In the U.S., the Brewers Association figures that 2,403 craft breweries operated for some or all of 2012. This would represent the highest mark since the late 1800s. Other pundits estimate that there are approximately 1,000 new breweries at some stage in the planning process right now. It is amazing to witness the growth of an industry that is essentially organic and totally free form.
Spend some time touring the new craft brewers in St. Louis and you will quickly get an understanding for how so many breweries can operate successfully. Success is primarily a function of serving a segment or niche of the market effectively. Try to be everything to everyone and you end up producing mass-market swill.
With my local friend being the tour guide, we set off on Saturday to visit three craft brewers: 4 Hands Brewing, Civil Life Brewing Company, and Perennial Artisan Ales. Each of these brewers runs a “tasting room,” so every beer we drank came about as fresh from the source as possible.
I really fell down on the job and failed to take pictures of the beers I drank or the tasting rooms themselves, but the Internet is a wondrous place for finding either of these things in droves.
4 Hands Brewing, Google Map, is located immediately south of downtown in an area that can charitably be called run-down industrial. Things are changing and a lot of new housing is being built on reclaimed brownfield land, but the old industrial character is still very much present and it infuses the beers made by 4 Hands. Heck, even the tables and chairs are very industrial or steampunk chic being made from black plumbing pipe and roughhewn boards.
The beer menu had two options that really caught my eye: Single Speed Session and Divided Sky Rye IPA. Session beers are hard to classify because the style is not very well defined. In general, these beers come in at an ABV lower than 5% and finish very cleanly. The most common attribute assigned to this style is “very drinkable.” Single Speed Session falls into this category. I could not have asked for a better beer to start my evening and it was made all the better by being able to enjoy it outside.
Divided Sky Rye IPA is a different drinking experience. Rye is supposed to add bold peppery flavors to beer. Balanced with a strong hop profile, it can make a beer have layers of malty complexity you cannot get with traditional malted grains. Divided Sky balances the rye against Centennial, Columbus, and Cascade hops, which are a potent trio of hop flavors. All in all, it’s a great way to showcase rye.
Civil Life Brewing Company, Google Map, has a tasting room that feels like you are walking into a neighborhood pub for a pint. Clad in wood with real dart boards and an excellent outside seating area, the tasting room just feels comfortable.
I ended up deciding on two pints: American Pale Ale and Rye Pale Ale (Notice a rye theme?). These two beers need to be considered together because they seem to share a lot of the same characteristics. The folks at Civil Life are quick to point out that pale ale is the quitesential beer style of the American craft movement and it is defined by its use of American “C” hops. As an aside, I think American pale ale as a style is defined by the use of Cascade and Willamette hops.
Like the Divided Sky Rye IPA, the Rye Pale Ale is hitting the right combination by combining the bold flavors of rye malt with the strong hop profile of American pale ale. You would not want to try and do this with lighter profile beers like a wheat based beer. Both beers reminded me of the best homebrewed beers that I have sampled, in a good way. That is to say that the beer style may be common, but the particular take is unique to the brewer in a way that is not discernible in non-technical beer speak. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a local outfit like Civil Life knocking out well-crafted beers.
Bravo to Civil Life for having a bad ass solar system on the roof:
If you get a chance to swing by the Civil Life tasting room make sure and nosh on some of the soft pretzels. I am partial to the cream cheese and jalapeno variety.
Perennial Artisan Ales, Google Map, was a totally unknown quantity to me until my friend mentioned it on Saturday night. Walking into the tasting room felt like a total departure from the aesthetic and tone of either 4 Hands or Civil Life. It felt more…European? Experimental?
I ended up with a snifter of 17 on the recommendation of my guide’s girlfriend. I am sorry to say, because the guys at Perennial seemed so earnest about the business of brewing, the beer tasted like a liquid version of a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie. Every time I burped a little the next day at the zoo I could smell the faint hint of Thin Mint in my mouth. However, I would totally give Perennial another shot to impress me with their take on craft beer. It just was not happening on this particular night.
I did walk away from Perennial Artisan Ales with one revelation: Billy Goat chips. These chips might have been the single best potato chip that I have ever eaten and a great compliment to any beer if you are looking for a salt fix. I really am looking forward to another St. Louis visit so I can score some Billy Goat chips.
I also want to apologize to friends and fans of Urban Chestnut. I had planned on making a side trip to the biergarten on Friday night, but a combination of a late departure in Eastern Iowa and a grumpy two-year-old son prevented me from making it. Next time, I promise.