The Rev. Brent Raska opens a brewery where faith is always on tap
May 16, 2023
Originally published May/June 2021
As the Rev. Brent Raska finishes up another order from customers in the states he distributes beer to, he remembers how he felt on Dec. 31, 2017. How he wept after preaching a final sermon at the small church he’d served for five years, which was down to 12 people. “I couldn’t help but think I was a failure,” he said, “even though I knew I wasn’t.”
Although sad in the moment, the closing of Christ Presbyterian Church in North Riverside, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago, presented the opportunity to pursue a dream born out of his commitment to relational ministry: to open a brewery. Raska, who had been home brewing for about six years, saw the idea as an extension of his call to ministry. He jumped in, believing the brewery would combine all of his passions for high-quality craft beer, fellowship and conversation — along with the opportunity for hospitality and community service.
“I felt like I could still be a pastor, but in a different way,” he said, adding, “a lot of 20- and 30-somethings will walk into a brewery, but not a church.”
When Raska opened with a soft launch on Jan. 1, 2020, his brewery had a community room in the back, with free meeting space for nonprofits and churches. He named his new business venture Burning Bush Brewery, after one of his favorite Bible stories.
“I love that God spoke to Moses in that way, and that Moses was faithful to God and his community,” he said. “People feel comfortable in a brewery, so they naturally ask me about the name, which leads to conversations about their thoughts about God, or faith, that they might not have had otherwise.”
Just a week after the Burning Bush’s grand opening on March 6, 2020, those conversations came to a grinding halt when the reality of the effects of Covid led to an effort to flatten the virus’ curve with sheltering-in-place mandates. Among the things that disappointed Raska was that he had to cancel a book sale in the community room. Proceeds would’ve gone to a nearby Lutheran church. “My head was spinning; we were in survival mode,” he said. “We had to cut expenses.”
Raska let his head brewer go, deciding it was time for him to take that on himself. A fellow brewery owner helped him learn the intricacies of commercial brewing. Another home-brewing friend, Frank Mercadante, learned the commercial side along with Raska, and has been brewing with him since the pandemic. Mercadante also has a ministry background having led a Catholic youth ministry for 30 years. In the process of starting his own brewery, he and Raska laugh about how they’re going back to a pre-Reformation tradition: Some of the best and oldest beers in the world were made by monks in monasteries.
Needing to keep income flowing, Raska kept Burning Bush Brewery open for takeout. He also started delivering his beer to some of Chicago’s suburbs.
By summer, he was able to serve many customers on his patio outside, paying close attention to social distancing guidelines. And in the fall, he started canning beers to provide another “to go” option for customers.
“It’s been quite the ride,” he said. “We have a good core of regulars in the neighborhood now. Eventually we’d love to have a community service day with them.”
Those regulars, and others becoming familiar with the beers he has on tap, constantly ask him about the stories behind their names. Most on the current list have biblical or church references.
Raska said he is grateful for his parents’ support and he is also grateful for his wife, Erin Raska, also a PC(USA) pastor, for weathering many a storm with him in their years together, from the closing of a congregation to the opening of a brewery at the start of a pandemic.
“How wonderful it has been,” he said. “We didn’t make a profit in our first year, but we didn’t have a huge loss, either.”
Perhaps another beer will be in the works at Burning Bush Brewery, one called Faithfulness.
Paul Seebeck, retired Mission Communications Strategist, Communications, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Burning Bush Brewery
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Omar Chan, Program Assistant, Application & Committee Support, Office of the General Assembly
Jill Chancellor, Reference Archivist, Presbyterian Historical Society, Office of the General Assembly
Let us pray
O God, we ask your blessing on those whom you have called. Strengthen them in this important service even as they strengthen the church through their work. Amen.