I admire Jake Hafner and Mike Bianco, the founder and assistant brewer, respectively, of St. Louis’ brand new The Civil Life Brewing Company. They’re two guys who, along with head brewer Dylan Mosley, simply know what it is they want from their new venture, and that’s a place to take a load off, relax, and drink a beer.
Scratch that. What I meant to say was a place to take a load off, relax, and drink many beers.
Last month, I paid Civil Life a visit as part of my St. Louis craft beer road trip, and took some time to sit down with Hafner and Bianco, who made time amid a whirl of activity preparing for the place’s soft opening later in the evening. By complete chance, I managed to arrive on the exact day of two new brewery soft openings, which was really an incredible coincidence. We sat and chatted, drinking English-inspired session brews straight from the fermenter.* It don’t get no fresher. What follows is that conversation on the opening of Civil Life, its brews and its plans for the future.
*An ESB and a ryle pale ale. Tasting notes in the roadtrip post.
Kid Carboy Jr.: Is the session quality of your brews really the key point that you see as differentiating yourself from some of the other new breweries like 4-Hands or Perennial? Are you going to be “the session brewery?”
Jake Hafner: Most of the things we’re concentrating on in our first go at it are in that 4-6 percent alcohol range. We’re not really looking to go above that right now. It wasn’t something we really tried to make into a philosophy though; these are just the beers that we like to drink.
It goes along with the style we envision for the brewery. This is going to be a really community-oriented place. I want people to bring kids here, and everybody who stops in to feel comfortable. Knocking back a couple 8% beers just is a different experience from sitting down and having a session of lower-strength beers with friends, relaxing and enjoying conversation. But primarily, they’re just the beers we enjoy.
Mike Bianco: And it’s not that we’re not going to eventually tackle those higher abv-style beers along the way—those are definitely exciting too—but these are the core focus.
Carboy: And I imagine you would want people to know that just because the beer is of “session strength,” that doesn’t mean you’re not interested in doing unique, experimental brewing?
Hafner: Sure, certainly, but we have a lot of respect for tradition.
Bianco: Some of these traditional styles are great beers, and you can give them a little twist of some sort to make them your own. But making something weird for the sake of making something weird isn’t what we’re into.
Carboy: No, I believe that’s what Sam Calagione is into.
Bianco: Hah, well that’s a whole different business model. I think we like to try new things and kind of push the envelope within these styles a little bit, but we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Hafner: There is such creative energy when brewers do that weird experimentation, and it can be fascinating, but I’m rarely really enthralled by those experimental brews. I’m not going to sit down and have them all night long. This is supposed to be a place with beers that you want to have again and again.
Carboy: So are you guys going to have food to go along with all that beer, then? If you’re going to have kids in here and stuff…
Bianco: Yeah, very limited food. We’ll have sandwiches and stuff, and snacks.
Hafner: We’ll do food trucks at times as well. We’re going to keep the food simple and the prices low. We have a barbecue pit, so we’ll grill some nights. It will all be very casual—everything about this place is casual.
Carboy: Jake, you’re originally from St. Louis, right? Did you come from another big brewery like all the other new wave brew-dudes in town?
Hafner: Yep, grew up in St. Louis, but no, I didn’t come from another brewery. We all came from homebrewing, and I owned a wine bar in Lafayette Square called 33 that had a really great beer list. Dylan ran the beer list and Mike worked for us for the last few years. Mike and I started homebrewing with Dylan with The Civil Life in mind about three years ago.
Carboy: So why did you decide you wanted to focus on a brewery instead of a wine bar, besides the fact that beer is awesome and for awesome people by association?
Hafner: Well I drank a ton of beer. Every night when we got off work at the wine bar, beer was what we drank. I’ve always been a consumer of things that are good.
As far as getting into another business though, I just felt like it was time to do something else, and craft beer is obviously huge right now. I took up the things I was most passionate about and decided to make a go of it.
Carboy: When was it decided that you wouldn’t be the brewer?
Hafner: Oh, I was never intended to be the brewer. Dylan was always the man, ever since we were introduced to his beer at a homebrew party years ago. He and Mike and I have a unique set of skills that work well together, and we were the ideal group to put together this kind of project I think.
Bianco: You make it sound so simple.
Carboy: In that vein, I heard you guys have faced plenty of issues, setbacks and delays in getting this place ready to open?
