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St. Louis beer isn't just about Anheuser-Busch anymore

By Kristen Hinman
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:35 AM

The de facto itinerary for visitors to St. Louis has long included Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse for its ties to Dred Scott and the Anheuser-Busch brewery, where guides would fortify tourists with free Budweiser after showing off the Clydesdales. Today, there's a lot more on tap in the so-called 'Lou, beginning with beer.

On a recent trip back to the city that I once called home, I took swigs of small-batch honey weizen, blackberry cider, one ale punched up with chocolate and another redolent with lemongrass, several tasty wheat beers and a couple of others that I wasn't clear-headed enough to note. All were locally brewed, but not at Anheuser-Busch. To be continued.

First, some context for anyone who thought this old-timer was down for the count. It's true that the city lost more than half its population to its leafy suburbs over five decades. And, yes, parts of the city remain blighted today. But the past seven years have brought a blast of urban renewal and incremental population growth.

When I moved to the city in 2004, one of the first things that struck me was a visual arts scene thumping with new energy, thanks to the openings of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, an incredible building designed by Tadao Ando, and, right next door, the Contemporary Art Museum. I soon saw the arrival of a new class of galleries showing contemporary work and the unveiling of an impressive two-block sculpture park, CityGarden, in the heart of downtown.

The Central West End had long been considered St. Louis's most cosmopolitan neighborhood and an easy go-to for designer jeans, but I came to prefer the ever-expanding commercial strip known as the Loop for its edgier fashion finds and music shows at the Pageant and Blueberry Hill. Downtown, where developers were busy converting old warehouses into lofts atop new street-front bars and restaurants along Washington Avenue, was also increasingly a draw.

The cultural comeback I witnessed extended equally to the food scene. Small farms began to supply the ambitious chefs at restaurants such as Stellina Pasta Cafe, Sydney Street Cafe and Cafe Osage at Bowood Farms. Pappy's Smokehouse became an instant mecca for barbecue freaks, while Terrace View at CityGarden and Cielo at the new Four Seasons (near the Arch) wowed for their food and aesthetics.

Now that I've left St. Louis, craft breweries have become a draw. That would have been a sacrilegious utterance a few years ago, before the hometown brewer was sold to a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate to become Anheuser-Busch InBev. But since the billion-dollar deal went through, St. Louisans are becoming more adventurous with their beer budget. Some have hopes for a back-to-the-future recasting of the early 20th century, when German immigrant-owned brewpubs and beer gardens dotted the city.

I recently sampled some of the newer brews and got a look at what's to come. For part of my pub crawl, I even roped in a friend who's been known to tote her own Budweiser Select to parties. By the end of the night, she was drinking ESB and querying a bartender on the fermentation merits of different grains.

We started with Lemp, the first lager to be nationally distributed. (The original brewery folded, but the brand was revived in 2004.) The new HandleBar was a fun place to try this curiously dark drink. But I preferred the revision of history going on at Six Row Brewing Co., a brewpub located in a Midtown building that once housed the now-defunct Falstaff Brewery. Six Row's owners have restored the historic site to spick-and-span conditions. The brews, including its popular Kolsch, are also on tap at other bars around the city.

I was happy to see the five-year-old Square One Brewery in Lafayette Square still luring a lively crowd. The brewpub doesn't distribute, but it's just as well, as part of its appeal is the beer garden, especially in the evening. (I once took a beer connoisseur friend from Colorado to Square One; he took a couple sips of the Belgian tripel and canceled the rest of the night's agenda.) Other established haunts include the Stable brewpub in the Cherokee Street District, which reels in patrons from its hipster environs, and the Morgan Street Brewery on Laclede's Landing, which may draw more tourists because of its proximity to the Arch.

Neither brewpub nor brewery, the Bridge is a new downtown bar and restaurant with nearly 50 beers on tap. Owner Dave Bailey pours as many local craft brews as he can, including his own Chocolate Ale (also sold in six-packs at his Baileys' Chocolate Bar). I generally like my chocolate dark, just a square or two, for a late-afternoon snack. But this ale is one liquid chocolate I could form a habit around.

Since the wine bar 33 was a main reason I lived in Lafayette Square, it felt a little odd to talk beer with its former owner, Jake Hafner, in an old newspaper-distribution center that he's converting to a microbrewery. "I feel like beer's where wine was nine years ago when I got into that business," Hafner told me. "There's so much interest in craft beer now, and so many places we can go with it. There's no question it can work in St. Louis. It's not territorial at all. If anything, everybody really wants everyone else to succeed."

Hafner's brewery, A Civil Life, is slated to open in April. By then, two former Anheuser-Busch executives will have opened Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. just west of downtown, and a transplant from Chicago should be close to pouring his Perennial Artisan Ales. Another new label I didn't get a chance to try is Cathedral Square, which doesn't have its own brewpub or tasting space - yet.

Before catching my flight back to Washington, I grabbed lunch at what you might call the mother of all this invention, the not-to-be-missed Schlafly Tap Room. Its owners, Tom Schlafly and Dan Kopman, like to recount how everybody thought they were out of their minds opening a craft brewery in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch way back when. Twenty years, dozens of fine beers (and now cider), not to mention hundreds of legendary parties later, Schlafly's owners couldn't be more stoked about the fact that others want to follow their lead.

"Are you kidding, it's great!" Kopman blurted when I asked for his take on the evolving craft beer scene. "My goal is 40. We've got 15 microbreweries in the area now, and we had 40 prior to Prohibition. I think we can definitely do it."

Cheers to that.

Hinman is a Washington journalist.

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