Faith served straight up: how alcohol shapes cultural and religious identity
Adelaide Mena Dec. 18, 2017
From a glass of beer at dinner to the wine transubstantiated at the Last Supper, sharing a drink has held a profoundly important place in shaping people’s lives through the ages.
In fact, according to one noted Catholic bartender, society would be drastically different if it were not for the influence of alcohol on religion and culture.
“Alcohol is an important part of how we connect with each other,” said Derek Brown, a bartender and owner of several bars in Washington D.C.
In an interview with CNA, he reflected on the intersection of faith and fermentation, as well as the role of alcohol in shaping history and culture.
Over thousands of years of people coming together to share a drink, Brown said, people have had “experiences that are crucial to building our society and creating religious institutions.”
“It’s something very beautiful and expressive in our culture.”
It’s on the (White) House
Serving everyone from tourists to the D.C. locals who filter into his bars after work to the president of the United States, Derek Brown has found his calling in being able to serve and experiment in making a variety of different drinks.
Brown – along with his brother – opened his first bar, the Passenger, in 2009. It included a small, separate speakeasy-style cocktail bar in the back. Since then, he has expanded to several bars in the D.C. area. From standard burgers and beers, to fresh East Coast oysters and whiskey, to a bar that focuses on the fortified wine drink sherry, each of his establishments is unique in its spirits and cuisine.
“We’ve gotten to step out in a different way,” he explained. “You get to have a different bar experience, you get to discover great spirits and wine, and take the time to make and craft a cocktail, and I think that’s something unique.”
In 2009, Brown was introduced to President Barack Obama while bartending an event. Brown told CNA that he was “not at liberty to tell” others about the president’s drink of choice, but did recall his encounter with Obama.
Staff introduced Brown to the president as a “mixologist,” to which the president asked, “Isn’t that just a bartender?’”
Initially, Brown said he was “crestfallen” by the president’s question, but then Obama continued, observing that “being a bartender is like being a coach or being the president of the United States: everyone thinks they can do it, but not everyone can.”
Mixing drink and culture
In his time serving drinks, Brown said, he has come to a greater understanding of the ways in which alcohol interacts with culture.
“Drinking is about being together and connecting to other people and sharing your experiences,” he explained. “We have these moments where we fall in love, where we meet friends, where we console our friends, when we celebrate a union of people,” and oftentimes these moments include a drink or a toast.
Drinking can also be “one of the most salient ways to have a conversation with someone and sit down and really connect with that person,” he added. These personal moments of experiencing cultural and communal connection through drink tie into a larger societal mindset as well.
“Ultimately, what I try to do is show that alcohol can be something that, in the right sort of context, can connect people.”
However, he acknowledged that not everyone uses alcohol to bring people together. Sometimes, people’s approach to drinking “turns to something different altogether,” and becomes downright negative when alcohol is used “in a destructive way” or “as an excuse” for otherwise unacceptable behaviors.
“All drinking is rule-governed behavior,” he noted, suggesting that changing the cultural expectations surrounding drinking can help to influence society’s engagement with alcohol.
Meanwhile, Brown said, there are “a vast majority of people who can have a healthy experience with alcohol.”
Just as food is “an important part of how people talk in their lives and how they connect to our environment,” he added, drink is also an important part of human culture across the globe.
“One person could abstain from alcohol, and in some cases that is perfectly reasonable, but had humanity abstained from alcohol, we’d have a totally different culture.”
This link to culture, Brown said, can be found by looking to the drinks our ancestors made – even all the way back to the first meads and early drinks made by humans.
“It’s really hard to imagine just how hard and difficult early life was for our ancestors, and they didn’t always encounter friendly groups of people,” he explained, pointing to evidence that alcohol helped people to break down those barriers.
“Imagine early groups of people drinking together.” He suggested that alcohol’s properties could have helped people – even from different social groups – “to be in a weird way, equals.” Early humans, much like people today, probably had experiences where they didn’t “have to concentrate on other things and could just focus on being together.”
