I’ll draw you a picture–it’s the first day of my recent St. Louis brewery vacation, and I’ve just come from interviewing the good folks at Civil Life Brewing. I’m stopping in on the next brewery of my tour, the soon-to-open 4 Hands Brewing near St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood and right on the edge of St. Louis Cardinals parking, to check out the cavernous new warehouse-turned brewery…and owner/founder Kevin Lemp is nowhere to be found.
As it turns out, the hard-working Lemp (whose name is of no relation to the famous St. Louis brewing family) was called away briefly on business, leaving me pretty much to my own devices in wandering the brewspace and checking out the operation. Thankfully for him, however, head brewer Will Johnston was there to stop me from indulging my natural compulsions, like falling into a mashtun or being vaporized by a gout of superheated steam. Johnston is a pretty well-known brewer, having worked quite a while at Goose Island before the Inbev-AB takeover, being one of the people who helped first develop Goose’s line of Belgian specialty brews.
In our conversation, I was able to learn quite a bit about the brewery’s plans and future beers from Johnston and then the returning Lemp. As we stood and chatted beside the brewery’s tiny pilot brewhouse/homebrew setup, Johnston revealed their plans to push the boundaries of St. Louis brewing.
Kid Carboy Jr.: So you were the Goose Island guy I’ve heard so much about.
Will Johnston: Yeah, I was the second shift brewer at goose for five years.
Carboy: Just out of curiosity, what do you think about what’s going on there now?
Johnston: You know what, there’s a lot of negativity toward that buyout, but if the beer remains good, whatever. We’ll see how it works. I’ve heard about the 312 area code thing. That beer was a great introduction to craft when it was devised though, and it kept Goose’s lights on. Time will tell.
Carboy: I personally think the frustrating thing is that they’re still making all these crazy sours and Belgians and stuff that you read about, but they’re only available in one place in Chicago. It can barely said to be “available” at all—it looks like they’re just trying to put a happy face on what happens with their brand in the entire rest of the country.
Johnston: It’s such a huge undertaking financially though, as I’m sure you realize. It ties up their space for so much longer than the other beers. And you know, making those sours and stuff on a big scale in America? That’s dangerous. You’re propagating potential brewery-enders in your own home. It’s kind of scary to be using lactobacillus and pediococcus on a large scale because they have a proven track record of ruining breweries. It’s playing with fire.
Carboy: So what’s it like using this little homebrew setup after being a professional brewer for so long?
Johnston: It’s been weird to go back to the homebrewing drawing board. I was making 200 barrels of beer on my shift in an 8-hour period at Goose. In six hours now I can brew five gallons of homebrew. That’s not exactly efficient. But on the other hand it brings me back to my roots and lets me mess around with different styles.
Carboy: That makes sense because you figure you’ll never do something as ridiculous in the main brewhouse as you would make in the pilot system.
Johnston: You’d be surprised. We’re looking to do some pretty outrageous stuff.
Carboy: So when it comes to the 4 Hands beers, how close to correct would it be if someone assumed you were going to be “The Goose Island (pre-buyout) of St. Louis,” particularly when it comes to the specialty beer line?
Johnston: Yeah, honestly that’s kind of what we envision. We’re definitely not going to recreate anything like those specific beers, but we will be doing very unique, American-inspired, barrel aged beers. Red and white wine barrels, spirit barrels, everything. Those beers will be unique to 4 Hands because our inspiration is to do it local and keep it local. We’re going to use everything we can get from the immediate, surrounding area to make and enhance the beer.
Carboy: Would you say, then, that right off the bat when it opens, 4 Hands would qualify as maybe the “most extreme” brewer here in St. Louis?
Johnston: Perennial is actually doing a lot of barrel aging and cool, creative stuff as well, but we’ll be known for being unique and wood-aged for sure.
Carboy: And what will the launch beers be?
Johnston: Our core lineup will be a blonde ale spiced with kaffir lime leaves, an oatmeal brown ale…
Carboy: *interrupting* …kind of like Surly’s Bender?
