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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bottled Wisdom: An Oral History of St. Louis' Craft-Beer Movement

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 9:00 AM

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Kopman: The first three accounts, and I can remember them, were Cardwell's in Clayton, Blueberry Hill and the Trainwreck in Rock Hill. And it was pale ale, Hefeweizen and oatmeal stout, the first three beers, along with a European pilsner we made here. In 1991 an oatmeal stout at 6 percent ABV was a pretty radical beer.

Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill: Other restaurants were hesitant [to serve Schlafly] because they were, "Oh, they'll compete with [our] restaurant." I didn't see it that way at all. Blueberry Hill had always been known for many, many years for having the biggest selection of beers in St. Louis by far, because in the beginning, we didn't have a full liquor license.

Fran Caradonna: We were Schlafly's second wholesaler. We distributed Schlafly's beer for the first six or seven years that they sold beer outside of the Tap Room. [Tony] went out to the retailers — the Dierbergs, the Schnucks, the specialty liquor stores and said, "Hey, there's this category out there that you've never heard of." He helped sell it in to the retailers back in the early '90s.

Edwards: It was difficult for customers to pronounce the name at first, but once they could pronounce the name, they would keep coming back and say, "I want a Schlafly pale ale. I want a Schlafly." It was kind of fun watching them learn how to pronounce Schlafly. The taste is what won out. That's why they kept coming back to it.

The cover of the August 21, 2014, Riverfront Times. - PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Photography by Jennifer Silverberg
  • The cover of the August 21, 2014, Riverfront Times.

Fran Caradonna: We ended up selling Signature Beer to Major Brands in 1998. Our dream had always been to have our own brewery, so we decided to start [O'Fallon Brewery] in St. Charles County, because we had been so close to Schlafly. We'd been their partners in growing their brand in St. Louis from about '93 to '98. It felt a little like virgin territory. Schlafly wasn't out there. It wasn't that we couldn't legally compete with them, but we didn't really want to compete with them because we'd been so close at that point.

Bob Lachky, former chief creative officer for Anheuser-Busch: There was no doubt in, oh, gosh, let's put it circa 2000, that the only real viable craft beer on the scene here in St. Louis was Schlafly. They had been the real pioneers as far as building any kind of critical mass. I got to know Tom and Dan through an initiative that [Anheuser-Busch] kind of recognized, and that was the deterioration of beer at the expense of other forms of alcohol, particularly spirits and wine. When we first got together we said, "Why don't we just do something to raise awareness about beer?" We came up with what we call our St. Louis Beer Festival [now the St. Louis Brewers Guild Heritage Festival], and we staged it the first year in Forest Park, and it was a huge success.

Schlafly: You don't realize it's happened until you're looking in the rearview mirror. You hear people talking about craft beer, and when we did the Brewers Heritage Festival and saw other brewers out there, that was an eye-opener for me.

Kopman: 2008 is really the defining year in my mind. That's when craft beer as it's known to consumers today started — November of 2008 with the sale of Anheuser-Busch. Because what happened then was consumers came to us and said, "We want you to replace A-B." We were 17,000 barrels in 2007 and people came to us asking, "Where can I buy Schlafly Light 30 packs?" And we said, "Look, that's not who we are." We spent a lot of time talking about this. It's like, that's not who we are, we're a craft brewer. We don't make light lager styles.

Fran Caradonna: I think that when Miller sold to SAB — South African Breweries — and a few years later Anheuser-Busch sold to the Brazilians, what it did was turn a spotlight onto the beer industry, and people started looking at it closely. And people said — regular, loyal beer drinkers, brand loyal to Bud, Miller and Coors — I want beer that's made in America. It became a story that the media chased down and it turned a spotlight onto this little tiny percentage. We were under probably 5 percent of the beer market at that point. And I think that directed attention towards us and people became interested in finding out more.

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