Reverence and Reverie: The Sustainable Urban Brewery Supporting Gateway City Communities
Few people in St. Louis have thought more about beer over the past two decades than Florian Kuplent and David Wolfe. The founders of Urban Chestnut Brewing Company have a combined 50-plus years in the brewing industry. Enough experience to ensure that all the beautiful nuances of a simple beverage that originates with barley malt, hops, yeast and water are practically hardcoded into their DNA.
Their careers converged at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, where each had a unique vantage point: German-born Kuplent on the worldwide yeast supply and the development of new products, and St. Louis-born Wolfe on the sales, marketing, innovation and business side. In 2010, after four years as AB InBev coworkers, they started UCBC.
While craft brewers’ roles as agents of urban revitalization are now lauded across the U.S., Wolfe and Kuplent had limited models to follow a decade ago. Among regional craft brewers, few had scaled up to even a fraction of what the duo was accustomed to at AB InBev, and microbreweries’ production volume was smaller yet, although it was growing—it increased fivefold between 2010 and 2018, to 5.8 million barrels.
But Wolfe and Kuplent had two perspectives that turned out to be their secret weapons. One was history. Germany, of course, is unparalleled for its rich beer traditions. These date back hundreds of years and include the famous Reinheitsgebot that stipulated only barley malt, water and hops could be used in beer production; yeast came along later. In St. Louis, generations of German immigrants had honed their love of beer by innovating with local products and conditions, including limestone lagering caves.
The other perspective was a vision for the future. Both partners had been innovators at their corporate jobs. They weren’t risk-averse, but neither were they newbies who could be sucked into the latest trend. They valued sustainable brewing practices, from water conservation to recycling and composting to using solar power.
And between these two perspectives, they came up with a philosophy they call “Beer Divergency.” It’s represented by two beer series. The first, Reverence, honors Old World beer styles and methods. It’s where the Chestnut in the name comes from, because European beer gardens and cellars were often shaded by chestnut trees. The second, Revolution, is the American side, the Urban in the name, the beer series where brewmasters can go out on a limb and try something new. And it’s where UCBC as a company pushes past the historic idea of a beer producer’s role in building community.
Kuplent, who has worked in England and Belgium as well as the U.S. and Germany, started as an apprentice in Brauerei Erharting, a small family-run brewery in eastern Bavaria, not far from Munich. Like American craft brewers, local European beermakers have a deep pride in their history and a strong sense of place. The difference comes in where that place is—during the ascension of craft beers, the “where” was often a city center struggling to overcome economic decline, whether it was located in the Rust Belt or on the West Coast. These locales needed more than beer, and craft brewers delivered.
In St. Louis, UCBC’s first location in 2011 was a 1920s-era garage in Midtown, just east of the arts and theater district of Grand Center. Its second in 2014 was in a former paper company of the same era in The Grove. Today, both neighborhoods are walkable, surrounded by small homes and apartments plus independent businesses—but when UCBC located there, both had seen better days. Some of the company’s earliest initiatives—which the website labels Urban Efforts—were intentionally designed to make the tasting rooms accommodating to neighbors and community partners. For example, every Tuesday the Midtown location hosts Steins for Support, where a percentage of sales is donated toward a designated 501c3 nonprofit. Earlier this year, UCBC partnered with its Grand Center neighbor, Circus Flora, on a seasonal Big Top Bavarian beer, and this fall it extended its Oktoberfest street party up to the circus tent. Nonprofits can reserve UCBC’s meeting rooms and event spaces at no cost, and social groups often host everything from coloring nights to trivia games.
Many of UCBC’s charitable partnerships have held fast for years. Perhaps the best known is Dog Day Fridays in The Grove, where UCBC and Purina host pooch-friendly events on the bierhall’s east lawn twice a month over the summer. They’re free, family-oriented opportunities to hang out with adoptable dogs, play games, eat and drink. A portion of proceeds benefits a local pet shelter or rescue.
Another facet of the Purina partnership promoted pet adoptions through sales of Urban Underdog American Lager. For every specially marked eight-pack of Urban Underdog sold, Purina donated $5 toward offsetting pet adoption fees at participating shelters and rescues. Would-be pet owners could receive a $25 adoption subsidy plus UCBC swag.
Some collaborations are all about the beer. The Big Shark Radler—a mix of lager beer and carbonated lemon soda in 2018, grapefruit soda in 2019—has become a solid hit with St. Louisans in just two summer biking seasons. And then there’s the Grizzly Ridge Kölsch, the first official beer of the Saint Louis Zoo. For every case sold, UCBC donated $3 to the zoo to support its animal care and conservation work. Future plans include the release of a new style of beer highlighting different areas of the zoo into 2020.
“One of the main goals David and Florian had for UCBC was urban development,” says Ashley Troutman, business and marketing operations manager. “Their hope to contribute to the revitalization of St. Louis is one of the reasons they started the brewery in the first place.”
In the decades to come, Urban Chestnut will continue to work with community partners in the hopes of making St. Louis even more fascinating—and, of course, they’ll keep making great beer.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.
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