In autumn last year, St. Mary's brewery in North London completed its first commercial brew: an American pale ale. Nothing odd with that—just more evidence of the capital's "craft beer revolution," right?
Not exactly. Look at the label on this particular bottle of pale ale and you'll see a phrase that doesn't fit with the image of a hipster brew: "Faith, Hops, and Charity." That's because St. Mary's isn't a trendy new Camden brewery, but a church in Primrose Hill that has recently begun brewing and selling its own beer.
"We had the crypt cleared of an old boiler and we're continually trying to raise money for our youth work," church warden Steve Reynolds tells me. "I'd seen what happened with Camden Town Brewery and the growth of craft beer. We just thought it'd be funny if we put a little brewery in the crypt."
The idea began to take shape at St. Mary's after Reynolds consulted vicar Marjorie Brown, who gave the thumbs up and called the Bishop of Edmonton. The bishop also gave his approval, but on two conditions: that St. Mary's brew a non-alcoholic beer and that he would try the first pint.
He did, at the church's well-attended beer tasting in October
"It's hard to get 100 people into a church, even if you are giving them free beer on a Saturday night," Reynolds notes.
He shows me down a flight of spiral stairs into St. Mary's cavernous crypt space. The area is suitable for brewing smaller quantities of beer but for bigger production, there are obstacles: drainage needs to be improved and fire exits installed. Not to mention the difficulty of transporting goods and gear up and down the narrow staircase.
"It can be done but brewing is all about volume. It's important for us to bring it here and to brew something here," Reynolds says. "It'd be really nice to have a little taproom down here and have candles and make it really gothic."
To produce its first commercial beer, St. Mary's turned to the larger facilities at UBREW, an "open" brewery in Bermondsey, and enlisted the help of expert brewers. By Christmas, every bottle had sold out—mainly through church events and local fairs.
It's all well and good selling it to an interested market over the festive season, but can St. Mary's turn its brewing experiment a professional operation?
"We're going to go as big as we can go," says Reynolds. "The real test is when we emerge from our little community here into the real world of food and drink. How are we going to stand up?"
Word of the church's burgeoning brewery has gotten out and Reynolds tells me there is already interest from local pubs and restaurants.
"We've got other churches coming to us saying, 'How can we get involved? Can you teach us what you've done so we can brew?'" he says. "So, we're spreading—we're turning churches into breweries!"
Roddy Munroe is a member of the St Mary's congregation and a long-time home brewer. I meet him at UBREW, where he is working on the church's next batch of its flagship Crypt American Pale Ale, as well as a London porter.
"It's much more of an art than you perhaps appreciate," he says when I ask about the process. "The English pale ales have been fairly consistently awful. The porters have been consistently very good. The Crypt American Pale Ales have been fairly good. This is the fourth porter we've done. We've been improving the recipe each time. The porter is a very drinkable beer."
He's right. The church's bottle-conditioned 4.5-percent ABV porter slips down very easily, with subtle notes of caramel and chocolate.
But the main aim of St. Mary's' brewing operation isn't to make the world's best beer, but to connect with the local community—whether churchgoers or not. There's talk of a beer club, lectures, brewery visits, and brewing workshops in the church. Those engaged in the youth work will be able to help with the design and marketing of the beers.
"It'll also get the community going and get people into this building, which we don't want to be just for somewhere on a Sunday morning," Reynolds says.
Munroe agrees: "The way you build community is you offer these things out to the local people—they come along and they want to brew. That's quite exciting.
But the bottom line, Munroe says, is clear: "It's got to be underpinned by great beer."