VALPARAISO – The history of beer making has roots in the Catholic monasteries of Europe. During the Middle Ages monks developed what we know as modern beer.
With that history in mind, Fr. Matthew Zimmer has taken a shine to the hobby of brewing his own beer. He routinely brews batches to share with friends and parishioners at Sts. Mary and Joseph Church in Valparaiso, where he is pastor.
Zimmer began brewing beer a few years ago after he saw some fellow seminarians enjoying the hobby. He was fascinated by the science of brewing, which requires precise measurements to create a flavorful product.
The precision appealed to Zimmer’s personality. He was a computer programmer before becoming a priest at age 36.
“It’s very, very structured,” he said. “If you do exactly the same thing it will turn out exactly the same every time.”
The history of beer making also appealed to Zimmer. He learned why the Benedictine monks began brewing beer. These monks had established simple rules of life. First, they had to create enough revenue to take care of themselves. Second, they must always offer food, drink and a bed to visitors.
After the monks began to brew beer to serve to their visitors, they realized it could also be a way to make money.
Few people drank water in the Middle Ages because it was filled with bacteria and fecal matter due to the unsanitary living conditions. Beer was boiled during the brewing process, killing the harmful substances.
“It was much safer to give to visitors than water ever would be,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer also began brewing beer to gain insight into the culture of the people he was serving in the churches of Saunders County. His first local parish was St. John Catholic Church in Prague, and where the Czech heritage includes an affinity for beer.
“It was kind of a nice inroad to meet people,” he said.
He went to a shop in Elkhorn that specializes in beer making and bought a kit to make an oatmeal stout.
“I went home and tried it,” he said.
He was hooked.
“There’s something about drinking your own beer,” he said.
His favorite is a whiskey barrel stout, where whiskey-flavored wood chips are soaked in the beer, imparting the flavor of the liquor.
Zimmer buys kits for each batch of beer, so the hobby isn’t cheap, he said. Another drawback – drinking your own beer can add a few extra pounds if one isn’t careful. So Zimmer has reduced his intake to just taste-testing.
He prefers to share his product with others.
“It really is more about making for other people to enjoy,” said Zimmer.
That includes a fraternal group of priests that meets once a month. When it’s his turn to host the group in Valparaiso, he brews a batch.
He has also shared his beer making skills. During a fundraiser at the Prague parish, Zimmer was asked to make a meal to be auctioned off, but he is a “terrible cook,” he said.
“I knew nobody was going to pay to eat ramen noodles,” he said.
Instead, Zimmer donated a beer making session to teach others how to make beer.
“I make the batch with them,” he said.
He donated sessions during the first two years at Prague and later did the same for the Bishop Neumann GALA. In addition to serving the congregation in Valparaiso, he is also the assistant chief administrative officer at Bishop Neumann High School.
Zimmer competed against a handful of local brewers during the Okto-Beer-Fest, and hopes more join the contest next year.
The home brew competition was a lot of fun, Zimmer said, even if he felt a little guilty about winning the top prize.
“I kind of wonder if maybe people were voting for the collar and not for the beer,” he said with a laugh.