by Len Lear
Last Saturday night the Rev. Kirk T. Berlenbach, a priest and rector at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, 5720 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough, “mugged” customers at Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery in Lafayette Hill (formerly the General Lafayette Inn). Despite the “mugging,” the hoppy priest was not placed in handcuffs because this was one “mugging” that the customers gleefully welcomed as an early Christmas present.
As it turns out, in addition to the spiritual ministrations of the good Father in assuaging the suffering of parishioners in distress, Rev. Berlenbach applies another form of therapy not normally associated with the clergy. This compassionate priest brews his own beer and with the aid of Scott Morrison, Barren Hill’s head brewer, and his staff, has created Gingerbread Jesus, a Belgian Dubbel brewed with molasses, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. “And at 9%,” said Morrison Saturday when it was introduced to the public, “it’s guaranteed to infuse some holiday cheer!”
“About five years ago our church beer club started brewing,” explained Rev. Berlenbach, 45. “I am really only a novice when it comes to homebrew, but I have helped do it enough to understand the concepts and have to say that brewing has really added to my understanding and appreciation of beer.
“The whole do-it-yourself aspect is pretty cool. It also ties into my growing attentiveness to what I eat and where it comes from. But above all, I really see something sacred or even sacramental going on as the wort (the sweet malt tea that is the basis of beer and is pretty undrinkable) is transformed into something new and wonderful as the yeast works its magic.”
But how on earth did the Episcopal priest persuade the brewers at Barren Hill to go along with him regarding Gingerbread Jesus? “It’s a great story, really,” he insisted. “My wife and I were at a post-Christmas dinner party on Dec. 28 of last year at Don (Joe Sixpack’s) and Theresa Russell’s house. For dessert we had 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 that keeps it from sticking to the cookie beneath it. 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 the laughter rang out around the table, we looked at each other and in unison shouted, ‘That would be a great name for a beer!’ Under most circumstances the joke would have ended there, but it just so happened that I was laughing with Erin Wallace, who along with her husband, Scott, owns and runs a brewpub, Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery in Lafayette Hill.”
Over the next few months the idea came up in conversation a couple of times, according to Rev. Kirk, but it wasn’t until August that they actually felt the pressure of time to make the beer happen if it was going to be ready in time for Christmas. So the priest coordinated with Scott Morrison, and they came up with a concept and the basic recipe.
Rev. Kirk is quick to point out that he was not always a beer buff. In fact, he said, “I hated beer as a teen, which may have had to do with the fact that my dad only drank Piels and Esslinger. It actually took pledging a fraternity to get me to even tolerate the stuff. Thankfully, our school (Hamilton College in Clinton, NY) was very near to the FX Mats Brewery in Utica. They had just started rolling out the Saranac line of beer, which proved to be critical for understanding what good beer can taste like.”
What do the parishioners at St. Timothy’s feel about the good Father’s hobby? “Most really support it because we are very intentional about making sure that we go about it in a responsible way. A few are still a little wary, but by and large everyone has come to accept it.”
Rector of St. Timothy’s since Easter of 2003, Kirk was born in Philadelphia and raised in Haddonfield, NJ. He received his BA in Philosophy from Hamilton College and his Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He also has a Master of Social Work from Rutgers. He earned both graduate degrees within four years as part of a dual program. He was ordained a priest in 1999.
Kirk’s great-grandfather was also a priest. The Rev. Thomas Edmund della Cioppa served as the Episcopal missionary to the Italian people of South Philadelphia in the early 1900s. (In fact, the word “kirk” is a Scottish word meaning “church,” and Kirk’s parents “had that in mind in naming me.”) Before coming to work at St. Timothy’s, Kirk worked extensively in the mental health field as a chaplain at Community Medical Center in Tom’s River, NJ, and then at VITAS Hospice here in Philly. He also served as Assistant Rector and Youth Minister at St. Alban’s, Newtown Square.
“My father was an Episcopal priest, so I was raised in the church,” explained Rev. Kirk. “It was always an important part of my life. I went into seminary not knowing if I would pursue ordination or academia. But by about halfway through the program, it was clear to me that I wanted to work with and care for people in need and to help people find meaning in their lives.”
What ambitions does Rev. Kirk have, either personally or professionally, that are as yet unfulfilled? “Wow; that’s a great question. I love to write, something that my blog, ‘So This Priest Walks into a Bar,’ has really helped me reconnect with, so if I ever felt that what I had to say was important enough, I guess I’d love to try my hand at a book. I’d also like to really speak Spanish beyond just ‘Cerveza por favor.’ I play guitar and would love to get it to the point where I can really shred, but above all, I want to help the church find a way to get out of the past and find a way to connect with where they are now and to again become a transformative influence on our society and world.”
As indicated previously, Rev. Kirk blogs about craft beer at www.sothispriestwalksintoabar.wordpress.com. And since meeting last year, two other religious leaders, the Rev. Bryan Berghoef, a Christian minister, and Rabbi Eli Freedman have formed a group, “A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walked Into a Bar,” and have hosted events during the annual beer weeks in Philadelphia and D.C.
Rev. Kirk is married to Rebekah Sassi, the Director of Institutional Advancement at Walnut Street Theater. They have two teenage children, Ethan, and Emma, and live in the rectory on the church grounds in Roxborough.
How do his wife and children feel about his liquefied hobby? “Well, I think it’s safe to say that if they are never dragged into another brewery, they would be just fine. My wife actually has developed a good knowledge and appreciation, but they are all quick to remind me when I start yammering on like a beer snob.”
For more information, call 484-344-5438 (Barren Hill) or 215-483-1529 (St. Timothy’s), or visit www.sttimothysrox.com.