Interview – Aaron Schmalze & Jared Witt, Castle Church Brewing @churchbrew

It’s been a very momentous few weeks for Castle Church Brewing Community in Orlando. They just held their soft opening a few weeks ago ahead of their blowout Grand Opening event on Dec. 1st. In addition, they recently received Best Overall Brewery at the 2018 Orlando Beer Fest.

It has been a long time since I spoke with brewery co-founder Aaron Schmalze about Castle Church. Ahead of their opening on Saturday, I spoke with he and his fellow partner, Jared Witt, about the 1516 German Purity Law, the state of Orlando beer, and growler bags.

Are you a church that has a brewery, or a brewery that has a church?

Aaron Schmalze (AS): The church owns the brewery. Churches have long since operated businesses and organizations that contribute to building a better society and world. Our church felt the call to brew high quality craft beer that can be enjoyed along with friends and family.

Jared Witt (JW): This is one of those questions that people outside our community seem to weigh more heavily than we do within the community.

I get the impulse. I think people like binary choices, because that’s how we first start to make sense of our world. Look at any children’s book: “Not hot, but cold. Not up, but down.” But that habit also sometimes causes us to try to force binaries where none are needed. This is one of those.

We find ourselves quoting our historical mentor Martin Luther a lot on this one. Whenever people tried to force him into a false choice theologically he would say it’s “both/and.”

Where did the name come from?

AS: Castle Church is the historical site of the Reformation in 1517. 500 years later, and in that same Reformation spirit, we are a Brewing Community.

JW: Aaron gave the short answer. The longer version is of course that the Reformation is an ongoing project wherever people realize that the church needs to do better and continually adapt its message of radical grace to a culture with ever changing needs. But yep, Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses against the sale of Indulgences at the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany. Sort of turned western history upside down there for a bit (500 years or so).

There are a lot of denominations for whom alcohol is considered ‘bad’. How are you planning to deal with any potential backlash?

AS: We honestly don’t have time to get sucked down into the negative stuff others seem to feed off. Our strength and passion wells from a faith that is an unconditional and undeserved gift from God. Confident in this faith, we’re working to make a better world for our neighbors. We focus on what unites and ties us to our neighbors, rather than what divides or separates us.

JW: Same thing we tell our community and our staff whenever there is disagreement. Love people. Be big. Do the right thing. It’s really hard to maintain a negative campaign against something when the only response it provokes is positive and gracious.

Will charitable causes be a part of your operation?

AS: Running a sustainable brewery is no small task, but we do hope to share all of our profits and proceeds with partners who make a positive impact on our local and global community.

JW: I run a satellite of a non profit organization called IDignity here in Orlando, which helps the homeless and working poor recover full legal identification and search for employment. We partner with Haitian Timoun Foundation, a grassroots network of Haitian run organizations designed to help kids have a chance at a better life through education. As we grow, we’ll partner with more qualified and impactful organizations so that our blessings in house flow outwards. That’s always been a big part of the vision.

When and where are you planning on starting distribution?

AS: Finding the right beer distributor for the Castle Church brand is important to us. We’ve got a great brewhouse that will allow us to ramp up production to meet our projected distribution needs for the next 5-7 years. Many of the distributors coming to us now just wouldn’t be able to match that growth. We’ve also got a fierce brand loyalty and unique national spotlight with the church connections, factors on which a future distribution partner would need to be a good fit.

You are a Brewing Community. What does that mean?

AS: Castle Church brews craft beer and community. Brewing the highest quality craft beer is our passion, but as a spiritual community, we exist for people first.

JW: There is a lot in our culture that militates against meaningful relationships of meaning and integrity. Our consumer culture and the endless proliferation of goods and conveniences, makes it easier and easier to do things quickly and never have to rely on one another or really even talk to each other. Our entertainment and technology culture often distracts from more depth in conversation. I’ll stop before I get too preachy, but basically there are certain environments that are more conducive to meaningful relationships and genuine joyfulness in life than others. We put a lot of intentionality into engineering a social environment where you’re likely to make new friends and find neighborliness.

How did the beer and Faith intersect for you? Was it a natural combination?