Brown also pointed to archeological and anthropological evidence that the fermentation of grains, honey and fruit played a key role in early civilizations’ agricultural practice.
Drinking, in fact, may have even helped to spur on the organization of complex societies: people had to live together in close proximity in order to share food and to make drinks. “Alcohol is difficult to produce in large quantities,” he explained. To do so “requires cooperation among a large number of people.”
Alcohol was so important in past times that it was even used as a paycheck. Brown pointed to discoveries that some of the workers who constructed the Great Pyramids in Ancient Egypt “were paid in beer,” among other historical examples.
Today’s drinks can also be a way of connecting to the traditions and experiences of those in the past, Brown noted.
“That’s one thing that’s interesting: things change over time. And as much as a cathedral itself is a sort of means of telling history, a cocktail is a way of telling history as well.”
He pointed, as an example, to the rickey – a century-old lime drink that is native to Washington, D.C., and is now the official drink of the city.
First concocted in the 1880s by bartender George Augustus Williamson, the rickey is “an important part of Washington, D.C. history,” Brown said.
D.C. news archives confirm this, with numerous stories on the drink’s creation and its popularity in the early 1900s, as well as mention of the bar where it was created as an important meeting place for contemporary politicians, lobbyists and writers. The drink became known outside of the nation’s capital as well, earning a mention in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Great Gatsby.”
Communion and Communitas
Alcohol’s ability to connect people is not just a worldly phenomenon, however. Alcohol plays an important role in religion too.
In 2013, Brown gave a talk at a University of Notre Dame ethics conference on drinking’s relationship to community. Alcohol, he said at the talk, “produces a sense of being together,” but also “is a part of our sacramental and religious experience.”
This connection between alcohol and religious community can clearly be seen in Communion and the Eucharist, Brown said, as well as its important place in the ritual life of the monastic communities that produce beer, wine or liquor.
“If you look back through history, there’s all of this wine and spirits that popped up in religious communities,” he noted, pointing to the elixirs made by Trappist abbeys and Carthusian monks.
“I just don’t know if anyone makes better spirits and wine than monks and priests. It’s a cool part of our community.”
However, alcohol’s role in the Catholic faith is not limited to the drinks produced in monasteries and abbeys. Just the act of drinking together also helps faith communities in their ability to connect to each other, Brown reflected. “Communitas, that connection with people, is sort of essential to any religious community.”
Drink also has a spiritual element, Brown said, with religions around the world drawing metaphors to drinking. “There’s all these instances where they’re talking about alcohol,” he continued, “to describe religious experience.”
“For me those are two parts of alcohol and Catholicism that influence how I think about drinking,” he stated. “One is that spiritual experience, and the other is how we come together as a community.”
D.C. bartenders even have a spiritual resource in their honorary chaplain, Fr. Bill Dailey, whom Brown has profiled for cocktail magazines.
As for Brown, his finds Catholicism and his job in do not conflict with one another, despite bartending’s sometimes suspect reputation.
“My earliest memories of encountering the faith have always been around people who are drinking. There was never any stigma for me.”
In his mind, the connection between alcohol and his Catholicism “is pretty simple: it’s an important part of our religion and our practice.”
Catholicism is “definitely part of my life,” he said, adding that he finds his faith and his job to work together particularly well in the “charitable aspect” of his bars. Every Monday, his businesses serve as a meeting space for charities, such as non-profits that seek to end childhood poverty, or youth programs. Then, the bar proceeds from that night are donated to the respective charity.
Brown added that he and his fellow bartenders realize that “we’re very lucky to be able to do what we do” and also try to donate their time and material to help serve at events for other charitable organizations.
After a long night of service and community building, what does a Catholic bartender drink? Brown says that his beverage of choice is “a very classic martini.”
“It’s a very classic, hard to do cocktail, but when you do it right, it just sings.”
This article was originally published April 7, 2015.