Craft beer brothers! I’ve returned from Mordor, and with good news! Hopes springs eternal in the seat of ultimate darkness. By which I mean—St. Louis, home of the Evil Empire, has become a really great town for craft beer.
I took a two-day trip to St. Louie last week, planning what was essentially a miniaturized version of my previous beer trips, like my four-day quest into Michigan this spring. This time, I put my already fearsome degree of planning into serious overdrive mode, seeking out a number of audiences with brewery owners and brewers ahead of time. Using the advice and contacts of St. Louis Post Dispatch beer writer Evan Benn, author of the awesome St. Louis beer blog Hip Hops, I got in contact with the owners of three brand new breweries and arranged to meet them on the first day. Here is the itinerary of my two-day trip, complete with tasting notes and photos. That’s what you get at Aleheads–the full service.
Interviews with the founders of Civil Life Brewing, 4 Hands Brewing and Perennial Artisan Ales will follow in the near future, whenever I get a chance to type them all up. So without further ado, on we go!
Civil Life Brewing
I woke early and departed quickly, determined to start consuming beer at an hour that I would normally just be arriving at work on an average weekday. I arrived in St. Louis at the brand-new Civil Life Brewing at around 9 a.m., and was enthusiastically greeted by St. Louis native and brewery founder Jake Hafner and assistant brewer Mike Bianco. They were busy setting up for the evening, because in a completely random coincidence, I had arrived on the day of their soft opening which would be taking place later in the evening. Incredibly, it was the same story later at Perennial, which is insane considering that I scheduled this trip some six months ago. Clearly, the gods are favoring my drinking expeditions.
The building is quite nondescript, and when I visited it didn’t even have a sign up yet, so you could easily walk by without knowing it was a brewery if you hadn’t been clued in. The main entrance actually enters into the brewery itself, giving you this glorious sight upon entry:
That’s a table with little tasting glasses set up, and I joined Hafner and Bianco for tastes of a couple beers straight from the fermenters.
– Civil Life ESB: An extra special bitter that is fairly mild for the style with a nice biscuity character. Uncarbonated and with an unusual British yeast character that I couldn’t quite place. 2.5 hops for now. I’ll have to try this one again sometime.
– Civil Life Rye Pale Ale: A very easy-drinking version of an American APA. The Civil Life intends to focus on flavorful session beers at its heart, and this one is a really good example of their ideology. The hops are restrained and the rye peeks through a caramel-tinged malt base. Low alcohol but flavorful. 3 hops
– Civil Life American Brown Ale: I had this one when I returned later in the evening to check out the soft opening. Very full-flavored and engaging American brown with a good amount of sweetness and toasty, nutty flavors. Plenty dry to still pound them back all evening, though. Definitely the best Civil Life brew I had, and I’m sure it would be a regular choice at their bar. 3.5 hops
That was all The Civil Life had on when I visited, but they’ll be expanding their lineup with more classic session brews in the near future. They’re looking to carve out a name for themselves as a great place to stop with friends and linger.
4 Hands Brewing
From Civil Life, I made my way to 4 Hands, a brewery with a very different, more extreme philosophy. That’s what’s so great about what’s going on in the St. Louis brewery scene these days–there’s a ton of variation. While one place like Civil Life focuses on session beers, other new places like 4 Hands and Perennial handle the more esoteric, out-there brews, of which St. Louis does not yet have a ton. But that’s soon to change.
I was met here by brewery founder Kevin Lemp, whose last name is no relation to the famous St. Louis brewing family. He and his brewmaster, Will Johnston, a former Goose Island honcho who was involved in some of their original Belgian ales, led me around and showed off the sprawling facility that will house 4 Hands, only a mile or so from the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. In fact, part of the 4 Hands parking lot is designated Cardinals game parking, so the duo hope that those attending the games will stop in for a beer or two at the brewery’s tasting room. They plan on a bunch of interesting-sounding ales, from a blackberry berliner weisse to an espresso imperial stout and a session oatmeal brown. They’re even making a Thanksgiving-time sweet potato brew. Check out the opening list, keeping in mind that these guys still won’t open for a few months:
Sadly, the only brew I was able to sample was their single-hopped centennial pale ale, which they call more of an American red ale.
Everyone I’ve ever talked to about St. Louis beer, however, seems to agree that these beers are never on. Ultimately, it comes off as a place that likes beer and the idea of being a brewery, but doesn’t actually get around to doing it often. Or maybe they just sell a lot of helles, I don’t know. But it’s still a nice beer bar, either way. Just stick to the helles over the “zoigl.”
Perennial Artisan Ales
Now we’re rolling again. I pulled into Perennial in the late afternoon, just in time for the official beginning of their soft opening. Already people were there, and this space filled up to being mostly full pretty quickly:
Here I met Perennial founder, the surprisingly youthful Phil Wymore, who was a brewer both for Goose Island (he worked with Will Johnston of 4 Hands) and one of my Chicago hometown favorites, Half Acre Brewing. These are the kind of credentials I like to see.
Here they were pouring full beers (finally) to everyone assembled, along with tastes of special beers and a few guest drafts. I took the chance to try everything that Perennial had to offer, plus a beer from 2nd Shift Brewing*, a new brewery situated well outside the city that I made a point to seek out over these two days when I could.
*Ignore their insane website design. I’m pretty sure they are not actually insane.
– Perennial Brewing Hommel Bier: The flagship Belgian pale ale of the brewery is a very solid, tasty beer that has clearly been refined into a great quaffer that is also a step above most hoppy/Belgian meldings. This could become a very popular beer in St. Louis in the near future. 3 hops
– Perennial Brewing Southside Blonde: Quite a surprising brew. I didn’t think there was any way I would like it as much as the Hommel Bier, but this spicy Belgian blonde ale packs a ton of flavor. Honestly, it reminded me of a better version of the homebrew summer saison I made a while ago, for what that’s worth. 3 hops
– Perennial Brewing Abraxas Mexican Chocolate Stout: A huge, 11.5% imperial stout with cacao nibs and cinnamon, a truly unbelievable beer. After tasting it, I cannot even fathom how it could be almost 12% alcohol by volume. It seems impossible, and goes down like it’s half of that. The cinnamon flavor is unreal, filling up your nostrils when you take a sniff. As I told Wymore, it smells like a cinnamon brown sugar Pop Tart, broken in half and covered in hot fudge. He looked at me strangely, which is his due, but I meant that in the best way possible. If you live in St. Louis, do anything you can to try this beer. 4 hops
– 2nd Shift Cat Spit Stout: A delicious, uber roasty session stout from 2nd Shift, the first beer I’ve had for them. I absolutely love this style of dry, roasty stout, so this is a no-brainer for me. I wish I had a beer like this in my fridge at all times. 3.5 hops
That’s all for Day I of my St. Louis trip! Technically I hit one more brewery that day, but because I visited that same place again the next morning, I’ll combine it all into Day II, and get it up in a few days. Then, I’ll attempt to get 3-4 in-depth brewer interviews collected during the trip up within the next month or so. Wish me luck. There’s a lot of tape. Best to go out and get one of these beers while you wait.