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Holy Water

Saint Arnold's finds a little divine guidance in the form of Father Andrei Davydov

Brock Wagner, the 36-year-old owner and jack-of-all-trades at Saint Arnold Brewing Company [2522 Fairway Park Drive, (713)686-9494], is the poster boy for thinking outside the box. Wagner founded his brewery after leaving a job as an investment banker. Leaving such a profession to operate a microbrewery is not like quitting a job at the filling station to go to Nashville and try your hand at picking and singing. For a business school grad, being hired by a New York investment banking firm is the equivalent of playing the Grand Ole Opry. But quit he did.

The switch suits Wagner, who makes some fine beers: By blending 20 different types of malted barley and malted wheat and using a variety of brewing techniques, he produces four standard beers, plus a seasonal lineup to keep his customers from getting flavor fatigue. There is a black Winter Stout, a Spring Bock (currently on sale), a Summer Pils (which will go on sale when the season arrives on the Gulf Coast, March 1), an autumnal Oktoberfest and a Christmas Ale.

This is, of course, a standard practice for many microbreweries. Where Wagner goes further afield is with his other business and marketing ideas: He got into sausage making last year (see "Expect the Wurst," June 29, 2000) with a bratwurst produced by Houston's well-established Candelari sausage company, which uses Wagner's Amber Ale to make the brats. They're available at the brewery as well as at Spec's liquor stores and Rice Epicurean supermarkets. Wagner also purchased a 1957 Bentley S1 and repainted it in a psychedelic tie-dye color scheme, which refers to the pattern on the labels of his Summer Pils. The car regularly appears at Saint Arnold promotional events around town.

Deadline artist: Father Andrei Davydov races against the drying stucco to paint the fresco of Saint Arnold.
Deron Neblett
Deadline artist: Father Andrei Davydov races against the drying stucco to paint the fresco of Saint Arnold.

Then on March 18 of last year, Wagner saw a front-page article in The New York Times about Father Andrei Davydov, a Russian Orthodox priest in the ancient city of Pskov. Father Andrei had undertaken the task of not only rebuilding a congregation out of the local population, composed of people who had been bombarded with Soviet-style teachings of scientific atheism, but also restoring a church built in 1124 to house that congregation. The article mentioned that readers could go to a Web site (www.geocities.com/Paris/Pavilion/8345/english.html) and see photographs of the church, as well as icons and frescoes painted by Father Andrei in the course of his work.

Wagner e-mailed the cleric with a request for an icon of Saint Arnold of Metz, a seventh-century French bishop who has the distinction of being a patron saint of brewers. After a good deal of back-and-forth communications, Father Andrei produced the desired icon in a 12th-century style associated with the renowned Byzantine church in Ravenna, Italy, authentically painted on a wooden plank using an encaustic technique with pigments hand-ground from minerals such as lapis lazuli, malachite and cinnabar. Wagner then arranged for Father Andrei to come to Houston with his son and assistant Fillip to produce a fresco of Saint Arnold for the brewery's wall.

On the evening of Monday, February 5, Father Andrei blessed and consecrated both the icon and the fresco in a brief ceremony little changed from the day in 988 when Christianity came to Russia in the form of an ecclesiastical entourage to Anna, sister of the reigning Byzantine emperor, who had arrived in Kiev to wed Grand Duke Vladimir. It was not a scene you would expect to see in a microbrewery housed in an industrial park. It was not a story you would expect to see on the front of the features section of the Houston Chronicle. Brock Wagner had done it again.

Father Andrei, who came to be an aficionado of Saint Arnold beers during his 11-day stay in the Houston area, explained in Russian over a mug of Amber Ale how all this came to pass.

"We get visitors all the time to our church. So when a party came claiming to be from The New York Times, I invited them in to tea at the rectory. They sat and sat until they had eaten every last pastry and had drunk up all of my tea, and then they finally left -- to my relief. I thought no more about them. A few weeks later, our Web site began to receive hundreds of messages, many from people wanting to commission icons. I don't have time for that many commissions, even though the sale of my icons does bring in money for the work of restoring our cathedral. One message kept coming from Houston. I reflected on the fact that I have a sister who lives in Houston, who I have not seen for six years, so I agreed to come." (Father Andrei's sister, Elena, works for a local company that, among other things, teaches Russian to American astronauts preparing for missions aboard the space stations.)

Wagner discovered that the material used for painting frescoes, slaked lime, is no longer widely available in the United States. In addition, the lime used for frescoes has to age in a special way, "sometimes for as long as a hundred years," Father Andrei says. Wagner began a frantic search and finally located what may be the only fresco painter in the States, certainly the only one in San Antonio. That artist had a supply of nine-month-old slaked lime, which he was willing to sell. Since Wagner wanted the fresco to be somewhat portable -- the brewmaster plans to move operations to a roomier location -- he had to ask Father Andrei to abandon his usual technique of applying the wet stucco to a masonry wall. Instead, it was applied inside a wooden frame. During a short curing process prior to painting, the frame was laid out in the sun on the Saint Arnold parking lot. A visiting journalist nearly ran her car over the frame, actually bumping it with a tire, causing a few tense moments while the damage was surveyed and repaired. Then the father and son did the painting in a marathon 36-hour session. Once the stucco dries, it no longer will absorb the watercolor pigments.

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