Essay: Shall We Gather at the Brewery?

A young Christian writer traces her personal journey with alcohol in Smith County.

One rainy fall afternoon a few years ago, I was driving to the county line with my friend Jim, the Dionysus of my early college years. Jim and I met in the theater program at TJC, bonding over shared hours of building sets and memorizing lines. We needed liquor for a theater party that night, but, though Smith County had recently lifted a century-old ban on beer and wine sales, liquor was still verboten. Jim, who, unlike me, didn’t grow up in a teetotalling Southern Baptist household, decided to take the opportunity to initiate me in the ways of real drinking. We were headed for Fat Dog Beverages over in Henderson County, Smith Country’s less-uptight southwestern neighbor.

I’d never been to Fat Dog; I’d never even been in a liquor store. I’d had the occasional glass of wine or beer at friends’ parties since starting college, but I’d certainly never purchased my own alcohol, in bulk, to store in my own apartment. Raised in conservative church communities around the Dallas metroplex, I was frequently warned that my teenage and college years would be littered with temptation, with alcohol billed as the slipperiest of steps down a ruinous path. I occasionally saw alcohol in the homes of non-church-going friends, and that made sense to me. They did their thing, and we did ours—The World and The Church, The Lost and The Saved. Christians are often taught that we are in the world, but should not be of the world. If we caroused and carried on like non-believers, the thinking went, how could we demonstrate that Christ had something better to offer? Why risk a hangover when, instead, one could drink in the eternal joy of knowing Christ? Growing up, our aversion to alcohol seemed perfectly logical to me.

And yet, like Smith County, I had loosened up over the years. I’d witnessed both responsible and reckless drinking, and come to believe it was okay for me to drink so long as dancing on tables with lampshades for hats stayed out of my routine. Jim, however, had different ideas about the purpose of this trip. “Talitha’s gonna get crazy!” he crowed as we barreled past Lake Palestine. “No, no,” I said, laughing to cover my growing alarm. “Nothing too crazy.” Jim was having none of it. “We’ll start with one of everything—whiskey, rum, scotch. We definitely need to get you some scotch. Scotch is what smart people drink.”

I canned my protest as we pulled into Fat Dog’s parking lot, where I had half-expected to see the place littered with people my mother would have called “degenerates,” flicking cigarette butts at each other and taking swigs out of paper bags. Instead, the folks walking into the store ahead of us looked like they maybe just left Home Depot and were headed to Brookshire’s next.

Jim led me down the vodka aisle and I marveled at the variety. Some brands were in pretty glass bottles, others came in industrial plastic. Varying distillations? Different strengths? Wasn’t alcohol just alcohol? It was all a bit dizzying, and the fluorescent lights overhead suddenly felt like eyes glaring over my shoulder. Jim and I were both over twenty one, but I couldn’t shake the feeling we were doing something illegal. As we crossed back over Lake Palestine, with bags full of beer, vodka and whiskey for our friends—and a little bottle Irish cream, my concession to Jim’s insistence that I stash away something just for me—I imagined ghosts of prohibition bootleggers cackling in satisfaction. We were returning to our very dry county in a very wet car.

I recently thought about that trip to Fat Dog’s—my deer-in-headlights discomfort, my panicked feeling of moving too fast—during a day trip with some friends to Kiepersol Vineyards. It was a busy afternoon about five years later, with dozens of families lounging or strolling around the vineyard. In dress and demeanor, they looked much like most white, middle-class, church-going families I grew up with, except here, parents balanced a glass of wine while pushing their kids on the swingset.

I imagine my friends and I looked rather sophisticated that day, comparing favorite varietals and sampling expensive cheese plates. Given that one of my friends was the designated driver, my wallet was the only thing putting the brakes on my perusal of the drink menu. It suddenly seemed funny that not that long ago, I had felt like a delinquent smuggler bringing alcohol back across the county line. Some of the same college friends who worried over my friendship with Jim, the imbibing non-believer, might now invite me out to ETX Brewery on a Friday night for a pint and a taco. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see some of Kiepersol’s patrons at one of Christian-owned True Vine Brewery’s “open taps” events, sipping beers with Biblically inspired names.

How have so many of Smith County’s formerly teetotalling Christians—myself included—become so utterly comfortable with alcohol in such a short time? How did we decide that alcohol has its place in our world, after all? Growing up, we were frequently referred to Ephesians 5:18—Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Nowadays, it seemed, the vibe was much more Matthew 15:11—What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

Thinking back on how rigidly I and so many people I grew up with feared the effects of alcohol—what it might do to our families, our homes, our souls—and how, in time, we came to not only allow alcohol into our lives, but to find meaning and community in it, I can’t help but wonder what other fears we might enjoy letting go. If our views on alcohol could change so drastically in the last ten years, what could happen in the next decade? When those changes come, will we remember how tightly we once held certain ideas, or will we be too preoccupied enjoying our new choices? In the meantime, I’m glad there are more and more places in Smith County where we can come together and discuss such questions over a glass of something strong.

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