Exchange Minister Brewer

Steeple Brewing Co. co-owners (from left) Thomas Kluver, Damen Heitmann and Anthony May are photographed at their church-themed tap room on Sept 19, 2017, in Hastings. The angled wooden beams create the effect of a vaulted chapel ceiling, and visitors sip their brews while seated in old pews. An ornate Communion rail divides the taproom, known as the Fellowship Hall.

Rebecca Gratz, Omaha World-Herald

HASTINGS — When you think about it, the minister said, church and beer have a few things in common.

Brewing does, after all, require certain virtues: patience (for the weeks required for the beer to ferment) and faith (that a host of unknowns won't spoil a batch).

But most importantly, beer brings people together much the way that church does. It's a reason for people to meet, to talk, to support each other. Still, when the Rev. Damen Heitmann goes to work in the brewery, he leaves the robe and stole at home.

In August, Heitmann, 35, and his two business partners celebrated the grand opening of Steeple Brewing Co. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Heitmann has infused the brewery with a clerical touch.

Inside, angled wooden beams create the effect of a vaulted chapel ceiling, and visitors sip their brews while seated in old pews. An ornate Communion rail divides the taproom, known as the Fellowship Hall.

"I like to say we play around with church culture and the weird little things that happen in church communities," said Heitmann, who serves as chaplain at Hastings College and associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

Heitmann, a native of Victor, Iowa, learned to brew from friend and Steeple co-owner Thomas Kluver while Heitmann and Kluver's wife, Lindsey, were attending seminary in Minnesota. After graduating, Heitmann served as pastor of a church in Little Falls, Minnesota.

While there, Heitmann said, he watched the growth of craft beer nationwide. And he had an idea.

Over the years he'd come to know the quirky personalities that populate many church communities: the eccentric trustees, the obstinate potluck hosts, the guy who falls asleep every week. What if, he thought, he started a brewery that paid homage to these characters?

About four years ago the Kluvers, both Hastings College graduates who had moved back to the area, encouraged Heitmann to apply for the college's open chaplain's position. If he took the job, Heitmann told the couple, he was enlisting their help in opening a brewery.

The partners scoured the state for old church furniture they could use in the taproom. After a successful crowd-funding campaign, which attracted out-of-state as well as local donors, the brewery opened in a former gun shop in downtown Hastings.

Anthony May, 33, handles marketing. Thomas Kluver, 33, runs the brewery operations. And Heitmann, as head brewer, makes the beer. Personality and all.

There's the Wayne Fell Asleep (Again) Porter, a bold beer named for a man from Heitmann's home church in Iowa who was "bold enough to fall asleep every week" during services.

There's the Kitchen Kerfuffle Cream Ale, inspired, Heitmann said, by the tendency of some stubborn churchgoers to work out territory issues when preparing food for special occasions.

And, of course, there's the Lighten Up, Keith Pale Ale, inspired by the guy who sits at the back of the room every week with his arms crossed, upset about one thing or another.

But running a church-themed brewery requires a delicate touch. There's a risk of alienating religious insiders, who might feel their faith is being trivialized, as well as religious outsiders, who don't necessarily want a sermon with their beer.

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