Shalom & Suds

Michael Metzger

On March 16, 1621, the Pilgrims received quite a surprise.

The English settlers had arrived the year before, in 1620. But only half survived the winter. Come spring, survivors set out exploring and soon encountered a nearly naked Indian. Surprisingly, he welcomed them in perfect English. Then he asked whether they had some beer. Not surprising—when you know the story of shalom and suds.

“Suds” is relatively recent slang for beer. The story of beer starts much earlier, with the Sumerians who felt a religious awe of it. The Babylonians coined their word for beer, kassi, from the name of the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi. Beer then wound its way into Egypt as the pyramid builders got a daily ration of one and one-third gallons of beer. Christianity continued the tradition of enjoying beer, but saw it as part of shalom.

This story is told in Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World. In the Christian faith, to love God and one’s neighbor is to enact shalom. God’s shalom is first seen in creation—a story not about necessity but of affluence and enjoyment. “The first vision of material human existence is not of just ‘getting by’ on a diet of ‘daily bread,’ a counsel of ‘just enough,'” John Schneider writes.1 It is a picture of luxurious creativity. Humans are called to further create—to cook and brew for the love of God and neighbor. In the Catholic tradition, St. Arnou said wellbeing came “from man’s sweat and God’s love” and is why “beer came into the world.” It’s why St. Brigid, the famous Irish saint who labored in a leper colony, asked God to turn bathwater into beer so that her lepers could also enjoy the taste of beer.

Shalom and suds are why St. Patrick kept his personal brewmaster, Mescan, at his side while introducing the gospel to the pagan land of Ireland. It’s why, in medieval Europe, every child, parent, and grandparent “drank every day, and usually several times each day.” Even monks were allowed up to eight pints, which explains this ditty:

To drink like a Capuchin is to drink poorly;
To drink like a Benedictine is to drink deeply;
To drink like a Dominican is pot after pot;
But to drink like a Franciscan is to drink the cellar dry

Shalom and suds are why Elizabethan England had a pub for every 187 people. Historians Will and Ariel Durant have written in The Story of Civilization: The Reformation that at the time of Luther, “a gallon of beer was the usual allowance per person, even for nuns.” Luther often mentored students and taught his classes in taverns and inns. By 1577, there were over 17,000 pubs in lower England alone. And in Dublin, the city that would one day be home to Arthur Guinness, a survey published in 1610 estimated there were more than 1,100 alehouses and nearly 100 breweries—in a town of only 4,000 families.

Ten years later, in 1620, the Mayflower arrived in America. William Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims came ashore, in part, because their victuals were “much spent, especially our beer.” The following spring they ventured out and bumped into the thirsty Indian. His request for beer is recorded in two primary resources of the Pilgrims: Mourt’s Relation and Of Plymouth Plantation. It turns out this Indian had mastered English while travelling up and down the coasts of New England on English ships. Having grown fond of Englishmen, he had apparently developed a taste for English beer.

We can of course go overboard with alcohol. In 1689, Parliament forbade the importation of liquor. Upset, the people of Ireland and England began to make their own gin. Alcoholism soared in what was known as the Gin Craze. Arthur Guinness, a Christian, decided to fight gin with beer—making a brew low in alcohol. He also set sights on something higher than simply brewing a better beer—he enacted shalom.

In 1759, Guinness founded the brewery in Dublin by signing a lease for the famous property at St. James’s Gate. “What Guinness founded was a venture propelled by faith, yes—but by a kind of faith that inspires men to make their work in this world an offering to God, to understand craft and discipline…wealth that is gained through faith-inspired excellence and then used to serve others for the glory of God,” writes Mansfield. “Accordingly, the Guinness brewery routinely paid wages that were 10 to 20 percent higher than average, had the reputation as the best place to work in Ireland, and… allowed workers two pints a day of their famous dark stout.”2

Guinness founded the first Sunday Schools in Ireland. He founded and chaired the board of a hospital that provided free medical care to the poor and indigent. A Guinness chief medical officer, Dr. John Lumsden, personally visited thousands of Dublin homes in 1900 and used what he learned to help the company fight disease, squalor, and ignorance. These efforts also led to the establishment of the Irish version of the Red Cross.

During WW1, Guinness guaranteed all of its employees who served in uniform that their jobs would be waiting for them when they came home. They also continued to pay half salaries to the family of each man who served. In the 1920’s a Guinness worker enjoyed full medical and dental care, reading rooms, subsidized meals, a company-funded pension, subsidies for funeral expenses, educational benefits, free concerts, lectures and entertainment, and a guaranteed two pints of Guinness beer a day. Last but not least, the widget—the small plastic capsule that allows a can of Guinness to be properly nitrogenated—won the Queens award for technological achievement in 1991. In 2005, the British people voted it the greatest invention of the past 40 years (which says something about English innovation today—but that’s grist for another mill).

The point is that beer is not necessarily bad. It isn’t for getting plastered; it’s for pleasure. This is what Ray Oldenburg noticed in his study of Milwaukee German beer halls. German immigrants established the “Dutch treat” as a way of ordering the pace of drinking.3 Alcohol was for enjoyment, not inebriation. This is why, since 1839, the Trappist Monks at St. Sixtus monastery have been brewing Westvleteren beer. It sells for more than $15 for an 11-ounce bottle and is considered one of the finest in the world. But you can only purchase two 24-bottle cases a month—by appointment—through the monk’s front gate.4 It’s all part of the story of shalom and suds.

There is one chapter left uncompleted. An important entry in William Wilberforce’s diary reads as follows: “April 27th [1811]. At breakfast had a number of people—Mr. Guinness, of Dublin, about [his] Irish brewery.” We have no record of what Wilberforce the abolitionist and Guinness the brewer discussed. It probably had something to do with shalom, so we’ll hear about it in eternity—over a beer.

1 John Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 59.
2 Stephen Mansfield, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World (Thomas Nelson, 2009), xix.
3 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (Marlowe & Co., 1999), 90.
4 Trappist Monks Available At Beer Phones, Resellers of Prized Beer


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  1. Amen! And if you want to taste the world’s best beer, you must visit Brussels. Google Trappist beers, everyone.

  2. Thank you for combining two of my greatest loves in life; God and Beer, into one article. Yes, beer and the process of enjoying it should be a convivial exchange among believers…consumption in moderation as God intended for all good things. We have a men’s bible study group that meets to discuss God’s word and enjoy a pint together, much like Lewis and Tolkein’s meetings at the “Eagle and Child” tavern. I love “Theology on Tap” with those who respect and honor God and his creation.

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