Rick Nichols: Beer Week blessed by an assist from St. Timothy's

Posted: June 10, 2010

Before things got under way at Philly Beer Week's "Opening Tap" Friday evening, you couldn't help but notice one of the early arrivals at the Independence Visitor Center, Sixth and Market.

He had a touch of Robert De Niro about him, and he wasn't wearing the regulation T-shirt or shorts, but a sober suit and the collar of an Episcopal priest.

He also had, if you looked closely, a tidy ponytail, his black hair pulled back neatly, and an open - even extroverted - manner.

He was Father Kirk Berlenbach, 41, and in a manner of speaking, this whole deal was his event: "I'm the permit holder," he volunteered.

Actually, it was more than in a manner of speaking: His church, St. Timothy's Episcopal on Ridge Avenue, across from Roxborough Hospital, was the official sponsor of the festivities - an arrangement cobbled together after the Beer Week folks found out that their nonprofit status wasn't quite the right fit to meet the ever-shifting letter of state Liquor Control Board law.

The church, on the other hand, passed muster, albeit after filling out some daunting paperwork, and holding lengthy sit-downs with the board's State Police enforcement officers.

If it was going to sign the papers, the police said, it couldn't just be a paper tiger; this had to be St. Timothy's own event, not a front for another guy's party.

So it came to pass that it was St. Timothy's Opening Tap. And in the end, after all the bills are paid (for the rousing Irish pipers, for the beer, and the insurance), the church will end up with what looks to be "several thousand dollars" for its church fund and a home-building mission in a poor pocket of Kentucky.

It might seem a stretch - a brewers event sponsored by a church. But setting aside the European tradition of monastic brewing (not to mention wine's essential role in religious ritual), there's a more obvious reason that St. Timothy's - itself a historic church - stepped up.

Father Berlenbach is a bit of a beer geek, who had met Beer Week executive director Don Russell, another Roxborough resident, through the local beer scene. And he was also the founder - at a congregant's instigation - of a beer club that meets monthly (when the youth group and other groups aren't) in the church basement.

It's not exactly an oompah-band rathskeller; last week it charted food pairings (apples, cashews, cheese, olives, and chocolate) with samples of beer (Stoudt's lager, Victory's Sunrise Hefeweizen, Tröegs Rugged Brown Ale, Belgium's Chimay Grand Reserve, Rogue Shakespeare Stout): "The chocolate," Berlenbach said, "only went well with the stout. But it was a milk chocolate, so who knows."

The group has heard talks by local beer historian Lew Bryson and reps from breweries. They've been on a field trip to the Philly Craft Beer Festival at the Navy Yard (in a van piloted, of course, by a dry-as-toast designated driver).

It also brews its own a few times a year, the current batch aging in the so-called "Church Basement Brewery," a sixtel of kölsch that will be tapped at the Fourth of July church picnic to go with a roast pig from Tommy Gunns, the Manayunk barbecue joint.

St. Timothy's had its own modest, nonalcoholic table at the Visitor Center. It was handing out leaflets describing the church's mission and outreach (feeding the homeless, advocating for better health care).

But the beer club, said Berlenbach, married and the father of two, is a signal about St. Timothy's openness: "It defies people's expectations; they don't have to check part of what they are at the door."

In that spirit, club members at the Opening Tap were selling T-shirts of their own - a steepled church on the front, and on the back the message: "Serving God's love . . . 12 ounces at a time."


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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