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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

  • Jennifer Silverberg

The taps behind many bars in St. Louis look very different today than they did two decades ago. Sure, there's probably still that familiar red Budweiser handle, but it's got additional neighbors in an ever-growing variety of local ales, porters, Hefeweizens and more.

Dan Kopman, cofounder of the Saint Louis Brewery (Schlafly), remembers how things used to be in St. Louis.

"You'd go into a bar, and you'd say, 'What beers do you have?' And people would say, 'We have them all,' meaning they had all the beers that Anheuser-Busch made," recalls Kopman.

Kopman and his business partner, Tom Schlafly, perhaps deserve the most credit for changing St. Louis' attitude about craft beers when they opened their Schlafly Tap Room in 1991. But the two entrepreneurs weren't alone. Other microbrew advocates were there early on, including Fran and Tony Caradonna, who operated a craft-brew distributorship called Signature Beer before later founding O'Fallon Brewery, and Steve Owings, cofounder of Morgan Street Brewery.

Here, then, is the history of how the microbrew movement started and flourished in St. Louis as told by the people involved from the beginning. It's a great tale, and one that eventually grew to include folks such as Bob Lachky (formerly of Anheuser-Busch), restaurateur Joe Edwards and newcomer Florian Kuplent of Urban Chestnut. So, go ahead and pour yourself your favorite brew and eavesdrop on the discussion. Or, better yet, come celebrate these beer-minded folks and others at Riverfront Times' Q and Brew in the Lou barbecue and craft-beer party Saturday, August 23, at Union Station.

Tom Schlafly, cofounder of the Saint Louis Brewery (Schlafly): By the late '80s, people still thought something like microbreweries would never exist in St. Louis. Anheuser-Busch was the brewery. That's just who it was, and you didn't start another brewery in the shadow of the brewery. So when we opened in '91, we got a lot of media attention because a lot of people were pretty skeptical that the concept that might've worked in Denver or Seattle had any hope whatsoever in St. Louis.

Fran Caradonna, co-founder of O'Fallon Brewery: We spent a lot of time explaining to people, what is a microbrewery beer. People, especially in St. Louis, were so loyal to Anheuser-Busch, and for good reason. People didn't know this small local-brewery movement that was happening on the East and West coasts. The first years were a lot of education.

Schlafly: I guess I had an instinct that somebody was going to be doing this successfully. I wasn't positive we were going to succeed, but if I hadn't tried, I'd be kicking myself forever. I was sure that within five years, somebody else [was] going to have a successful microbrewery, and I at least needed to give it a try.

Dan Kopman, cofounder of Schlafly: I was working for a brewery in London and Tom and my dad [Charles Kopman], they were law partners here in St. Louis. That's how I met Tom. We came up with this idea, and we came back from London to build the brewery but we were never going to stay. To me, [St. Louis] was not very entrepreneurial, it was very set in its ways.

Dan Kopman and Tom Schlafly founded the Saint Louis Brewery in 1991 in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. - JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Jennifer Silverberg
  • Dan Kopman and Tom Schlafly founded the Saint Louis Brewery in 1991 in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch.

Tony Caradonna, cofounder of O'Fallon Brewery: We opened [the distributorship Signature Beer] in 1990, and there literally were no microbreweries in St. Louis. I went around to the few craft breweries that were in the Midwest and corralled about 40 brands and brought them to St. Louis. Dierbergs was the first chain to give me a microbrewery section, and that was awesome. Schnucks followed after that. Millstream Brewery from Iowa was the first craft beer we brought in to St. Louis, and then Oldenburg [Brewing Company] from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, followed.

Kopman: We knew, unlike others, that we were coming into a place where not only were consumers and retailers not necessarily looking for new beer styles, they weren't looking for a new brewery. In the late '80s, nobody [was] really interested in buying beer from another brewery, irrespective of other beer styles. So that's why we started with the pub attached — the brewery with a restaurant as the way in which we would introduce St. Louisans to new beer styles.

Steve Owings, cofounder of Morgan Street Brewery: My partner, Dennis Harper, and I, we've been partners on the Landing since 1982. We started Harpo's together. He had seen some breweries out in Denver — as soon as you walk in, you see these different colored beers sitting on tables, and it was kind of exciting. We thought we could make some great beers, too.

Kopman: A new brewery's opening — in this town you get a lot of press. It was more, "Wow, somebody's building a brewery, what's this all about? Are they challenging Anheuser-Busch?" That kind of thing. Obviously they figured out pretty quickly, or they should have, that we weren't trying to do that. We were essentially trying to fill a void.

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