Table Talk

The leaders of St. Louis’ craft beer community come together to talk all things beer

 

 

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The Players

Stephen Hale, Schlafly Beer

Florian Kuplent, Urban Chestnut Brewing Company

Kevin Lemp, 4 Hands Brewing Company

Dylan Mosely, The Civil Life Brewing Company

James “Otto” Ottolini, Schlafly Beer

Brian Owens, O’Fallon Brewery

Phil Wymore, Perennial Artisan Ales

John Witte, Square One Brewery & Distillery

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ALIVE: Where do you look for inspiration?
HALE: Short answer‰ÛÓeverywhere for me.
LEMP: We draw a lot of our inspiration from the kitchen. We even use “The Flavor Bible” at the brewery to look at different ingredients and what works well with what. Morning Glory is a sweet potato beer that we brewed and tried to get creative with the culinary aspect of it, pairing different spices and using wood chips in the brewing process. We’re inspired by the culinary scene in St. Louis, which is also fantastic. If you look at the culinary scene with the farm-to-table movement and the coffee scene with the single-origin coffee and small roasters, there’s a lot of stuff going on at the craft level locally, which I think is exciting.

ALIVE: What do you do to help the uninitiated branch out and get into drinking craft beers?
MOSELY: At our pub, we encounter customers who don’t care what they’re ordering as long as it’s “light.” There’s a fear of the unknown, generally speaking. Sometimes you just bow to that. I’m oftentimes surprised, though, how many times I can suggest our brown beer to someone and get them to enjoy it. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes there’s a genuine moment of, “Hey, I do like that!”
LEMP: We developed our Single Speed to be that gateway beer for people who’ve been loyal to the macro-lagers to find their way into the craft beer portfolio. We also look at our brewery ina couple of different ways. We don’t just build our brand on beer. We try to create events to get people into the brewery who don’t even like craft beer. It’s a great way for us to introduce them. We’re not just looking at the craft beer enthusiast.
OTTOLINI: I think when you’re dealing with a customer, there are two things you’re charged with. One is giving them what they want and the second is giving them something they didn’t know they wanted in the first place. If you can do the second one, that’s a neat trick. I don’t think anyone knew they wanted a smartphone until they came out. There’s an air of pretentiousness to assume that anyone knows what someone else wants without engaging in an authentic level of interest and finding out what it is they want. The key is making them comfortable outside their comfort zone, like what [Kevin] does at 4 Hands‰ÛÓwhere people come and have a good time, and the next thing they know, they’ve enjoyed one of his beers. That’s pretty cool.

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ALIVE: Do we have a big enough beer culture to support all of the brewers and keep the scene friendly like that?
WITTE: There is a beer culture that is growing in St. Louis, and there’s still plenty of room to grow that pie. We have a lot of breweries that are doing a lot of different styles, and that can help expand the customer’s mindset of what craft beer is.

ALIVE: Do you see yourselves as local brewers, or as a part of something bigger?
KUPLENT: Well, it’s definitely not just St. Louis and the US where stuff is happening. In Europe, even in Germany where there’s a very conservative market, there are small breweries popping up. I think we’re all part of the worldwide brewing community. As exciting as the local scene is, we’re definitely part of something bigger.

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ALIVE: Where do you look for inspiration?
HALE: Short answer‰ÛÓeverywhere for me.
LEMP: We draw a lot of our inspiration from the kitchen. We even use “The Flavor Bible” at the brewery to look at different ingredients and what works well with what. Morning Glory is a sweet potato beer that we brewed and tried to get creative with the culinary aspect of it, pairing different spices and using wood chips in the brewing process. We’re inspired by the culinary scene in St. Louis, which is also fantastic. If you look at the culinary scene with the farm-to-table movement and the coffee scene with the single-origin coffee and small roasters, there’s a lot of stuff going on at the craft level locally, which I think is exciting.

