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

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.

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.

"It just seems to be a lifestyle change, much in the way that coffee or bread or wine changed 20 or 30 years ago," observes Derek Bean, field sales manager for beer at Missouri Beverage Company, a distributor. "With bread, at one time, it was all white bread. Now, you have people switching to artisanal bread, and they're never going back."

Though St. Louis' craft brewers operate in the shadow of the world's most iconic macrobrewery, Bean warns against false perceptions: "When it comes to St. Louis — and the Midwest in general — a lot of times there can be this geographic prejudice that we're behind the times. St. Louis and Missouri have actually been ahead in the craft-beers trend more than some areas of the country."

The Saint Louis Brewery opened its first brewpub, the Schlafly Tap Room, in December 1991. By 2008 it was ranked No. 50 on the Brewers Association's list of the country's top 50 craft breweries by sales volume. (Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing Co., founded in 1989, ranked No. 8.)

If the craft-beer movement has been gaining momentum in St. Louis for nearly two decades, over the past few years, it has exploded. Several new craft breweries have opened since 2006: Square One Brewery and Distillery, Mattingly Brewing Company, Buffalo Brewing Co., the Stable, William D. Alandale Brewing Company (recently sold and renamed the Highlands Restaurant and Brewing Co.) and Cathedral Square Brewery. Beer geeks and newcomers to the scene alike have access to an ever-expanding range of products from craft breweries nationwide.

"It's definitely exploding," affirms Paul Hayden, manager and beer and wine buyer at the Wine & Cheese Place in Clayton. At his store Hayden stocks 900 different beers, nearly all craft brews. Currently, Hayden's customers are especially interested in double and imperial India pales ales, so-called "extreme beers" dosed with so many hops that they can be mouth-puckeringly bitter.

Hayden has also noticed a change in who is buying beer: "Older clientele I thought were only into wine, they're starting to buy crafty, interesting beers."

Craft beer is attracting attention from more than just the fine-wine crowd, however. "We didn't used to sell a lot of dark beer," says Marc Gottfried, the brewmaster at the Laclede's Landing brewpub Morgan Street Brewery. "Our location on Laclede's Landing [usually draws] a Bud Light crowd. That's really changed."

"It's an enlightenment," Bean declares. "The big beers will always have their place, but there certainly seems to be a change in attitudes."

"Enthusiasm is pervasive," says Stephen Hale, who has worked for the Saint Louis Brewery through most of its history, first as assistant brewer, now as head brewer at the Schlafly Tap Room.

The 49-year-old Hale confirms, "It's the most exciting time to be involved in beer since I started homebrewing as a 19-year-old."

Drew Huerter, the head brewer of Benton Park's Mattingly Brewing Company, finishes rinsing the brewpub's basement floor and then points at a plain metal brew kettle. This five-gallon kettle seems unremarkable among the equipment packed into Mattingly's small brewery.

Along one wall sit four gleaming metal tanks, each the shape of an upside-down teardrop and roughly the size of a refrigerator, in which Mattingly's beers ferment. Spread throughout the basement are tall, blue fifteen-gallon containers and squat, white five-gallon pails. Inside these, small batches of Huerter's special projects bubble like a mad scientist's evil dream.

Still, that dull old brew kettle is special. "In 2006," says Huerter, "that was one of the most awarded breweries in St. Louis."

The 25-year-old Huerter is representative of those fueling St. Louis' craft-beer boom: young, creative and industrious. Huerter has been working 40 hours a week at Mattingly and another 30 as a cellarman (an all-purpose assistant) at the Schlafly Tap Room. He is leaving the Tap Room gig — though only to accept a full-time position as an assistant brewer at the Schlafly Bottleworks.

Huerter started homebrewing when he turned 21. A student at Saint Louis University, he returned home to Kansas City and brewed his first beer with the equipment his homebrewer father had put aside two decades before to raise him and his sisters.

His first beer was straightforward: an American amber ale. His second beer was a hefeweizen, a German wheat beer. To this traditional recipe, he added beets. The result was purple, one of two purple beers that he has made.

"I can get bored easily," Huerter admits. At Mattingly he is working on such brews as a coconut porter, smoked doppelbock and palm-sugar rye tripel.

