If you’ve spoken to anyone affiliated with a craft brewery here in St. Louis, you know that it’s the equivalent of speaking to LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow. In an industry that seems to be doubling by the day, you’d think that breweries would be intimidated by, or at the least not pleased with, thew added competition. But the picture they paint is one of fellowship and community. There is no malice, no cutthroat desire to out-brew or out-sell the next guy – just butterflies and unicorns. It’s enough to make even a Disney princess nauseated. Save for the fact that it’s all true.
July 13, 2008, is a date that will forever be burned into the collective mind of the St. Louis beer community. It was a typical day by most standards. The Farmer’s Almanac reports that the high for that day was 86°F. The low was 24 degrees less – again, a typical day in St. Louis. The only difference was that July 13, 2008, was “T-Day.” The day that Belgium-based beer conglomerate InBev agreed to purchase and take over Anheuser-Busch. The price for the last great American beer company? $52 billion.
“That’s when people started to think twice about ordering Budweiser,” recalls Jake Hafner.
Hafner is owner of The Civil Life Brewing Co. Located in a warehouse that straddles the southern edge of the Tower Grove South neighborhood, the brewery is a model for brand minimalism. Swathed in a color that can be described only as beige, The Civil Life had no signage to welcome patrons for its first year in business. And once inside you can spot two, maybe three, actual mentions of the words The Civil Life Brewing Co.
After living in New York, where, among other things, he worked at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, slung high-end wines for one of the city’s largest wine retailers and, oh yeah, graduated from the French Culinary Institute, Hafner came home to St. Louis and opened up 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar in Lafayette Square with his friends Dylan Mosley and Mike Bianco. After a few successful years, Hafner was itching to start something new when he attended a home brew party at Mosley’s house.
“There were quite a few people there, and all of them were having a good time,” Hafner says about that night. “That’s when I thought, ‘Why not a brewery?’”
A few months later, the idea had taken hold of Hafner, and one day he acted on it. Within an hour, Hafner, who had literally no experience in brewing beer, used his credit card to drop more than $6,000 on a prosumer brewing system.
“At the time, it was a bit hasty,” admits the now brewery owner, “but in hindsight, it wasn’t a bad move.”
Phil Wymore is the opposite of hasty. He’s un-hasty. Sitting down with him, he checks his phone constantly – not out of rudeness or impatience, but the man has things planned to the minute. In this case, a new beer release that he had to host.
Coming out of college, Wymore knew exactly what he wanted to do: work in breweries. Granted, that’s what most guys coming out of college want to do, but Wymore had put in the time, working at a local brewery in Columbia, Mo., while he was still in school. While gaining knowledge and valuable experience, he searched up and down I-70 for a brewery job in Missouri.
“There was absolutely nothing,” says Wymore.
He eventually landed a job at Goose Island in Chicago, where he quickly moved up the ranks. After a few years, Wymore realized he wanted to open his own brewery. He and his wife were also about to have their first child, so Wymore moved to St. Louis to be closer to family and start Perennial Artisan Ales.
“One of the great things about this city is all of the buildings,” he says about why he chose his space near the Carondelet area in what was previously a Coca-Cola syrup plant. “There are so many older, unused spaces that were perfect for what we wanted to accomplish, and the city offers great incentives to move in and do something with them.”
If you drive through the LaSalle Park neighborhood of St. Louis, just south of Downtown, there are definitely areas that could be described as older and unused. But when Kevin Lemp stepped foot into what is now 4 Hands Brewing Co., he knew right away that he had found what he was looking for.
“I went into over 40 buildings,” says the president and co-founder of 4 Hands. Like Wymore, Lemp fell in love with craft beer in college. And after a decade of managing craft-beer and wine divisions at the distributor and supplier levels, Lemp decided to follow his dream and open a brewery somewhere in the city.
“I wanted to make sure that we were located in the city – no matter how large or small, we wanted to be a piece of the city.”
Many share the same sentiment. Multiple breweries, including 4 Hands, Perennial, Civil Life and Urban Chestnut, have opened up within city limits. Considering the amount of space that’s needed to brew beer on a professional level, it seems counterintuitive to not want a location in more open, wider spaces.
“I only see positive things with having our business in St. Louis,” explains Lemp. “Soon we could have a different brewery in every neighborhood.”
Lemp’s premonition may come true. According to the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, the number of breweries that have opened in the city of St. Louis has tripled in the last five years, to nine. If we consider the entire metropolitan area, that number is pushing past 20, and this trend is not just in St. Louis.
Microbreweries have been gaining in popularity across the country for more than a decade – but it’s just now that St. Louis is truly feeling the effects. In fact, even with a shrinking beer market, craft-beer sales across the nation have experienced double-digit growth for the past seven years. According to Beer Advocate, there are 2,126 active breweries in the United States. That’s the most in 125 years. One reason, theorized by David Wolfe of Urban Chestnut Brewing Co., is the shift in preference for goods made closer to home.
“[It’s the desire to] support local businesses and local resources,” explains Wolfe. “The unification of local communities; this sentiment marries perfectly with the passion of locally involved craft-beer brewers who brew a beverage that is, at its core, very social and very local in nature.”
The locavore movement is well-known across the country, with more and more people rising up to stake claims on their city’s wares. And if we give credence to Wolfe’s explanation for why craft beer is experiencing such a boom in growth, won’t this mean that more and more breweries will open their doors? As a result, doesn’t this mean a smaller piece of the pie for each brewery?
As the breweries tell it, no. According to Wolfe, craft-beer sales in the United States grabbed 5.7 percent (by volume) of the total beer market in 2011. If he had to guess, he would say that the number for St. Louis craft brewers is closer to 4 percent. This means that breweries aren’t fighting each other for the same piece of pie – they’re fighting the giant corporate breweries for a larger share.
