In 2015, Manny Negron was just beginning his career in beer. He had talked his way into a gig tending bar at a Centennial, Colorado, brewery that specialized in German styles, and after long shifts slinging steins, he and the bar manager would sit in the empty bier hall and pound pints of the house-made Helles lager. Negron remembers there was something about the crisp, clean taste and texture of the golden drink that was especially refreshing at the end of a workday. And the lightness of the beer allowed the colleagues to pace the quiet celebration long into the night.
Of course, the Germans have a name for this sensation, der Gemütlichkeit, which loosely translates to "comfort" or "pleasantness" or "leisureliness" but means all that and more. Whatever the word is for the feeling — if it can be captured in any language — Negron thinks of it as a sigh of satisfaction in a glass, and he has been chasing that euphoria ever since. In 2017, the search brought him to St. Louis, where he has worked as a bartender/manager/sales associate everywhere from Old Bakery Beer Company in Alton, Illinois, to Clayton's Craft Beer Cellar (RIP) to Wellspent Brewing Co. to the Modern Brewery.
Now, Negron's hoping to bring that sense of frothy fulfillment to Princeton Heights with his German- and Czech-inspired beer bar, Little Lager (5848 Hampton Avenue, 314-760-9481, littlelager.com). He's eyeing October for an opening.
"Little" as in 480 square feet of space, just enough room for about 20 patrons, with 14 seats at the long bar. The idea is to create an intimate environment where he and his staff can impart the passion for and knowledge of all things lager that they've accrued through years of experience and independent research.
So what does St. Louis — a town literally built on top of lagering caves, the birthplace of the brand perhaps most synonymous with the style — have left to learn about the bottom-fermenting, cold-conditioned brew?
Well, for starters, local drinkers can discover an entire world of lagers beyond their father's Budweiser or even their young uncle's Zwickel. "Lager isn't just the fizzy yellow shit you get at the gas station," Negron says. "It's not all even yellow." He plans to stock a spectrum of lagers, imports and domestics, ranging from straw-colored pilsners to amber Vienna lagers to copper Marzens to darker Dunkels and Schwarzbiers. He'll also provide lager-adjacent styles like Altbiers, Hefeweizens, Cold IPAs, India Pale Lagers (IPLs) and Kolsch-style ales such as Kolsch Counts, his own recent collaboration with his old friends at Modern Brewery. (And more local Little Lager collabs are on the way, including a German Leichtbier that's aging in tanks at Perennial as we speak.) Patrons might also come to appreciate these cold-aged beers — simpler with fewer ingredients but also more delicate and time-intensive — as the purest expression of a brewer's talents. "Brewing a lager is when the brewery is naked," Negron says. "You can really see the extent of their skills."
At Little Lager, local tipplers will also experience the way these beers are best served. This starts with Negron's brand-new five-tap LUKR beer tower with side-pull faucets that produce three distinctive Czech-style pours. First there's the Hladinka (smooth) which is about two-thirds beer, with the other third consisting of "three fingers" of fluffy head that should crown a traditional lager pour. The bar will also offer a Šnyt (split) pour that's roughly half foam/half beer with a little bit of space on top to dip your nose in, and a Mlíko (milk), which is almost entirely creamy, flavorful froth, a sort of light dessert at the end of a drinking session. Negron will also stock some bottles and cans, but he emphasizes the "elimination of the burden of choice" with a limited selection and flat pricing ($7/$5/$4, for the respective pours), so he can focus on the quality of his menu and its presentation.
But Negron also wants customers to understand that not everything they already know about lagers is wrong. At Little Lager, traditional doesn't mean elitist, sophisticated doesn't mean inaccessible, and at the end of the day, especially at the end of a workday, good beer is good beer. "This is not a craft-exclusive bar — it's a good old-fashioned beer-drinker's bar," he says. "I'll put Beck's on if it's up to standards; I'll serve Busch if I can make it pretty."
He also fully supports the American institution of "lawnmower beer" — an easy-drinking, slightly sweet, lightly hopped lager that slakes your thirst but is still functional. After all, our German ancestors enjoyed their lagers throughout the day, whether it was to wash down a meal, celebrate an event or just reward themselves for making it through a shift. Likewise, Negron hopes Little Lager is a place where hardworking St. Louisans can find der Gemütlichkeit. Prost!
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