Though Huerter has won numerous awards for his homebrews, for his professional success, he credits persistence. This is a common experience among area craft brewers. Augie Altenbaumer, the 33-year-old head brewer at the Stable in Benton Park and a cellarman at the Schlafly Tap Room, is an engineer by training. When he and his wife moved from Chicago to St. Louis two years ago, he found work as a quality engineer for a lawnmower manufacturer.

"I wasn't enjoying what I was doing," Altenbaumer says. "I had the technical mind, but I didn't have the personality. Quality engineering is cutthroat." A homebrewer since college, he got a foot in the craft-beer door by offering to help take care of the hop plants at the Schlafly Tap Room.

Brian Owens, the 31-year-old head brewer at O'Fallon Brewery, was a homebrewer working in a liquor store when he met O'Fallon founder Tony Caradonna. Owens remembers how he introduced himself: "'Hey, I'm a homebrewer!'" He continues, "I hung out [at the brewery] enough that they gave me a job."

Likewise, Marc Gottfried was working at Worm's Way when the store received a phone call from Morgan Street Brewery: "They needed bottles. They needed them quick. I gave them the bottles for free. 'Here's these bottles. Here's my résumé.'"

That résumé was surprisingly lengthy: He started homebrewing at thirteen. "No one in my family drank," he says. "I wasn't a kid who drank. It was a really interesting natural process. My mom's a microbiologist. She looked at it from a science-fair point of view."

(Gottfried gave the beer away to older friends and neighbors.)

The 33-year-old Gottfried has been Morgan Street's head brewer for 12 years. "Our beers are pretty tame," he admits. Yet if Mattingly's Huerter embodies the inventiveness of the craft-beer movement, Gottfried represents an equally important segment: the exacting cultivation of classic styles.

All beers can be divided into ales and lagers. The two categories differ in the kind of yeast used to ferment each and the process by which that fermentation takes place. Lager yeasts operate at a lower temperature than ale yeasts, and gather at the bottom of the fermenting vessel (hence the term "bottom-fermenting"). Also, lagers are aged — that is, "lagered" — for at least one month.

Morgan Street is one of the only all-lager breweries in the United States. Explains Gottfried: "You generally find breweries using ale yeast. When you go there and order a pilsner, you're getting a white ale that's called a pilsner." Conversely, if you order a stout at Morgan Street, you receive a dark lager that the brewery calls a stout.

"Our lagers are stupendous," Gottfried claims. This is less a boast than a statement of fact. "They are extremely accurate. With the correct yeast, we're able to take them all the way."

On the Thursday evening before National Homebrew Day, the St. Louis Brews holds its monthly meeting. About 50 men and exactly 2 women sit around three long tables in a spacious meeting room in Missouri Beverage Company's Ellendale headquarters. Members range in age from early twenties to early seventies. Most wear polo shirts and khaki slacks. Everyone has a small tasting glass.

President Dan Stauder calls the meeting to order. Announcements are made. A new member introduces himself: A student at Saint Louis University, he is looking for an inexpensive hobby. The veteran members laugh. And then there is beer.

Lots of beer.

Over the next three hours, the St. Louis Brews taste and discuss one another's creations. These tastings are anonymous: Members know what style of beer fills the pitchers brought to their tables, but not who brewed it. Each member pours a couple of ounces into his tasting glass, swirls, sniffs, sips and then repeats.

"We have an ESB in front of us," Stauder announces. He reads a description of the style, a classic English ale. The ideal ESB (extra special bitter) should be a rich gold to copper in color, with pronounced malt and fruit flavors and balanced bitterness.

"This is an ESB?" asks one member.

Another declares, "It has a sort of cough-syrup flavor to it."

Yet another: "It's way too dark."

To a lay observer, this discussion can be both fascinating and arcane. Club members can tease out the exact variety of hops used. They refer to chemical compounds such as diacetyl and acetaldehyde as causally as the average drinker might describe his beer as cold or fizzy. (For the record, diacetyl imparts beer with fruity or butterscotch flavors, acetaldehyde, a grassy taste.) In short order the ESB's main fault is identified: It is too old.

Once members have had their say, the brewer reveals himself and describes his brewing process. Once the others know his exact method, they offer more specific, constructive criticism. As they do so, the next round of beer arrives.

Members' comments are honest, but the mood remains upbeat. Augie Altenbaumer believes this blind-tasting process is necessary. "Drinking your own beer, you get used to it. You can become blind to flaws and defects in your beer."

