HASTINGS, Neb. — When you think about it, the minister said, church and beer have a few things in common.
Brewing does, after all, require certain virtues: patience (for the weeks required for the beer to ferment) and faith (that a host of unknowns won’t spoil a batch).
But most importantly, beer brings people together much the way that church does. It’s a reason for people to meet, to talk, to support each other.
Still, when the Rev. Damen Heitmann goes to work in the brewery, he leaves the robe and stole at home.
In August, Heitmann, 35, and his two business partners celebrated the grand opening of Steeple Brewing Co., 717 W. First St. in Hastings. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Heitmann has infused the brewery with a clerical touch.
Inside, angled wooden beams create the effect of a vaulted chapel ceiling, and visitors sip their brews while seated in old pews. An ornate Communion rail divides the taproom, known as the Fellowship Hall.
“I like to say we play around with church culture and the weird little things that happen in church communities,” said Heitmann, who serves as chaplain at Hastings College and associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church.
Heitmann, a native of Victor, Iowa, learned to brew from friend and Steeple co-owner Thomas Kluver while Heitmann and Kluver’s wife, Lindsey, were attending seminary in Minnesota. After graduating, Heitmann served as pastor of a church in Little Falls, Minnesota.
While there, Heitmann said, he watched the growth of craft beer nationwide. And he had an idea.
Over the years he’d come to know the quirky personalities that populate many church communities: the eccentric trustees, the obstinate potluck hosts, the guy who falls asleep every week. What if, he thought, he started a brewery that paid homage to these characters?
About four years ago the Kluvers, both Hastings College graduates who had moved back to the area, encouraged Heitmann to apply for the college’s open chaplain’s position. If he took the job, Heitmann told the couple, he was enlisting their help in opening a brewery.
Shortly after Heitmann moved to Hastings, they got to work.
The partners scoured the state for old church furniture they could use in the taproom. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, which attracted out-of-state as well as local donors, the brewery opened in a former gun shop in downtown Hastings.
The owners were encouraged by an entrepreneurial spirit that’s wafting through the city’s downtown district these days, Heitmann said.
Over the past decade the area has become a stronghold for new business ventures targeting a younger crowd, said Corey Stutte, mayor of Hastings. Craft breweries are part of that.
Last year another brewery, First Street Brewing Co., opened just a short walk from where Steeple is now.
“We’re able to show that we’re able to thrive in a millennial-driven society,” Stutte said. “(Young) people are out there spending money, and they would like to be able to go do unique things that are socially more exciting for them.”
At Steeple, Anthony May, 33, handles marketing. Thomas Kluver, 33, runs the brewery operations. And Heitmann, as head brewer, makes the beer. Personality and all.
There’s the Wayne Fell Asleep (Again) Porter, a bold beer named for a man from Heitmann’s home church in Iowa who was “bold enough to fall asleep every week” during services.
There’s the Kitchen Kerfuffle Cream Ale, inspired, Heitmann said, by the tendency of some stubborn churchgoers to work out territory issues when preparing food for special occasions.
And, of course, there’s the Lighten Up, Keith Pale Ale, inspired by the guy who sits at the back of the room every week with his arms crossed, upset about one thing or another.
(Though inspired by a real, very grumpy person, Heitmann said, “Keith may or may not be his real name.”)
“I think anybody who lives in a small town is going to relate to some of the stories that Damen’s come up with. To small churches. To the colorful characters that frequent those churches,” Kluver said.
But running a church-themed brewery requires a delicate touch. There’s a risk of alienating religious insiders, who might feel their faith is being trivialized, as well as religious outsiders, who don’t necessarily want a sermon with their beer.
“Having a pastor on the team, he was a wonderful guide for me,” said May, the marketing director. The brewery, he said, is in a way teasing, lovingly, the human element of the church experience, not the religion itself.
“We’re talking about people, the cast of characters that fill the church and put on potlucks, that sort of thing. Not the rituals and practices of the church. We just make sure we’re on the correct side of that.”
On the other hand, Heitmann said, the brewery isn’t looking to convert or preach to customers.
“We call this place a Fellowship Hall. That’s what we’re here to do: to offer a place of fellowship,” he said.
It’s the same sort of approach Heitmann applies to his work as a chaplain. At Hastings, his job is to build relationships with students. He opens his office to walk-ins and hosts monthly lunch discussions, in which he challenges students and faculty to tackle big questions like “What is connection?” and “How should we live our lives?”
The goal of his chaplaincy, he said, is to provide a welcome ear to the students when they need it.
But sometimes, he said, it’s nice to spend time in the quiet brewhouse.
Heitmann, who describes himself as a “card-carrying introvert,” enjoys the solitude of beermaking. Like almost anything done with conviction, it can be a spiritual experience, he said.
And though he sometimes withdraws into his own head, Heitmann understands that life is meant to be shared. He became a pastor because of relationships he built growing up in a church. It was the people, he said, who made him feel cared for and supported.
And hopefully, he said, Steeple can provide a bit of that to all who walk through the door. Because, after all, it’s not all about drinking beer.
Just read the statement posted behind the bar:
“More than that, drink in this moment, these people, this time and this place, for such things may never be again and such things are the true sustenance upon which we live.”