ALIVE: What do you do to help the uninitiated branch out and get into drinking craft beers?
MOSELY: At our pub, we encounter customers who don’t care what they’re ordering as long as it’s “light.” There’s a fear of the unknown, generally speaking. Sometimes you just bow to that. I’m oftentimes surprised, though, how many times I can suggest our brown beer to someone and get them to enjoy it. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes there’s a genuine moment of, “Hey, I do like that!”
LEMP: We developed our Single Speed to be that gateway beer for people who’ve been loyal to the macro-lagers to find their way into the craft beer portfolio. We also look at our brewery ina couple of different ways. We don’t just build our brand on beer. We try to create events to get people into the brewery who don’t even like craft beer. It’s a great way for us to introduce them. We’re not just looking at the craft beer enthusiast.
OTTOLINI: I think when you’re dealing with a customer, there are two things you’re charged with. One is giving them what they want and the second is giving them something they didn’t know they wanted in the first place. If you can do the second one, that’s a neat trick. I don’t think anyone knew they wanted a smartphone until they came out. There’s an air of pretentiousness to assume that anyone knows what someone else wants without engaging in an authentic level of interest and finding out what it is they want. The key is making them comfortable outside their comfort zone, like what [Kevin] does at 4 Hands‰ÛÓwhere people come and have a good time, and the next thing they know, they’ve enjoyed one of his beers. That’s pretty cool.

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ALIVE: Where is the local beer scene headed? Will we see a return to more classic styles, or will there be more outside-the-box stuff happening?
OWENS: I hope a little of both. As a beer drinker myself, I like diversity, and that’s what we’re seeing now in St. Louis. At O’Fallon, we’ve got some very classic styles and some experimental stuff. I think Florian does a great job of having two lines that focus on each side. The more diversity there is, the better.
MOSELY: Beer isn’t really the front horse on this cart. Running your business well is really the lead horse. Any number of things could happen. I think it would be really difficult to theorize what’s going to happen across an entire city or what’s happening with beer in America. It really comes down to the personal statements the people running the breweries want to make and how effective they are at running things.
HALE: Customers have often driven it. It took us a while to get our [at the time] biggest and hoppiest beer out there, the Dry Hopped APA. That was a beer for Hop In The City, and people said, “That’s it; make more of it.” We don’t always get to make what we want all of the time. It’s about them. If you make just what you want and [the customers] don’t like it, you’re going to have to dump it and make what they want ultimately. You can drive it as much as you think you can, but really it’s up to them.
MOSELY: Beer can be a fashion statement, but at the end of the day, people don’t wear super uncomfortable shoes all day long. Unless you find that sweet spot where you come up with something people really and truly want to drink, you’re in a tough spot.

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ALIVE: A while ago the trend in beer was supper hoppy. It was almost like some brewers were saying “We don’t care what it takes like, we just want the hoppiest, craziest beer out there,” without a lot of regard for what the customer might want to drink. It seemed sort of self-serving. How do you all look at trends, do you pay attention to them or more to the wants of people who buy your beer? Is it worth chasing the trends?
Witte: If you do any investing, the last thing you want to do is try and time the market. If you’re chasing a trend, that’s what it feels like to me. We have a couple of different lines that we do, one of which messes with people’s paradigm of what beer is supposed to taste like. We can do a German wheat beer that’s as black as a stout but doesn’t taste like one. That’s fun, I like messing with people’s paradigms, but at the end of the day, it’s a business and you have to create styles people want.
Ottolini: It’s like a microcosm of life. Do you do what you love, or do you look to other people for feedback? If I just pursued all my life’s loves and found that it pissed everybody off, I’m going to see that few and far between are the people who stay on that track. Maybe the common element in all of my dysfunctional relationships is me, and I might want to consider changing myself. Most of us look for feedback from others. A beer brand is no different. If everything you made had difficulty selling or appealing to your client base or that base was smaller than you desired, you’d be a fool not to try and adjust something. You have to walk a line and ask yourself how much can you manifest your self-expression in the beer and how can you meet the needs of others in doing so.

ALIVE: That’s a hard thing to reconcile.
Hale: Probably, if you do what you want well, enough will like it.
Kuplent: I think we’re in a fortunate situation where people are generally pretty open to trying things, especially on the beer side. Obviously, 95 percent of the market is still somewhat limited in terms of flavor and experience, but there’s people out there willing to try stuff. Not everyone is going to like everything all the time, but I think as long as people are willing to expand a little bit there’s an opportunity to come up with new things that may be a bit “niche-y.” It gives us a little more flexibility than brewers had, say, 30 years ago, where if they wanted to try something they probably couldn’t have sold it because people just weren’t open to the idea of trying something new.