And they’re gaining.
Walk into any restaurant or bar today, and you can see the change. Establishments that used to have two tap handles – one for Bud, the other for Bud Light – now have four, or eight. More than ever, greater numbers of St. Louis beer drinkers are shifting away from “chain” beers and demanding something different.
“It’s not only because of the buyout but because of the accessibility of beer in general,” Hafner rationalizes. “I can afford a world-class beer, but I can’t afford a world-class wine – and that’s true. You may not be able to get that really nice Pinot Noir at the restaurant, but for $5, you can get a pint of great craft beer.”
For St. Louisans, it’s not just the fact that you can get great craft beer for a reasonable amount of money; it’s the fact that you can get so many different kinds. Looking at each brewery, it’s surprising how different one is from another, and none of it on purpose. If you let them tell it, each brewery just happened to move into an area of mixed residential and commercial space that didn’t have a brewery nearby. It just so happened that no brewery really overlapped with another in terms of atmosphere or beer selection: Each one just made what it liked. In Greek mythology, they’re known as Moirai – the Fates. Apparently in the St. Louis beer community, it’s called happenstance.
Hafner and his motley crew at The Civil Life focus on English-style session beers, which are known for their lower alcohol content. Lower alcohol means a longer drinking “session” with your friends. Civil Life's building is divided into two parts: a production area that takes up approximately 70 percent of the total space and a two-story tasting room covered in wood, bar games and more wood.
Conversely, 4 Hands looks like it took a master class in branding from Phil Knight. Everything in the space has a story or reason. Giant plate-glass walls show patrons the production facilities; the tables and chairs are made from reclaimed wood from a Missouri barn; there are countless T-shirts and hats in a wide array of colors and sizes. Even the story of why 4 Hands plucked its brewmaster, Will Johnston, from Goose Island to make its self-described “portfolio” of beers is a shining example of fabulous PR. In an effort to improve the craft-beer movement here, Lemp wanted to add someone new to the community versus take someone away from an already-established brewery.
David Wolfe and his partner, Florian Kuplent, have carved out their own spot in Midtown. At Urban Chestnut they offer a mix of modern American craft beers with traditional European styles that match their bierhaus-like atmosphere down to the Deutschland-imported beer hall tables and benches. Their goal: a space that celebrates the communal aspect of beer drinking.
“Craft brewers brew beer because they are passionate about beer and the communities in which they live and work,” says Wolfe. “Some are more entrepreneurial or more competitive, but at the end of the day, a craft-beer brewer loves beer and brews it to share.”
And then, of course, there’s St. Louis Brewery, which makes Schlafly: the craft beer that started it all in St. Louis over two decades ago. It's still making European-style beers the same way it did in 1991 and has expanded to include modern American and innovative styles. In an ironic twist, Schlafly now finds itself as a sort of “big beer maker" in a city chock-full of young upstarts. But that hasn’t made it lose its craft-beer mentality.
“St. Louis had 40 breweries at the time of Prohibition,” Schlafly co-founder Dan Kopman says about the area’s rich brewing past. “The number declined to one, and when we opened, it made two. Now there is a unique community, embracing the history and tradition while moving forward with innovation. A lot of other American cities that are thought of as ‘beer towns’ embrace the new and reject the past. St. Louis is a beer town [in the heart of the Midwest]. We don’t have mountains and oceans. St. Louisans want the beer gardens and taprooms, and they’ll support it.”
Wymore agrees. He and his team at Perennial crank out a new beer on draught every week and a new bottle offering every month. Part of why his madcap brewing schedule succeeds is that he is exactly where he is, in the middle of the country. “We’re not pigeonholed by a certain style,” explains Wymore. “We take the best things from a variety of areas and regions – lighter West Coast beers, hoppier East Coast styles – that produce great results.”
This amalgamation of brewing styles seems to be paying off for Perennial, as it's already begun distribution to Chicago and New York. Over the summer, it received the designation of Beer of the Month by the Chicago Tribune.
“We want to continue making beers that really push the envelope of creativity and excellence in brewing,” says Wymore. “We want to become a small regional craft brewery.”
St. Louis’ craft brewers embrace the community by building relationships through things like 4 Hands’ smoked-porter collaboration with Pappy’s Smokehouse’s Mike Emerson, Perennial’s beer dinners with restaurants across the city and The Civil Life’s work with Amsterdam Tavern to create its Goal!den Ale for the soccer-obsessed South City bar as well as with Royale Fine Food & Spirits in Tower Grove South to create Royale Kolsch.
“Is 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent [market share] or beyond possible in the next 10 to 15 years?” asks Wolfe. “We think so, but that’s not necessarily the point. Nobody knows for sure where craft beer will end up, but one thing is for certain: Craft-beer brewers are individually and collectively making a positive impact in our local communities, and that cannot be underestimated.”
See? No over-the-top competition or infighting. Just a team effort to build beer recognition in a beer-obsessed city.
4 Hands Brewing Co., 1220 S. 8th St., LaSalle Park, 314.436.1559, 4handsbrewery.com
Perennial Artisan Ales, 8125 South Michigan Ave., 314.631.7300, perennialbeer.com
The Civil Life Brewing Co., 3714 Holt Ave., South City, thecivillifebrewingcompany.com
In preparing to shoot The Civil Life's British Bitter (pictured above), photographer Jonathan Gayman discovered helpful hints for making beer look good on camera (like making fake condensation out of corn syrup and water and using lint to show bubbles). He shares what he learned here on his blog.