Unofficial Business: Heavenly balance? A craft-beer-brewing, evangelical pastor

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Spencer Nix is an evangelical pastor who really, really likes a good beer.

He likes it so much, in fact, that he brews it. For a living. As a business.

There's an odd balancing that goes into preaching the Gospel and selling suds. For instance, as the CEO of Woodstock-based craft beer maker Reformation Brewery, Nix makes sales visits to owners and managers of local stores, restaurants and bars. He usually does this on Thursdays, after spending part of the morning fine-tuning his Sunday sermons, including a recent one on the severity of God.

Severe is not a word I would use to describe Nix, after chatting with him a couple times. Consider that one of his brewery mottoes is “Set beer free.”

He and the 14 other employees at Reformation set 1,600 barrels of beer free last year and expect to unleash another 3,000 this year throughout north Georgia. That includes a couple seasonals and six year-round brews (an ale, IPA, white, porter, stout and tripel, in case you are into that kind of stuff).

“Beer brings people together,” Nix, a 39-year-old married father of three, told me. “Beer is a gift to be enjoyed in moderation. It’s about the experience, more than about the beer itself. We are trying to redeem beer culture.”

We met at a luncheon where he and other small business owners were being presented with Georgia Small Business Rock Stars awards.

He said he was a full-time evangelical pastor until last year, when he went part-time to handle the growing brewery business. He still delivers sermons 40 Sundays a year in Canton at the little nondenominational church of Isaac’s Keep, which he and buddy Nick Downs, a Delta 777 pilot, founded about seven years ago.

That was before they went pro on this whole brewing thing and co-founded Reformation.

They both have gone through seminary. Nix to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he signed a covenant that included agreeing not to drink alcohol while there.

He said to me several times that he is no saint.

Nix told me he drank and abused drugs when he was young. In fact, after waking up beside railroad tracks in Atlanta after a night of hard partying, he decided to make a change, which eventually led him to seminary.And he said he knows the dangers of alcoholism from a close family member.

But he also came to see craft beer as a way for people to join together, not unlike the way people did in the formative years of the Protestant movement.

Nix helped Downs, who brewed small batches of beer in his basement. Friends and newcomers joined them on Friday evenings. The gatherings grew to more than 100 people communing over beer.

So they turned it into a business, one more tiny entrant in a craft beer movement that is eroding the absolute dominance of much larger brewers. Reformation's brewery includes an adjoining tasting room that attracted 12,000 visitors last year and is now a stop on Woodstock's trolley line.

Nix discloses his beer job during meetings with new members at the church. Some, he said, aren’t comfortable with that connection and go elsewhere.

Once, a prominent evangelical pastor put out a blog post criticizing the mix of “young, restless, reformed” pastors and beer (apparently Nix isn’t the only one) and included a link to Reformation’s web site.

“It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants …, ” John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., wrote.

He added that “the image of beer-drinking Bohemianism does nothing to advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom.”

Nix crafted a blog post of his own, allowing that “beer can indeed be an idol, but then so, too, can tee-totaling when it becomes your source of righteousness.”

For him, the answer is moderation.

He and Downs do not call Reformation a Christian brewery. But the business does have that name: Reformation, referring to the Protestant movement sparked by Martin Luther.

It’s harder to run a startup brewery than a small church, Nix told me.

Craft beer fans always press for new flavors, which can be an expensive undertaking. And in Georgia, brewers face lots of regulations and are barred from directly selling beer to the public. Instead, they must go through a distributor or sell "tours" that include limited servings of free beer.

I asked visitors at the tasting room what they thought of an evangelical pastor running a brewery. Most were surprised by the connection.

One woman, celebrating a sister’s 50th birthday, told me about the friendly, welcoming environment.

When I asked if it was OK to publish her name, she said “sure,” then hesitated: “Our dad’s a Baptist preacher.”

It would be disrespectful to him, she said, to make known that his daughter, now in her 40s, sips beer.

This brings me back to the moderation theme Nix mentioned to me.

“We live in an increasingly polarized world,” he said. It’s hard to find the balance in life, where the choice is something in between all or nothing.