ROGERS PARK — You've heard of Communion wine, but how about a church that brews its own small-batch beers?
Such is the case in Rogers Park, where the newly formed Gilead Church's cup runneth over with its "Balm of Gilead" Session IPA — a craft brew made especially for the church and created right in the neighborhood.
Aside from its members' sheer "love of beer" and the role it has played in Christian history, the Rev. Rebecca Anderson, pastor of the church, said its presence also speaks to the "aesthetic" and mission of the church: using food and storytelling to come together.
"For so many churches and so many parts of the Christian tradition, Communion is this very somber, weighty, serious thing," Anderson said. While she understands why that is the case, she regrets that over the years, "there's not so much conviviality of Communion anymore."
Her solution: Add beer.
"Beer is definitely still convivial," she said.
The beer was homebrewed by Eric Plata, a professional brewer at Peckish Pig who used one of his favorite personal beer recipes to help the church create its brew.
After teaming up with church members, he put together a shopping list, readied his equipment and got to work fermenting the brew into a drinkable and mild pale ale that boasts bold hop flavors, but has a mild malt and sweet finish, he said.
At only 4.7 percent alcohol-by-volume, the beer is easy and fun for drinkers across the taste spectrum, Plata said.
For the church's first batch, Plata produced and bottled 10 gallons.
Balm of Gilead brewing. [Eric Plata]
Plata said the partnership has been a great way for him to return to his homebrewing roots and practice something he's passionate about outside his normal brewing duties.
"I was super interested. I was on board, like, almost immediately," Plata said. "This is cool. This is the chance to be a part of something a little bit unique."
The beer then gets dropped off at the church, where members print and hand-label the bounty using a design created by one of the pastors.
The concept of beer in church was not unusual in Anderson's line of work, she said.
Not only does the drink's inclusion help to appeal to younger generations of Christians, it also takes away some of the more melancholy aspects of church that Anderson said can sometimes be emphasized too much, especially when it comes to celebrating the joyful things in life.
"Christianity is so damn serious," she said. "And there are ways where the stakes are high, when you're in a hopeless place and you have a faith that gives you energy ... but there's also a way where Christianity is supposed to be a joyful way of life, and there are so many ways of doing it that aren't joyful.
"I hope [the beer] indicates a sort of lightness," said Anderson.
One of the major motivations behind brewing custom beers for the church was the idea of "scarcity," Anderson said.
Rather than placing too much stress in all the things society and humanity are lacking, Anderson said her church wants to make sure its members also take time to enjoy what is also plentiful.
To do that, the "uber progressive" church centers its worship services on gardening, growing, eating and sharing its own food, storytelling and, now, beer-drinking.
"The idea of abundance, I think in our culture as a whole there's such a scarcity mentality," Anderson said. "Like there's not enough — there's not enough mercy, there's not enough food, there's not enough city resources.
"So in a way our whole way of doing church and living is a sense of, not reckless wasting of resources, but an acknowledgement of the fact that there is enough, like there's abundance. There's a joyfulness."
The Rev. Rebecca Anderson speaks to church members with Balm of Gilead in hand. [Rebecca Anderson]
Legally, the church can't sell its brew, but it can give it away as a gift.
On March 17, St. Patrick's Day, the church plans to do just that with a public beer-release party.
With a donation to the church, congregation members and people from the community can take home a boozy Balm of Gilead "thank you."
It won't be the church's only beer celebration with the community either.
Another batch of a new brew is fermenting at Plata's home — this time a "big IPA" using Centennial, Mosaic and Citra hops for an aromatic, flavorful and boozy beer with a 7.2 percent alcohol-by-volume.
Plata and Anderson both said they hope this is only the beginning of a fruitful partnership that will continue to blossom into an appealing new way to have church.
"It's a little bit radical, but a whole lot of interesting," Plata said. "To be a part of this is really cool. If you can incorporate [beer] in a way that will make it fun, and you can relate to [younger Christians] then why not?"
"It's not like they're having keggers on Sundays or anything."
Brewer Eric Plata [Eric Plata]
Beer fermenting in the early stages [Eric Plata]
The Balm of Gilead label was designed by another pastor at Gilead Church. [Rebecca Anderson]