The Beer Hall of Fame is a cool idea -- perhaps too cool for St. Louis

Jun 30, 2004 at 4:00 am
Dennis Buettner gets paid to envision beer-fueled fantasies. "Imagine you just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and you're descending in the middle of nowhere and you see this tiny hut, and they serve this awesome Sherpa beer," says Buettner, president of the fledgling United States Beer Drinking Team (USBDT) and producer of the Baltimore-based Beer Radio Network. "That beer is going to resound in your mind for the rest of your life."

Buettner and his cohorts are such true brew believers that they recently unveiled a plan to build a Beer Hall of Fame somewhere in the United States. Budgeted at some $30 million, the 30,000-square-foot facility would include restaurants, entertainment venues, a memorabilia museum, the world's largest selection of beers and an "education center," presumably designed to enlighten one on the finer points of shotgunning a tall boy of Busch.

It would be a mistake to view the USBDT as a touring circus of primo drunks who set world records for competitive drinking. Rather, the team exists in order to forge a community among the nation's 90 million beer drinkers, says Harry Schumacher, editor and publisher of the San Antonio-based Beer Business Daily.

While Buettner's pipe dream is shy on specifics and promises of solid financial backing, the concept has garnered respectable media buzz and strikes the bullish Schumacher as a potentially successful endeavor.

"I think it's a great idea," says Schumacher. "Look at Oktoberfest in Germany. Look how big that's gotten. In the summertime, people are just looking for things like that to do. Beer is like Hollywood -- everybody wants to be a part of it.

"These guys have been around for a while and seem to be more visible," adds Schumacher of the USBDT, which was established in April of 2002. "If they can get a town interested and get some tax abatements, I don't think money is that big of a problem." Most of the funding, Schumacher says, will be generated from private investors.

To get towns interested, the USBDT has taken a somewhat novel approach: inviting cities to court them in an open, grassroots competition.

After the aggressively trumpeted concept made an initial splash, the USBDT sent "pre-qualification" surveys to 30 cities, among them St. Louis. The cities have until July 9 to return the packets, which ask for such arcane information as longitude, average monthly temperatures and the number of beer distributors in the area. From there, Buettner and his minions will create a "short list" of cities to receive formal Requests for Proposal sometime around the first week in August.

"It can only do for a city what the Baseball Hall of Fame has done for a little town called Cooperstown," says Buettner.

Indeed, Cooperstown is the gold standard. But not all halls of fame end up as international tourist destinations. Case in point: the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame across the street from Busch Stadium. Opened in 1984 to a first-year attendance of approximately 20,000, the facility was not able to significantly increase attendance until it added the Cardinals' Hall of Fame in its basement level seven years ago, which pushed annual attendance to around 50,000.

"Some people come specifically to go to the Bowling Hall of Fame because they're really into bowling," says Jim Baer, the facility's marketing director. "But it's a small percentage. We mainly get people from the seven or eight states around Missouri. Not too many people come from New York or California."

Furthermore, the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame claims some 95 million enthusiasts worldwide, which puts it in line with Buettner's aforementioned estimate for stateside brew enthusiasts.

Early Beer Hall of Fame frontrunners include San Antonio; Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee; Cincinnati; and its surprisingly aggressive little neighbor on the other side of the Ohio River, Covington, Kentucky. All these cities have designated point men who contacted the USBDT after reading about the Beer Hall of Fame. Covington's got its mayor involved in its pitch. Cincinnati's guy owns a vacant historic brewery. And microbrew-laden Portland has even prepared a beer press kit it will include in the application.

What all these cities, save for Portland, have in common are historic, mostly vacant breweries that are being put forth as potential locations for the Beer Hall of Fame, a strategy that tickles Buettner.

"The historical perspective and capacity alone are positives," says Buettner of the brewery-retrofit ploy. "If we find an underperforming city, we're gonna liven it up."

Meanwhile St. Louis, home to the world's largest brewery, has been silent on the matter -- though Nancy Milton, vice president of marketing communications for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors' Commission (CVC), began filling out her packet shortly after the Riverfront Times spoke with her last week about the proposed Beer Hall of Fame.

"We spend our time working to sell what's here right now and don't have the staff to develop new attractions from the ground up," explains Milton, who forwarded the packet for comment and completion to both mayoral aide Barb Geisman and Dawne Massey, executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association. "We depend on entrepreneurs and civic entities to open the attractions, and then we work to make people come to them."

If the CVC plans on getting its act together on time for the July 9 submission deadline, it might be wise to contact the owners of a couple of old south-side buildings that straddle the corner of Lemp and Cherokee: namely, the Historic Lemp Brewery and Lemp Stables.

When asked about the viability of housing a Beer Hall of Fame in his cavernous confines, Lemp Brewery owner Rao Palamand says, "It makes sense. We've leased quite a bit of space, but we still have 200,000 square feet available. We'll talk to them, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."

"That's where this thing should go," says current Lemp Stables owner Paul Pointer, referring to both his and Palamand's properties. "I'm interested in putting together a group. I've got about 20,000 square feet that would be a possibility."

If everything clicks, St. Louis would be "tough to beat," concedes 84-year-old realtor Al Rohde of San Antonio, who is heading up his city's effort to lure the Beer Hall.

"You've got the Budweiser and the horses and the donkey down there," says Rohde, who lived in Brentwood for two years as a Marine Corps recruiter after World War II. "Around here, we call him an ass."

Anheuser-Busch declined to comment on the Beer Hall of Fame, saying it didn't have enough specific information to form an opinion. Could be a smart play: Putting the cart before the Clydesdale is a 50-50 proposition at best, a dice roll Buettner and whichever city emerges victorious are about to face.