By Chelsea Karnash
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –“So this priest walks into a bar…”
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but Reverend Kirk Berlenbach, of St. Timothy’s Episcopal in Roxborough, is actually at that bar to tap a firkin of his latest beer, Gingerbread Jesus.
Described as a Belgian Dubbel brewed with molasses, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, the hilariously-named Gingerbread Jesus has a story behind it, just like its co-creator, Father Kirk, who says he never liked beer as a teen.
“It actually took pledging a fraternity to get me to even tolerate the stuff,” he says (Yes, Father Kirk is a priest who also pledged a fraternity.). “Thankfully, our school [Hamilton College] was very near to the FX Mats Brewery in Utica, NY and their Saranac line of beer helped me understand what good beer can taste like. From there, it has been a continual journey of trying everything new I can find which, these days, is quite a lot.”
After college, Father Kirk went to Princeton Seminary, where he was unsure if he’d choose ordination or academia. He ultimately decided to go into the church out of a desire to work with and care for people and to “help them find meaning in their lives.” About seven or eight years ago, he says he and several others discovered a mutual love of beer and decided to start a beer club at St. Timothy’s.
“Originally, we were just about tasting and appreciation,” Father Kirk recalls. “But about five years ago we started brewing.”
Around that time, Father Kirk also started a blog. He called it “So This Priest Walks Into A Bar,” and he describes it as a mix of spirituality, music and beer.
“I figured I had some pretty unique experiences as a priest in terms of beer and music, and my spiritual bent afforded me some interesting insights into those subcultures, so why not share it?” he laughs.
On the blog, Father Kirk shares his insights on music, such as meeting members of Arch Enemy at a Baltimore show (a photo embedded in the post shows him with the band and is captioned, “My totally lame and most un-metal pose with the band.”), and beer intertwined with a hint of religion, such as an explanation of the history of Libation and Libation rituals, or a post on the Parish Beef & Beer fundraiser.
So far, his blog has around 100 followers and about 10,000 page views, and he has 282 “likes” on Facebook. But Father Kirk says it’s not about that.
“I know these are not huge numbers, but writing for the blog gives me a chance to write something other than budgets, committee reports and sermons, which is a great creative outlet for me,” he explains. “It’s also led to some interesting connections.”
Like the one that’s responsible for the birth of Gingerbread Jesus. While the self-proclaimed “homebrew novice” is still learning about the brewing process, Father Kirk says a dinner party he and his wife attended hosted by friends Theresa and Don Russell – otherwise known as “Joe Sixpack” – is the start of the story behind the beer.
“For dessert, we brought some of our favorite German gingerbread. One of the distinctive features of the large round cookies is that each is backed with a white edible paper like substance which keeps it from sticking to the cookie beneath it,” Father Kirk explains. “As I passed some to one of the other guests, she took one look at it and exclaimed, ‘What are you trying to do, slip me a communion wafer along with my cookie? What is this, gingerbread Jesus?’”
As laughter rang out around the table, Father Kirk says they all looked at one another and said, “That would make a great name for a beer!”
“Under most circumstances the joke would have ended there,” Father Kirk says. “But it just so happened that one of the people I was laughing with was Erin Wallace, who along with her husband Scott, owns and runs a brewpub, Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery.”
For the next few months, Father Kirk and his co-brewers kept discussing the idea, “but it wasn’t until August that we actually felt the pressure of time to make the beer happen if it was going to be ready in time for Christmas.”
In September, Father Kirk met with head brewer Scott Morrison, and the two came up with a basic recipe they brewed in mid-October. When the beer was ready for tasting, Father Kirk returned to sample it with Barren Hill’s new head brewer, Dave Wood.
“We were happy with how it tasted out of the brite tank and decided not to tweak it,” Father Kirk says. “In fact, I had a glass on Sunday and it was very tasty. I also brought some to the conference for all the clergy from our Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and shared some with them on Tuesday- they loved it!”
And Gingerbread Jesus is the reason Father Kirk found himself at Barren Hill this past weekend. After blessing the firkin, which was brewed with extra ginger, he says he and about 20 guests joined together for a few rounds of carols, and of course, a beer or two.
As for the future of both his beer and his blog, Father Kirk takes a laidback approach. Gingerbread Jesus will be available at Barren Hill Tavern throughout the holiday season, but he says he’s not out to go big with the brew.
“Not sure if I have any plans for GBJ other than to drink it a bunch this holiday season,” he laughs. “But I hope to keep the blog going with weekly posts…I’d love to find ways to keep growing the readership.”
Must Read Today’s Top Talkers