Daily Egyptian

A Bud and beyond: St. Louis’ craft beer scene expands its realm

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune

If Budweiser is America’s king of beers, then in St. Louis, it’s been the king, the queen, the godfather, the grand wizard and the tollbooth collector.

With roots dating to the mid-1800s, Anheuser-Busch casts an impossibly long shadow across the city. It’s been far more than the beer in every corner bar; it’s a cultural touchstone, the source of generations of jobs, and, by most accounts, an upstanding community steward.

For as much guff as Anheuser-Busch has gotten in recent years for taking control of small American craft breweries — it’s up to seven as of this writing — its own 2008 sale to Belgian company InBev jarred its home base of more than 160 years. The sale also changed the city’s beer-drinking habits.

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“It was a big blow to a lot of people when it sold, but it was a boon for craft,” said Troika Brodsky, executive director of the St. Louis Brewers Guild. “All these people who had been very loyal to Anheuser-Busch were suddenly willing to try other things.”

What has sprung up in the city of 318,000 has been a craft beer landscape that might not be among the nation’s largest, but one that is remarkably varied and interesting, with strong quality throughout.

There are St. Louis breweries exploring Belgian styles (Perennial Artisan Ales), English styles (Civil Life Brewing Co.), German styles (Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.), unconventional weirdness (Earthbound Beer), wood-aging (Side Project Brewing) and broad, across-the-board approaches both large (4 Hands Brewing Co.) and just starting out (Modern Brewery).

Even that granddaddy-grand-wizard-king wants to be part of the conversation. Late last year, Anheuser-Busch began making experimental beers from its research pilot brewery available to the public. When I swung by the Anheuser-Busch beer garden, the offering was a quite-unlikely double IPA that was hop-forward with pine and citrus, but dry and fairly balanced. (The research pilot brewery was also the birth place of Bud Light, incidentally.)

With close to 50 breweries, St. Louis boasts as many as it did before Prohibition, which Brodsky said “feels like a huge milestone.” The city will celebrate by moving its most prominent local beer event — the St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival on June 11 — beneath the iconic Gateway Arch for the first time in the event’s 10-year history. More than 40 St. Louis brewers will pour beer during two, four-hour sessions.

The brewers guild is also preparing to scale up operations during the next year, with possibilities such as a brick-and-mortar base featuring a bar (pouring St. Louis beer, of course), a museum detailing the city’s brewing history, classrooms and more. For Brodsky, the growth is returning St. Louis to its rightful place as a national beer capital.

“We can lay claim to this history,” he said. “Our city was more or less founded on this industry.”

As in many places, the rebirth of St. Louis beer has been a recent phenomenon. Just five years ago, the local beer landscape amounted to a handful of breweries that included the Saint Louis Brewery (better known as Schlafly), O’Fallon Brewery and You-Know-Who. But You-Know-Who’s takeover offered an opportunity for new entries. In 2011 alone, four breweries opened: Urban Chestnut, Civil Life, Four Hands and Perennial. All are well-regarded in St. Louis and afar.

Perennial’s Abraxas imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels (with cacao nibs, vanilla beans, ancho chilies and cinnamon sticks), for instance, is one of the most sought-after beers in the nation. And for good reason. It is complex, layered and worth savoring, but far from fussy or overly busy. Perennial founder Phil Wymore brewed at Goose Island and Half Acre breweries in Chicago before launching his own operation back in his home state.

“The opportunity in St. Louis was a big driver for coming down here,” he said over beers in his taproom, where the non-barrel-aged version of Abraxas was on tap for a quite-reasonable $5 a pour. “There was lower overhead (than Chicago), and buildings were ripe for the picking.”

Locals seemed more open-minded about drinking beers that weren’t Bud and Bud Light, but they weren’t quite sure what to make of Perennial beer, be it the Belgian-inspired recipes or the more ambitious beers like Abraxas.

“It was a slow buildup for a less conventional brewery like us with all these weird beers on draft,” Wymore said. “Now I’d count St. Louis as a very good craft-beer town. When we started, that would have been an absurd idea.”

In 2012, one of Wymore’s brewers, Cory King, began brewing on Perennial equipment and selling the beer as Side Project Brewing. The first Side Project release was called The Origin: a blend of imperial stout, black oat wine and Baltic porter that was aged 20 months in rye whiskey barrels with vanilla beans. The Side Project legend started almost instantaneously, and lines for each new release began to form hours before the beer went on sale.

Based on user rankings, the RateBeer website called Side Project the eighth-best brewery in the world in 2015. (Perennial placed in the top 100, though only the top 10 are ranked.)

“It’s crazy,” said King, a thickly built man with a trim bread. “Very, very crazy.”

In late 2014, King and his wife, Karen, started The Side Project Cellar, a bar in suburban Maplewood where Side Project beer is available on draft among two dozen top-tier options from around the world. Serving its draft beer at four different temperatures — 40, 46, 52 and 58 degrees, depending on the beer — Side Project was a 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist in the outstanding bar program category. But the home of Budweiser still sometimes needs help to understand what’s happening at The Side Project Cellar.

“We still get people who come in and are confused by our beers,” King said. “But that’s great. It’s an opportunity to educate someone.”

St. Louis is increasingly open to the education, especially since the biggest beer company in town — and the nation, for that matter — was taken over. You hear it again and again, including from Beamer Eisele, who worked for six months as a management assistant at Schlafly before opening Modern Brewery in 2014.

“I knew from working at Schlafly that St. Louis was embracing craft beer, especially since AB got bought out,” he said.

He knew, he said, because Schlafly sales were booming.

On a Friday, the Modern Brewery taproom was elbow-to-elbow with customers ranging from the newly legal to gray-haired, beer-drinking veterans.

“I’m not surprised, but I’m thankful,” Eisele said about the popularity of the taproom, which opened in November. “If you make good beer, this city will respond.”

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(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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