Johnston: Yeah, but better.* Because I’ve done test batches and that beer is just awesome. We’re going to have a single-hop centennial red ale with a great aroma, and then a Rye IPA as well. Those are the core ones, year-round.
*If that’s true, that will be one kick-ass brew.
Carboy: How about seasonals and other stuff?
Johnston: We’ll have a blackberry Berliner weisse, an imperial IPA, and just a huge, massive stout. Just outrageous.
Carboy: How outrageous are we talking?
Johnston: As much as grain as I can possibly fit into that lauter tun…I’m going to max that sucker out.* All I’m looking to get is first wort.
*This is a contender for the best brewer’s quote I’ve ever heard.
Carboy: Would you make a second small beer, then?
Johnston: I could, we could make a porter from that, certainly. The stout will be brewed with espresso as well.
Carboy: Do you have an idea for some kind of weird-ass beer that nobody has made before?
Johnston: Well, we did a sour cherry saison that we have conditioning, but if you’re looking for weird you’d probably want to check out our sweet potato beer. It’s actually right there. *points to bucket next to test brewhouse* We brewed it and added fresh nutmeg and allspice, and in the secondary we’re going to be using fresh vanilla bean and whiskey-infused pecan chips.
Carboy: So is it like a winter warmer, then?
Johnson: Similar to that, but we’re looking to push it out at the same time that everyone else is pushing out their pumpkin beers. It will be a special offering, probably not the easiest beer to make.
Carboy: I wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of fermentables in a sweet potato.
Johnson: No. We’ve figured that out. We bumped up the malt bill for this batch; you’re not getting a ton of fermentables from them; it requires a bunch of potatoes. That’s the great thing about this pilot brewhouse, is messing around with this stuff.
At this point, brewery founder Kevin Lemp returned, and we had a chance to discuss a bit more about the business side of the brewery.
Kid Carboy Jr.: So did you have a brewing background?
Kevin Lemp: I’m from St. Louis, born and raised, but my background is all sales and marketing, 10 years. My career was in marketing for wine and beer distributors.
Carboy: When did you get the brewery owner’s bug, then?
Lemp: Ever since I started tasting better beer, I’ve always been a craft beer fanatic. My gateway beers were Fat Tire and Franziskaner Weiss, those were the first two that really opened my mind, freshman year of college.
Carboy: So what kind of dream did you envision for your own place?
Lemp: You know, one of the things that we are really trying to create here is a portfolio where customers can trade up and down, so we want to hit multiple price points in multiple packages. The core lineup will be in sixpacks, the seasonal selections will be in 22 oz bombers. And from there, we’ll get into all the barrel-aged beers, which will be a whole other field. We want people to look at the label, scratch their head and think “Huh, that sounds interesting and different from other beer I’ve had in St. Louis.”
Carboy: I’ve heard that sustainability and green manufacturing are pretty important to you and the brewery.
Lemp: We try to make use of reused and recycled materials for almost everything. Our bar is old, recycled barn wood. It’s had a past life and has a story to tell, which I think is cool.
The concrete counter-top has recycled glass in it. Our tables and chairs are made out of recycled steel. The original dock door of the warehouse is becoming a community table. Our chairs will be recycled steel and sanded-down, recycled barnwood. I spoke to the guys at Civil Life the other week and we hope to eventually put solar panels on our roof as well like they’ve got.
Carboy: Any other beers you can tell me about that I haven’t already heard of from Will?
Lemp: Well, I don’t know how much he told you about our saisons, but we’ll have two: A sour cherry one for summer and spring, and then a pear, white pepper and orange rind saison for fall and winter.
Carboy: You’re sounding more Goose Island-y by the second.
Lemp: *laughing* Well, I guess you work off of your influences.
That’s it, folks! 4 Hands looks to establish itself as a full-on production brewery in St. Louis, a place where Cardinals fans will also love to stop before and after the game to fill a growler or two. They haven’t announced an official opening date, but it appears to be in the near future, so check back frequently. Until then, you can catch their beer at local festivals and beer events in the St. Louis area. And stay tuned for my upcoming interviews with the owners/brewers of Perennial Artisan Ales and Urban Chestnut.