Originally from southeast Missouri, Jonathan Moxey, head brewer at Rockwell Beer Co., started homebrewing in New York City. “I went to school for journalism, but after I graduated, I realized I didn’t have the fire in my belly to get up and do that every day,” he says. By contrast, almost immediately after he became a homebrewer, Moxey knew he’d found his calling.
In November 2012, Moxey and his wife – who’s originally from Webster Groves – moved back to Missouri. “That was when the second wave of craft beer was hitting St. Louis; Perennial, Civil Life, 2nd Shift, Urban Chestnut and 4 Hands were all opening around that time, so we decided, why go anywhere else when we can be near family and a bunch of really great breweries here?”
“I had to manufacture a résumé out of whole cloth,” Moxey quips, so in addition to homebrewing as often as possible, he started taking classes and judging beers, alongside writing about beer for the website Serious Eats. He was quickly offered a one-month internship at Schlafly Beer: “I was 31 years old, working as an unpaid intern, but it was a crucial first step,” he says with a chuckle.
During his time at Schlafly, Moxey met Phil Wymore, owner of Perennial Artisan Ales. “I was paying close attention to Perennial because at that time, it was the only brewery doing saisons and other mixed fermentation beers year-round, which aligned with my focus.” Following a gut feeling, Moxey boldly told Wymore, “I’ll come and work for you for free until you feel the right to pay me.” He started in January 2013.
After a few months, Moxey was hired full-time and worked at Perennial for almost five years, during which time he was introduced to Andy Hille, now the owner of Rockwell. “Andy and I are wired differently, for sure, but in a complementary way,” Moxey says. “We hit it off right away.”
When Hille left Perennial about three years ago to concentrate on opening Rockwell, Moxey says he was happy for him, but he was facing his own dilemma. “Towards the end of 2017, Perennial was doing really incredible stuff, but I felt like I had a lot of gas in the tank, and I wanted to pursue something – albeit something small, like a brewpub setup – on my own.”
Moxey contacted Hille to pick his brain about creating a business plan. Hille’s response? An offer for Moxey to join his team at Rockwell. “Andy was really enjoying the business-development side of things, and he needed someone to focus on the beer – which was great for me!” Moxey explains. “I was only reluctantly looking to become a small-business owner – as a means to an end, you know; to have somebody, whom I trust and admire and who sees beer very much the same way as I do, steer the ship and allow me to focus solely on the beers we’re making was all I ever wanted.”
While he was enjoying his first proper vacation since Rockwell opened, we caught up with Moxey about the brewery's place in the local beer scene, why he thinks nothing beats a saison and the one thing he wants homebrewers to know.
What’s the most intriguing beer you’ve made recently? Right now, that would be our foeder lager, which showcases Missouri white oak. We use St. Louis-based Foeder Crafters, the premier manufacturer of foeders in the U.S., and although there’s a handful of other breweries around the country doing lagers in foeders, it’s still a cool area to explore through a well-known medium: the lager beer.
I’m not doing anything unconventional with the hops or the yeast; the novelty is lagering in oak.
For our first foeder lager, Alba – that’s on tap now – we began with a recipe that wasn’t based on any established lager style; I picked a grain bill that I thought would complement the white oak and let it sit for two months. What we ended up with is a crisp, dry lager that has some breadiness from the Munich malt, but also has a tasty, marshmallow flavor in parts, alongside a bitterness from the tannin in the oak, which gives it a bit of structure.
I’m particularly excited about our second foeder lager, though; along with the local wood, we used malt from Gateway Custom Malt in Montgomery City, Missouri, which is the closest maltster to us, run by a husband-and-wife team that built all their own malting equipment. They used barley grown in southern Illinois to make a special malt and give us another expression of something close to home. And for hops, we went to Michigan – the state’s hops have a distinct flavor apart from hops you find in the Pacific Northwest. We got a lot of crystal hops from there, which have a vibrant orange and lemon flavor. So, that one’s chillin’ in the barrels now; it has another month or so before it’s ready to come out.
Do you have a favorite style of beer? If I were pressed to pick just one, it would be a saison. It was the first style that grabbed my attention and inspired me to create beer myself. There’s just so much to them: their dryness goes well with a lot of different foods and the yeast adds a lot of character. I’m more of a yeast guy than I am a hop or a malt guy, and I love the various expressions of the yeast in saisons: how you can coax them in different directions with the way you blend them with varieties of malt and hops, etc. Saison is a refreshing and versatile beer. You know, at the end of the day, I’m one of those people who likes beer that tastes like beer.
How has the local beer scene evolved in recent years? I think it’s exploded! The breweries that I mentioned earlier continued what Schlafly started, and it all made for the perfect storm. Today, I not only see consumers becoming more and more open to trying new things, but St. Louisans value “local” as a quality, now more than ever – knowing where your beer (or your cheese or your tomatoes) comes from is extremely important to a wide range of people now.
What does Rockwell bring to the table? We want to make good beer all the time, but beyond that, we’re trying to create a welcoming place that’s known for its hospitality. We want to draw people into our physical space and encourage them to stay for awhile. At Rockwell, you should feel equally comfortable bringing your kids with you on a Saturday afternoon and stopping by with a group of friends on Saturday night. Even if beer isn’t your thing, we want Rockwell to feel approachable; we want everyone to have fun here. Our beer is playful, but serious in its approach to quality.
If you could tell homebrewers one thing, what would you tell them? Find someone outside of your circle of family and friends to give you an honest critique of your beer, who will be able to tell you how to fix what’s wrong with it.
I was a member of the New York City Homebrewers Guild when I lived there: It was kind of one big group of misfits, who weren’t satisfied with their day jobs, but loved beer, and we learned from one another and helped each other grow. Together we figured out how to overcome certain brewing obstacles, whether it was tweaking a recipe or getting your foot in the brewery door. It’s just essential – in any industry, I think – to foster relationships with people who will have your back.
What are your plans for the future? We’ve got a good thing going at Rockwell, and I see myself here for a very long time.
Rockwell Beer Co., 1320 S. Vandeventer Ave., The Grove, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.256.1657, rockwellbeer.com