Hafner: Well, to understand what has been done you really have to imagine this building as it was before—an old, completely run down warehouse. Pretty much nothing had been done to this place since the 1950s before we took over.
Bianco: Actually, I think there was one point in the 1970s when they rewired it, but other than that it was a complete shell of a building. If you see the before and after pictures, it’s hard to tell that it’s even the same building. So that’s where a lot of the time went. We built things here the way people used to build them—people don’t put the kind of time and craftsmanship we put in here into a bar anymore.* We wanted a great public space, inspired by a lot of the places we’ve seen overseas.
*He’s actually not being a cocky d-bag, here. Their place really is very nice and homey, with lots of neat woodwork. It’s two floors and has a cool balcony, and a very pretty, very expensive-looking wood bar It also boasts long, wooden common tables for strangers to mix and mingle.
Carboy: What kind of places would those be?
Bianco: A lot of Belgian and German bars—the windows are straight out of Bamberg. The common, public tables are very German in style, and we have the Irish-style snugs* upstairs to give privacy to some tables.
*This is essentially a table that is mostly enveloped in wooden walls on all sides, just to sort of physically remove a group from the rest of the bar if you want.
Carboy: So what else are you making at launch?
Bianco: Well, we have an American brown that turned out really well.* We also have an English bitter called “Bling,” because of its golden nature. A little lighter in color than the ESB, Maris Otter and crystal malt and an English yeast, but we used centennial and goldings together to mix American and English hops. It’s hoppier than the ESB but lighter in alcohol with a great floral nose. Our other beer is a Bavarian weisse.
Carboy: How long do you expect/intend for those to be your main offerings? What else will you expand into making?
Hafner: We’ve got room for 12 beers on tap here, so we’ll work up to that. Obviously when you first start up you’ve got to fill your fermenters, sell that beer and then fill them up again. Right now we don’t really plan to even re-do any of these beers unless one of them is a smash hit; we may very well just make five new beers.
Carboy: What might some of those be?
Hafner: We haven’t made the final decision on any of those, but we’re getting pretty close I think. We hope to know in the next couple of weeks.
Carboy: Oh, come on. What do you want to make? Don’t lie to me.
Hafner: *Rolls eyes* Fine, fine. We’ve been looking at an altbier, we’ve got a dunkelweizen that we’ve made before that turned out pretty good, we’ve got a stronger version of the rye that should be a good beer for colder weather. We’ll definitely have a stout as the weather cools. Everything will change seasonally, but no final decisions have been made. We have a lot of recipes to pull from the last three years.
Carboy: I noticed the beer engine at the bar, so clearly something will be on cask.
Bianco: In the next month or two, that’s what we’re hoping to do. Definitely will love to pour the gold and the ESB on cask, and even the brown would be great. We’ll play around with it.
NOTE: At this point we walked around a little and I took some more photos, and then I talked briefly with Hafner about The Civil Life’s place in the St. Louis craft beer community. But not before I snap this amusing shot:
Carboy: What do you think the openings of these three new breweries, Civil Life, 4-Hands and Perennial mean for St. Louis craft beer?
Hafner: I think since there are three new places about to open, the amount of social media buzz and traditional media coverage has been exponentially increased, and that’s been tremendously valuable for all of us. We’re much stronger collectively, I think.
This is a massive beer market here, and like markets all across the country it’s pushing toward craft beer. Every day, new people here are drinking their first craft brews.
Carboy: Do you think there’s a St. Louis craft beer bubble approaching, or is there still room for nigh-limitless expansion?
Hafner: There’s never a limitless market, but with that said it’s still completely untapped. We’re still several years behind other craft beer communities in places like California or Michigan, but it’s growing fast.
Carboy: Indeed. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, and what’s happening here really reminds me of what has happened in Chicago in the past few years—a total overhaul, essentially.
Hafner: When one place is successful, you will see a flood of new places. I hate to say it, but not all of them will make it, like with any other business. The places that do make it end up being pretty strong. With the way things are right now, I don’t think this will be it, I expect you’ll still see several more breweries try to open down the line in St. Louis.
That’s it! If you live in the St. Louis area, go and check The Civil Life out when you’re in the neighborhood. If they have their way, you’ll probably never leave again. I doubt you would mind.