'Beer & Hymns' – Mixing froth with faith

The monthly event meets at The Last Chance Tavern.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - As far back as the 18th century, German monks brewed and drank beer during the solemn religious observance of Lent, which is the six weeks that leads up to Easter Sunday.

Arthur Guinness, who was the creator of Guinness Beer, was a devout Christian who used the teachings of God to help him run his beer business.

The marriage of “Pilsner with Praise” has been happening for centuries, but a form of it is just starting to emerge in West Michigan.

It’s called “Beer & Hymns.”

Grand Rapids residents, Dan and Carrie Elzinga discovered Beer & Hymns two years ago when they were attending a religious festival in North Carolina.

“After the close of each day’s agenda, the people would gather and drink beer and sing only hymns,” said Carrie. “Hundreds of people would stand shoulder to shoulder and belt out these deeply meaningful old songs while drinking beer."

It didn’t take long for Carrie to start wondering if there was a “Beer & Hymns” event back in Grand Rapids.

“We thought this must be happening somewhere in Grand Rapids,” said Carrie. “After doing some research, we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t.

“Dan and I immediately thought a Beer & Hymns should be happening in Beer City USA.”

In late 2015, the Elzingas reached out to their friends, Dan and Lynell Miller, who happen to attend the same church. Dan Miller happens to work in the beer industry, and immediately reached out to Tom Eastman, who is the co-owner of “The Last Chance Tavern and Grill” in Grand Rapids.

“Dan [Miller] came [to the Last Chance] in December of 2015 and asked me if we’d mind hosting an event where people came, drank beer and sang Christmas hymns,” said Eastman. “I said I’d have no problem with that.”

Around Christmas 2015, the Elzingas and the Millers, along with close to 20 others, gathered at the Last Chance for what evolved into the first Beer & Hymns event in Grand Rapids.

“We never thought it would get as big as it’s gotten,” said Eastman.

Beginning in January 2016, a Beer & Hymns event was added to the monthly calendar at The Last Chance. Ever since, it’s fallen on the fourth Tuesday of every month.

“Every month it’s grown and more people have packed into our pub,” said Eastman. “The second Beer & Hymns drew about 40 people.

“The August 2017 event drew close to 140.”

The Elzingas and the Millers usually arrive at the Last Chance between 5 and 5:30 p.m. to help get things set up. Carrie will immediately go to the chalkboard and write the hymn numbers in the order they will be sung.

Patrons start showing up around 5:30 p.m. so they can have dinner before the Beer & Hymns, and to insure they have a seat.

“We enjoy beer and we enjoy hymns,” said Dan Elzinga. “Why can’t these two entities exist together.”

Around 6 p.m., the band members show up. Two guitarists, a drummer and an accordion player. They’re given the ten-song set-list and they begin practicing the songs. Milk crates chock-full of hymnals, borrowed from a local church, are stored behind one of the video games in the bar. Carrie Elzinga will walk around the bar, and ask patrons if they’d like to participate in Beer & Hymns, and if they do, she’ll hand them each a hymnal.

This is also the time when most of the patrons are ordering pitchers of beer, or placing individual orders for a craft beer of choice.

Dan Elzinga is the song leader. When the hands on the clock read 6:30 p.m., Dan calls everybody’s attention, and asks them to open their hymnals.

“Thanks everybody for coming out tonight,” Dan barks out to the crowd. “We’re going to start with hymn number 72 – To God be the Glory.”

Moments later, the band starts playing, and the pub erupts in song.

“I think often times in church, people feel like they have to be reserved,” said Dan Elzinga. “You don’t have to be reserved in a bar.

“Half the time in church, you can barely hear the people singing, but at Beer & Hymns, the singing is deafening.”

“I grew up on the old hymns,” said Lynell Miller. “I also love craft beer, so combining the two is perfect.”

The hymns flow as fast as the beer flows.

One classic after another.

From “How Great Thou Art”, to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, to “Amazing Grace”, to “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” those attending sing from the soul and sip beer for close to two hours.

“As far as Tuesdays go, Beer & Hymns is the best Tuesday that we have throughout the entire month, no matter what else we have going on,” said Eastman, referring to how the event helps his business. “It’s a packed house here at every Beer & Hymns.”

Age doesn’t matter at Beer & Hymns.

“I would like my daughters to grow up knowing the old hymns,” said Lynell Miller. “Many churches today, even the conservative and traditional ones, have moved away from the old hymns.

“Beer & Hymns is their primary source of exposure to the old hymns.”

The old hymns have deep meaning for many who attend.

“One older gentleman who is a regular at Beer & Hymns requested that we sing Amazing Grace,” added Lynell Miller. “After we sang it, he came up to me and said, ‘thank you for adding that one to the set list; I remember how special that song was to me when I grew up.’”

The Last Chance Tavern wants to continue hosting Beer & Hymns, but it’s reaching capacity for how many people can attend.

“Given the success Beer & Hymns has had, we’ve begun discussing this as an option for other bars in downtown Grand Rapids,” said Dan Miller. “We don’t want the event at The Last Chance to stop, but we’d like to see other bars add Beer & Hymns to their monthly calendars.”

West Michigan has both a thirst for beer and a thirst for a higher power. The success of Beer & Hymns offers participants the ‘Blessed Assurance’ that it’s okay to mix ‘froth’ with ‘faith.’

“We’re at capacity most months,” said Lynell Miller. “If I have to go home for somebody else to experience Beer & Hymns for the first time, I will.”

“No you won’t,” Dan Miller quickly quipped to his wife.

“You’re right, I won’t,” added Lynell.

Here’s a list of the remaining dates for Beer & Hymns at The Last Chance Tavern and Grill:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 26
  • Tuesday, Oct. 24
  • Tuesday, Nov. 28
  • Tuesday, Dec. 19

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