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ALIVE: Why do you think that’s changed now?
Mosely: Everybody used to shop at Sears, everybody used to drive a Dodge because that’s what was there, and I think beer was part of that attitude. We have more breweries now than we did in the 1960s and 1970s, so there’s more options.

ALIVE: So what’s going to be the “next big thing” in beer?
Hale: I think it’s hard to say what the next big thing will be. I like to think this is, continuing to do it right and to do it well, supporting others who are opening, responding to what’s happening and adapting and trying new things. It’s fun to experiment.
Kuplent: That’s the good thing about beer, it’s not like purchasing a car. You’re not stuck with it for the next five years. People can experiment and then go back to what they’re used to. It’s not a big decision.

ALIVE: How do you all view yourselves in light of the big corporate breweries?
Lemp: I see us as a small business in St. Louis. We brew what we love to drink. We’ve come to the understanding that we’re not in the business of making everybody happy. When it leaves our dock, if we’re really satisfies with it, we’re happy.
Ottolini: At the end of the day, you show up and try to just be you, because that’s the only thing you really, truly know how to be and it’s the only thing that no one else can ever be. And if that shows up in your beer, great.

ALIVE: It seems like sometimes, especially in the media, craft brewers of all sizes are portrayed as the giant killers, doing the good and true stuff and battling the corporate evil.
Ottolini: I don’t see us like that. I think it’s an illusion. I think people like to demonize something that’s large.
Witte: We never promoted ourselves that way, I think that was put into our mouths by reporters and people who were trying to draw a comparison. When we were opening Trailhead in 1995, we had nothing but fantastic relationships with Anheuser-Busch, to the point where they opened their labs to us and we were able to do free analysis on products and had a free flow of information between us.
Hale: We work hard to maintain good relations. The ‘David and Goliath’ story was painted by the media, and some customers had an assumption too about the ‘evil empire.’

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ALIVE: Is there anything happening now in the beer community that you find particularly exciting?
Hale: The St. Louis Brewer’s Guild is just starting to build their online community on Facebook and Twitter.
Ottolini: The guild is comprised of all of the work-producing brewers in the St. Louis area, which includes Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is unique and something we’re proud of, that there’s unity among breweries in St. Louis and there’s a growing and thriving beer culture here.

ALIVE: It’s been said that the InBev purchase of Anheuser-Busch spurred a lot of the growth of the craft brewing scene in St. Louis. What do you think?
Witte: From a sales standpoint, we can point to the month the sale happened, from then on we’ve had greater than 10 percent growth every single year.
Ottolini: Why does it matter? It’s the brewery. Did we all get our panties in a twist when Boeing came in and bought McDonnnell Douglas? Is that because it was an American company? I don’t think so. People didn’t refer to these (local) companies by what they produce, but they do refer to Anheuser-Busch as “the brewery.” It’s the place in town that makes the beer. It’s a large company but it’s run by people who live here. I think that there is some bitterness there and it’s a little blinding at time.
Mosely: I think in the short term there were people who were vocal about it and decided that they’re weren’t going to support the brewery anymore. Like anything, the more distance you have the less it really matters. I think it’s maybe starting to impact people who would commonly reach for a lighter beer giving something else a try but I don’t think they’re too tied together.
Wymore: We actually tried to quit converting people. We actually quit production of our lightest style (Southside Blonde) to get out of that business, so to speak. We felt like it was sort of the outlier in what we were trying to do. Often times a customer comes in and we don’t have anything for them and that’s OK. We want people who come to our place to sort of expect what we do, and we want to closely protect that identity. We don’t want to be the thing for everyone.

ALIVE: It seems like an easy trap to fall into, trying to be something for everyone and in the end doing nothing for anyone.
Wymore: It took us a while to come to that. It took developing a lot of beers for us to be able to step back and say “This is our identity.”

 

Photo credit: Christopher Gibbons

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