The Carthusian monks have been producing Chartreuse almost three centuries, Hospice de Beaune is one of the oldest hospitals in the world, and one that provided free hospital care to the poor from the 15th century; it is a large producer of some of the greatest wines of Burgundy, the proceeds of its annual sales continue to support this ministry.
    I am sure that those acquiring a serving or two of this Trappist type ale will appreciate the work of those who have prepared it, indeed maybe some will utter a short ‘grace’ prior to enjoying the fruit of that labour.

  3. I know the history of the production of alcoholic beverages by “religious”, however it still sends the wrong message for those struggling with alcoholism and its effect on society. We in the church spend a lot of time trying to heal the effects of alcohol on people’s lives.

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