Recently, I attended what may have been my eighth brewery blessing. A long time back, I had observed Catholic and Episcopalian brewery blessings. They were interesting ceremonies. Christians have been blessing breweries and wineries for well over a thousand years. Most Christians take a relaxed view of modest drinking; blessing an alcohol production establishment is not uncommon.
I remember Portland’s Cartwright Brewing in 1982. Winemaker Charles Coury, Oregon’s first brewer, was on the verge of failure, mostly because he was too recent on the scene, brewing and trying to bottle the wrong beer. He was a born-again Christian. He held a brewery blessing as he brewed his last brew. He “pre-sold” the whole brew to we members of the Oregon Brew Crew homebrew group. A number of us each purchased a case of that beer, in advance, for $24. We wanted him to succeed. He had that brew blessed and we all wished him well, to little avail. The county sheriff auctioned off those cases on New Years Day of 1982. Coury’s prayers were, and were not, answered. A few of us had picked up our cases early in that last week, but the county sheriff auctioned what was left for a dollar a case to pay off Coury’s county tax obligations.
Coury’s prayers were answered several months later, when that beer fell to an infection he had not foreseen. Believe it or not, that infection produced one of the best Belgian brews I’ve ever tasted! His prayers had indeed been answered, but not in any way to help him. He probably never actually tasted his best brew since it matured some time after he had closed shop. God had been good to him, but not in the way he’d wanted. Moreover, most American beer drinkers were not yet ready for the Belgian revolution that we have going these days.
My last several brewery blessings were vastly different from Coury’s. These were SakéOne sake brewery’s (Forest Grove, OR) annual blessings by an American Shinto priest from his Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, WA.
Rev. Koichi Barrish (a handsome, bearded Caucasian Shinto priest trained in Japan) appeared in full Shinto regalia: white kimono, purple apron, black patent wooden slippers and the traditional tall black hat. He was there to perform the Shinto purification ceremony Shobaihanjokikan. Although he speaks flawless Japanese, he made some astute comments in English concerning his religion, indeed, and religion in general.
He began the ceremony by explaining the various entities, especially kami-sama or head of earthly powers, which he invited into the outdoor area around the saké brewery building, where he had assembled a beautiful, but temporary, wood altar. It was the traditional Shinto Okuda, with a mirror (no wooden images of gods in that religion) as its centerpiece. There were offerings of rice, saké and special salt on a shelf below the altar. He was armed with a harai-gushi—a broom-shaped purification wand.
Rev. Barrish told us that there is no Shinto ceremony conducted without saké on the altar. Indeed, he characterized saké as entertainment for the Kami, or divine powers of heaven and earth. Now there’s a concept I find agreeable.
We offer God an alcohol libation as entertainment! I have worked for several Christian organizations, and despite the first miracle of Christ, they never offered any entertaining libations at our staff meetings. We all know about Islam. No entertainment of any kind with those folks, this despite the relatively mild injunction of the Koran, to simply avoid alcohol before prayer. As for Judaism, we always had wine at our staff meetings and at employee gatherings, so it would seem that the God of Abraham does indeed welcome entertainment. As for Buddhism, one has only to refrain from alcohol abuse, the “middle way” between shunning and abusing. Zen priests have been known to stack their empty saké bottles in front of the temple, so that parishioners would be fully informed as to the moral flaws of their teachers—entertainment for the Divine to be sure.
The ceremony consisted of chants and bows and hand claps, followed by a rice and salt offering, sacred prayers (in Japanese) and purification of the building by throwing special salt and emptying a bottle of saké to spray over each of the brewery’s four corners. We spectators followed along, bowing at appropriate times, to its termination with an offering of tamagushi—evergreen branches—and closing with the traditional tessen ceremony.
Afterwards, we (about 150 of us) gathered together in SakéOne’s spacious picnic area to partake of sushi, homemade cookies and some of SakéOne’s best saké, including a very rare, unlabeled, full-strength (20 percent alcohol by volume) nama (unpasteurized) first run ginjo saké. It was spectacular and memorable, especially when served deeply chilled.