AS: The Castle Church community was born while home brewing in a garage and has grown into a craft brewery and church model that have been getting national attention on both fronts. For us, and for many others it seems, Castle Church’s focus on high quality craft beer and an authentic faith community is a great fit.

JW: Faith and everything intersect if the faith is genuine. I would even prefer the word spirituality to faith, as it’s more all-encompassing. As a pastoral counselor, it would be a pretty good indicator to me that the spirituality is not complete or genuine or that there is some major disconnect, if there are aspects of our lives that need to be compartmentalized and walled off from it. We love beer. So why not?

When people come into Castle Church, what can they expect? Is it very visually similar to what they expect from a church, a brewery, or is it a combination?

AS: A common sentiment from first time guests is that Castle Church wasn’t what they expected. Castle Church has a modern, warm-industrial feel to the architecture and layout. Half of the space is the brewery production floor and the other half a combination of tasting room, indoor beer garden, meeting rooms, and bar spaces. Guests are very much in a brewery, and can see “stainless” from most vantage points in the building.

We believe that community and authentic relationships happen around tables and in homes. A close observer may notice that the layout and design of the entire building reflects this. We also wanted to create spaces that our neighbors would be able to use for meetings, parties, weddings, and events. We are fortunate enough to have a great space for people to have a good time, and are happy to share that with our community.

JW: Yep. It’s a brewery, one with a particularly cool vibe and a well thought out floor plan thanks mostly to our lead designer, Aaron. I’m grateful every time I walk inside for his ability to turn our dreams into actual material things.

I’ve tried your signature beer based on Martin Luther’s recipe, and Indulgences, your double IPA. What other beers are you expecting to have when you open?

AS: A lot of dedication went into creating and honing our 11 core styles. About six of them are offered year round and the others as seasonal or special releases. The best way to stay up to date on what styles we offer and what’s available is to install our mobile app from your favorite App Store. Typing in “Castle Church Brewing
Community” should do the trick.

JW: I want to give a shout out to our new head brewer Ed Ruble, who comes to us from Bells and Avery Brewing. His genius and focus on quality control has combined with Aaron’s genius for clever recipe creation and really given us something unique to serve.

What is the deal with that silver bag that keeps showing up? Is that how you’re doing growlers?

AS: Those are our 128oz growlers. Castle Church growlers sit on a refrigerator shelf and are dispensed from a tap, allowing the beer you take home to be protected from UV and O2 for the freshest and best quality growler pour available short of a keg. We love the concept of growlers but disliked their propensity for flat, oxidized pours that lasted three days at most. The growlers Castle Church uses will ensure that the Castle Church beer you drink and share with friends is the best quality craft beer available.

JW: Also, you can stack them in a cooler and take them to the beach or a BBQ or whatever with no fear of shattered glass. They even have a smaller carbon footprint on the ecosystem than what it takes to manufacture glass growlers. I wouldn’t be surprised if these become the norm in ten years in the same way that cans gradually overtook bottles.

I know that you researched the recipe for your signature ale how much research went into the other recipes that you are brewing? Are those more standard styles, or did you have others that you wanted to put on more historical basis on?

JW: We have a combination of old world traditions (e.g. Mighty Fortress Doppelbock), old world tweaks (e.g. Luther Lager, an IPL Dormunder; This Little Light Pilsner Smash), and new world innovations (E.g. Indulgences Double IPA) . We’re not opposed to going beyond Reinheitsgebot (the 1516 German Purity Law) if it really is an intentional compliment. But I do have to say, we’re probably never going to be a brewery to toss thirty pounds of pigs feet and paprika into something just to see if it takes. We’re all still pretty fascinated with how many different flavor dimensions you can get out of good old malt, hops, yeast and the occasional sour.

AS: All of the beers at Castle Church were researched, and a lot of passion and dedication went into making our 12 cores to the exacting standards of the brand. Some of our styles like All Saints Einbecker and Mighty Fortress Doppelbock are historic beers backed up by tradition and precedent. Others like This Little Light SMaSH Pilsner, Luther Lager IPL, or Good Friday Cryo-IPA are styles we know our guests are going to love. We offer traditional crowd pleasers like Katie’s Kölsch and Here I Stand Oatmeal Stout, but have also pushed the boundaries by introducing a 100% Wheat Porter called Wittenberg. Castle Church offers the highest quality hand crafted beers for anyone to enjoy.

