Wild Yeast and Open Fermentation: The Future of Progressive Christianity

Wild Yeast and Open Fermentation: The Future of Progressive Christianity July 29, 2015

Part of my flight of sour beers at Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC, which is the experience referenced in this post.
Part of my flight of sour beers at Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC, which is the experience referenced in this post.

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Progressive Christianity in America. Read other perspectives here.


I’ve spent most of my adult life in Asheville, NC and Denver, CO, so I have had to become a beer snob. Even in Denver, where you can see those same mountains that are found on those Coors cans and bottles, you can’t walk into a bar and order a Coors Light without every hipster in earshot giving you a dirty look. So for a while now my social outings have doubled as educational experiences, as I’ve learned about stouts and IPAs, lagers and witbiers. A few weeks ago I found myself in a different sort of brewery, one dedicated to kinds of brews I don’t often encounter: sour beers, Belgians, and beers brewed with yeast captured from the wild (instead of cultivated brewer’s yeast).

It was a hot day when I sat down with friends to sample a flight of these beers, and their varying degrees of tartness and fruitiness were obvious right away. They ranged from light amber to dark purple in color. Some were mild, and others puckered your mouth. All were dramatically different from most beers you would purchase somewhere else. There was a texture to them, but also an airiness, and a lightness, that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. As I learned more about the process for brewing them, I heard that some of them were open-fermented, and some even used wild yeast captured from the air around us. Typically, I take it, beer is made in large closed vessels with pre-packaged yeast, but these beers were made in shallower open containers, sometimes with whatever yeast happened to settle into the mixture. This usually means the presence of Brettanomyces, a common yeast that helps account for the sour flavor I was tasting. This kind of brewing takes longer, and you can’t rush it, and it leads to interesting results.

Most brewers these days don’t like to do things this way, because it makes it much harder to control the process and the results. If you’re producing beers in large batches, you want as much similarity between one batch and another that you can get. Interesting results are bad; predictability is good. There’s also much less chance of contamination in the large-vat, packaged-yeast method; you can control what gets into your beer and how it tastes when it’s done. These industrial yeasts can be re-used, but only for so many generations before they lose their vitality and potency; being in a closed system means that things tend to wear out and die out. But wild yeast is different, being constantly replenished and revived by contact with the outside world. Some brewers report five thousand generations of the same wild yeast culture, each a little different from the last. All those varied colors and flavors in those beers in my flight that day were the results of experiments we can only kind of control—they were a kind of alchemy that comes when you open the creative process to the unknown.

It has been a bit of a revelation, in my adult life, to understand what yeast is. When I was a kid and I heard a story or a parable about yeast, I always pictured one of those little packages of Fleischmann’s—those little yellow packets that you empty into bread dough to make it rise. But those tiny, industrial yeast pellets that you find inside Fleischmann’s packets are a far cry from what Jesus and his listeners would have had in mind. Yeast in those days—and most of human history—was wild, captured from the air, and propagated by industrious homemakers and winemakers and beer brewers and bakers, for generation upon generation. Yeast must have seemed a little bit like magic to them, which is probably why Jesus used it to describe the kingdom of God. It worked, mostly unseen, to leaven and ferment, changing one kind of food or drink into another. You could usually see its effects, in the form of the bubbles that the yeast produced, but the exact nature of this agent must have remained very mysterious, a few handfuls of centuries before the invention of the microscope. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.

Summer is denominational meeting season, and I just spent nearly a week at mine. We gathered to sing, pray, study, and fellowship with each other, and it was great. I love those people, and I love the way we have set up our community. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the yeast is failing. Like so many other denominations, the vitality seems to be slipping out of the mix. Fewer and fewer congregations, fewer and fewer members, fewer and fewer dollars going to the work we choose to do together. Like industrial yeast in a closed system, there are only so many generations in the leaven before it begins to falter, and the signs are all there that we’re reaching the fullness of that time.

Progressive Christianity doesn’t belong to a denomination, and it doesn’t have a culture that it used always and everywhere. Progressive Christianity has sprung up among the Methodists and the Congregationalists, but also among the Baptists and the Catholics and the Latter Day Saints. Some progressive Christians are charismatic, and others follow Quaker practices, and some write new songs while others return to the high liturgies of the past. Progressive Christianity seems to be less like Coors Light (or mainline Christianity), pumped out in batch after batch in industrial quantities at a remarkable consistency. Instead, it’s more like those sour, wild beers that I tasted that day with friends—unpredictable, fiercely local and particular, and possessed of a vitality that isn’t always found in mass-market products. Progressive Christianity doesn’t have a headquarters or a pension fund, and it doesn’t even gather to vote on resolutions and bylaws.

Instead, progressive Christianity seems to be fermenting with wild yeast, in open containers that get cross-seeded with other batches in other places. Progressive Christianity is not simply made up of the liberals from each denomination, the way every brewery has an IPA. Instead, it’s something different—something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a long time. This seems to be a matter of different makeup, with different values and processes and even different stories. This movement seems to be organic and vital in a way that denominational bodies haven’t usually been (at least in my lifetime), and it seems to be wild in a way that augurs well for its survival. Progressive Christianity has no creed or hymnal, and it certainly has no pope or moderator, but progressive Christianity has a style and an ethos—a wildness and an openness that has historically signaled the onset of a lasting movement. Some progressive Christian communities meet in houses, and others nest in the buildings of other congregations. Some have a pastor, and others do not. Some progressive Christians fall into the category of emerging/emergent, and others belong to traditional denominations, and some are both at the same time. Some live by ancient practices, and others innovate their liturgies and music. No one thing characterizes them all–not even theology.

The defining trait seems to be a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a recognition that the life is draining out of the old cultivars with every passing generation. Progressive Christianity is propelled forward by the notion found in its name–progress–but also by a restlessness that is born of seeking Truth, whatever (in the words of the famous quote) that may turn out to be.

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