Brew, Baby, Brew: The ranks of St. Louis' craft brewers are swelling as we swill

On a breezy Saturday morning in May, members of the St. Louis Brews homebrew club gather under a small tent in a suburban parking lot and raise a motley assortment of glasses, red plastic cups and brown beer bottles without labels to toast Jimmy Carter. While most remember our 39th president for economic malaise or the Iran hostage crisis, these men and (a few) women consider him their patron saint. In October 1978 Carter signed into law a bill repealing Prohibition-era restrictions on brewing beer at home for personal consumption.

"Here's to Jimmy Carter," says St. Louis Brews president Dan Stauder. "And here's to beer."

The occasion of today's festivities is National Homebrew Day, an annual event to showcase a hobby that now counts some 750,000 enthusiasts nationwide, according to Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association. Over the past five years, Glass notes, that number has grown by 20 percent annually.

St. Louis Brews member Bob Beckmann pours a glass of his homebrew.
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis Brews member Bob Beckmann pours a glass of his homebrew.
Stephen Hale, head brewer at the Schlafly Tap Room, has been with the Saint Louis Brewery for most of its history.
Jennifer Silverberg
Stephen Hale, head brewer at the Schlafly Tap Room, has been with the Saint Louis Brewery for most of its history.

Location Info


Brewhouse Historical Sports Bar

315 Chestnut St.
St. Louis, MO 63102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Louis - Riverfront

Beer lends itself to home production. It requires only four ingredients: water, grain (usually barley), hops and yeast. A kit with all the equipment required to brew costs less than $100. That initial investment aside (and ignoring the upgrades and extras that serious homebrewers accumulate), homebrewing is economical. Bob Beckmann, a 46-year-old consulting engineer who has been homebrewing since 1993, says he spends $12 to brew five gallons of beer. That's only a few dollars more than a six-pack of most craft beers.

Outside Worm's Way, a garden- and homebrew-supply store in Creve Coeur, members of the St. Louis Brews work individually or in small groups at makeshift brewing stations. The scene resembles a backyard barbecue. Spent propane tanks, used to fuel the boiling of gallons and gallons of water, litter the ground. Kegs and large plastic coolers are spread across folding tables. The mood is convivial. Brewers wander from their own stations, observing, talking shop and, of course, drinking. Everyone has a beer in hand.

Brewing is straightforward; the process requires care, but isn't particularly stressful. Charlie Papazian, whose The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is a homebrewer's bible, has a simple mantra: "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew."

Can you heat water? Then you can brew. Add malted grain to hot water. This process, called mashing, converts the grain's starches to fermentable sugars; the resulting liquid is called wort. Strain the wort, add hops (a flower that acts as a bittering agent) and boil. Strain, cool and add yeast. After one to two weeks of fermentation, you have beer that is ready to be bottled.

This is a simplification, of course. Yet even within this basic recipe there exists daunting chemical complexity — and a seemingly limitless potential for improvisation.

For example, at National Homebrew Day, Bob Beckmann is making a dark, rich chocolate-raspberry stout. Guinness is the best-known example of a stout — though, technically, it is an Irish dry stout. Beer styles are highly (and, to an outside observer, sometimes arbitrarily) differentiated.

Beckmann's brewing station consists of brewpots set on three descending tiers of makeshift scaffolding. It looks something like a stepladder, and it allows Beckmann to transfer his beer-to-be efficiently from step to step. Among his tools are a sparger, which rinses sugars from the malted grain; a thermometer; a hydrometer, which measures the beer's gravity or alcohol content; and a logbook to record all these data and more.

"It's more weighted toward people with a technical background, people who understand the science side of it," Beckmann says of the membership of the St. Louis Brews. Really, though, he admits, "It's anybody who appreciates good beer."

On the other side of the Worm's Way parking lot, St. Louis Brews treasurer Paul Murphy grills hot dogs and bratwurst and discusses with his partner how much honey is needed in their Belgian saison ale. Nearby, Ray Hill, who, like Beckmann, has set up a three-tiered brewing station, adds chopped pecans to a brown ale.

The 37-year-old Hill has taken the leap into commercial brewing. In April 2007 his Ray Hill's Classic American Pilsner reached the market, contract-brewed and distributed by none other than Anheuser-Busch. Now, Hill is planning to open his own brewpub in north county.

"I first got into homebrewing when I met a brewer in Denver in 1998," Hill explains. "I told him he had the coolest job in the world."

In 2002 Hill cashed in what little retirement he had earned as a computer specialist for the federal government and turned brewing from a hobby into — he hoped — a profession. When asked about the reaction he got from his family and friends, Hill laughs. "'How the hell do you think you're going to start a beer company?'"

The legalization of homebrewing had an unintended (though, in hindsight, utterly predictable) consequence: the rise of the craft-beer industry. By the mid-'80s, there were fewer than 100 breweries of any size still operating in the United States. As of 2008, according to the Brewers Association, the leading trade group for the craft-beer industry, that number had risen to 1,545. All but 44 of those are craft breweries.

The term "craft brewery" refers to scale and process, not quality. In general a craft brewery produces fewer than 2 million barrels of beer per year and does not use "adjuncts" like corn or rice to lighten the flavor and caloric content of its beer. The Saint Louis Brewery, which makes Schlafly beers, is a craft brewery; Anheuser-Busch is not.

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