Looking at a lot of the artwork that is on your app, it definitely looks like scripture and/or religious tenants were at the forefront when naming the beers. Did you start with the concept and find a beer that matched it, or did you start with the beer first?

JW: The beers came first. We don’t mess around with beer just for a great word play. But later, there is almost always a play on what the beer is or how it was created. There are three sacramental elements in classic Lutheranism (bread, wine, water), and there are three well balanced ingredients in our Means of Grace Brown Ale. The blueberries in our Adventus Saison help create something that wouldn’t have been possible before, something like the meaning of the latin word adventus. That kind of thing.

AS: We named the historic Einbecker Ale ‘All Saints’ because that is the proper name of the Castle Church moniker from which we draw our brand’s logo and namesake. It was also the favorite beer of Martin Luther and there’s a good chance he was drinking one of these while drafting up the 95 Thesis that started the Reformation. Knowing the brewery would be owned by a church, we kept with the thematic style names. More often than not, the style was created and then an appropriate name followed.

Historically, were the Luthers held to the 1516 German Purity law (Reinheitsgebot) with their brewing? And is that something that you considered yourselves for the brewery?

JW: The Beer Purity Law actually predates the beginning of the reformation by a year. So, yeah, everyone in Germany was held to it. Our level of quality and innovation in our Reinheitsgebot beers is something we pride ourselves in and would love to have a great reputation for. But we don’t stick to Reinheitsgebot slavishly. If we have to have a “thing” though, I don’t know that that would be our thing. Intentionality in everything and never doing anything without a reason is probably our thing.

AS: We love to support creativity at Castle Church, and we will always have a few new styles in the works. Some of our styles have adjunct components that wouldn’t fall under the Reinheitsgebot, but most of the beer at Castle Church is made from four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast.

Some of the most venerated beers on the planet come from monasteries in Europe in the US. While the denominations are different, are some of those Trappist styles of Ales something that you had looked at?

JW: I’m daily begging Aaron and Ed to come up with a killer Belgian Dubbel and maybe a Flemish Oud Bruin down the road. But it’s important to us not to try to do everything all at once. The quality is paramount.

AS: Monasteries and churches were the main contributors to the “modern” brewing practices we have today. We are similar in our respect for the science and tradition of Trappist communities. Many of the Trappist brewers have an historic recipe which they brew, and I suppose that also correlates with Castle Church’s All Saints Einbecker receipe.

Your facility is opening up in Central Florida. While it’s not as densely populated with breweries as, say, Tampa or Jacksonville, the Orlando brewing scene is starting to gain speed. Do you feel that there is still a long way to go before craft beer fully saturates the market? Or is the craft beer scene in the area starting to get close to its peak?

JW: Not even close. I’m from Denver. Aaron and I have both lived or spent significant time in pretty advanced beer cultures like Fort Collins, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Austin, Seattle, and Columbus. Many of our age and lifestyle demographics here in Orlando mirror those places, but we have not even an eighth of the production scale. Orlando is still in a place where more breweries only raise the awareness and the beer IQ locally. And more brewers mean an ever improving standard of quality. It’s a really exciting market to be a part of right now.

AS: Orlando probably has a few more years of craft brewing industry growth ahead. The Central Florida community has been wildly receptive to the new opportunities to access good beer. Don’t forget, beer is our passion at Castle Church, but we exist for people first. Our unique model of Third-Place Community and Radical Hospitality that accompany our craft beer aren’t restricted by market pressures and trends. Castle Church is setting a standard for enjoying high quality craft beer with friends and family.

Does tourism play a big role in how you view Outreach for Castle church? Or are you focusing more on locals?

AS: Castle Church focuses on high quality craft beer and people, all people. Most of our guests are local, but being seven minutes from the airport lends itself to beer tourism traffic. We have a few weekday tour options, and are listed on many of the craft beer apps that help us find new breweries when we travel. Castle Church has also experienced a “pilgrimage” of sorts from guests who stop in during a family vacation just to “check out” what a church owned brewery looks like. We welcome everyone at Castle Church!

Drink Florida Craft,


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