Bob Beckmann estimates that when he first joined the St. Louis Brews in 1993, only 10 percent of members' beers were "really good." Now, he observes, "the number of bad beers are fairly few."

Schlafly's Stephen Hale agrees. "I'm impressed with the caliber of the homebrew today. The ingredients and equipment available are much more vast than when I was a homebrewer."

Adds Hale: "It's not just homebrew. It's all things beer: the explosion of craft brewing. The enthusiasm for all things beer. I keep using Mike Sweeney as an example."

In September 2007 Mike Sweeney, a 30-year-old homebrewer and network administrator, founded STL Hops, a blog dedicated to the St. Louis beer scene. The site now attracts 5,000 unique visitors each month and has exhaustive coverage of what beers are available at local bars, restaurants and retail outlets, as well as photo essays of local beer festivals and the occasional rant about boring beer selections or bad beer. Frequent commenters on the site include brewers such as Drew Huerter and industry professionals like Derek Bean.

Recently, Sweeney coordinated an e-mail campaign to have beers from the well-regarded Founders Brewery of Grand Rapids, Michigan, distributed in St. Louis. This week, as part of the first annual St. Louis Craft Beer Week — a series of festivals, tastings, lectures and more that Sweeney himself coordinated — Founders beers will be released in St. Louis at a party hosted by the Wine & Cheese Place in Clayton.

Sweeney isn't sure if the STL Hops campaign is responsible for Founders' arrival in St. Louis. If it is, then he says it's "by far my proudest moment" as the author of STL Hops.

Sit with the affable Sweeney at a local brewpub, and your conversation will often halt as the brewers stop to say hello and talk beer. "The one thing I've been most amazed by with the creation of STL Hops is the sense of community it's created," says Sweeney. "I have probably 50 to 60 active members that interact with each other, but also respect one another."

That community has clout. Says Sweeney: "Not to toot my own horn, but I've had Paul [Hayden of the Wine & Cheese Place in Clayton] tell me, 'Because of you, I'm selling more beer than I ever have.'"

The enthusiasm for craft beer is palpable, yet the stakes remain relatively small: Craft beers represent only a tiny share of the country's $100 billion-plus beer market. In 2008 the Brewers Association reports, they accounted for 4 percent of total beer sales by volume and 6 percent by dollar amount. (Yet while the big domestic breweries showed stagnant growth of 0.6 percent by volume last year, the craft-beer industry grew by a robust 5.9 percent.)

Saint Louis Brewery cofounder Tom Schlafly points to the recent buyout of Anheuser-Busch by InBev: "I don't think there's going to be a wholesale shift of people's taste to craft beer because of [the sale]. One example is to look at Milwaukee. When a South African company took over [Milwaukee-based] Miller, people didn't switch to local beers. People who prefer lighter lagers will continue to drink those."

Schlafly likes to divide local beer drinkers into three groups: the Anheuser-Busch loyalists, the aficionados and the vast majority who fall somewhere in between, those who usually drink Bud or Bud Light but will try a craft beer now and then for a change of pace.

"If we tell people you have to choose, we're going to lose that argument," says Schlafly. "Keep your Bud Light in the fridge at home, and when you go out and want something different, have a Schlafly.

"I think craft beer will probably continue to grow in St. Louis," he says. "I don't know that we'll ever have the same craft-beer presence that you have in the cities where it all began, like Denver, Seattle and Portland." Still, of his eighteen years at the forefront of the city's craft-beer industry, Schlafly concludes, "It's been exhilarating."

Bean notes, "The trend in craft beers has been strong this entire decade, and that suggests it's not a fad." He likes to paraphrase Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, the maker of Samuel Adams beer and the nation's largest (by volume) craft brewer: "You can't turn the clock back. At one time wine [in America] was jug wines. Once people started buying the varietals, you couldn't turn the clock back."

As for the craft brewers themselves, a sense of camaraderie overrides any notion that they are fighting for a single piece of a small pie. How else to explain the interrelationships? The Stable's Augie Altenbaumer also works for Schlafly, as does Mattingly's Drew Huerter. Dave Johnson, a brewer at O'Fallon, is the head brewer at both midtown's Buffalo Brewing Co. and Kirkwood's new Highlands Restaurant and Brewing Co.

"There is the competition," admits Altenbaumer. "But all the small breweries stick together. We're just a little piece of the beer world."

"Everyone's very supportive," says Huerter. "And thirsty. Very thirsty."

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