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From craft brewery desert to oasis: The St. Charles County craft brewery boom

Beer flight from Friendship Brewing Co. located in Wentzville.

By ANDREW TESSMER

Once referred to as a “craft brewery desert,” St. Charles County is quickly becoming an oasis for those seeking to expand their beer options while staying close to home.

July 1995 marked the opening of Trailhead Brewing Company, the first brewery in St. Charles since prohibition. O’Fallon Brewery opened in 2000 [and since relocated to Maryland Heights], a year before Exit 6 Pub and Brewery, the area’s first microbrewery, opened in Cottleville. Still, five more years passed before Friendship Brewing Company opened its doors in Wentzville in mid-2016. After Friendship opened, the timeline contracted greatly. In January 2017, homebrew shop Design2Brew opened its microbrewery and tasting room. Just two months later, Two Plumbers Brewery + Arcade opened its doors in St. Charles. In the next four months, three more breweries will open in the now craft brewery oasis.

So, the question arises, “why are so many craft breweries popping up in St. Charles County?”

Jake Harrell, head brewer at Trailhead Brewing Company said the interest in craft breweries “is due to an interest in variety as it had been previous to prohibition.”

“For decades, the American people were exposed to ‘American lagers’ only,” Harrell said. “Nowadays, the public has a renewed interest in local and handcrafted products, whether classic, traditional styles or new, cutting-edge brews.

There is so much variety to offer that many are wanting to put out in their local neighborhoods to showcase what is possible from such a wide variety to ingredients.”

And the people of St. Charles County have proven, by patronizing early adopters such as Trailhead, that they are thirsty for even more locally produced beer options.

“I’m a lifelong resident of Wentzville. I wanted to create something unique in my hometown community,” said Brian Nolan, co-owner of Friendship Brewing Co. “Opening the brewery is our slogan realized – it’s the culmination of years of friends making beer and beer making friends,” Nolan said.

The brewery itself is akin to a beer museum, with posters, signs and memorabilia of bygone brands covering nearly every inch of the 3,600-square-foot space. Featuring more than 25 taps, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and an onsite kitchen, Friendship has become a hangout for those throughout St. Charles and beyond.

People take pride in their communities, and craft breweries are becoming a point of civic pride in burgeoning and established towns across the country – St. Charles County is no exception.

Nationwide, the demand for beer is only growing. Luckily, so is supply. At the end of 2016, the Brewers Association reported a record-setting 5,301 operational breweries in the U.S., putting a craft brewery within 10 miles of most Americans. This average, however, does not yet hold true for some St. Charles County citizens.

“There were plenty of people in St. Charles who wanted to go to a local brewery but didn’t want to have a 30- to 45-minute car ride to the city to do it,” said Brad Wheeling of the soon-to-open St. Peters-based Third Wheel Brewing. “We really want to be the kind of place where people can just hang out, bring their laptop or a book and casually sip a beer while they do their thing.”

Defining craft breweries

While there is no singular or legal definition of what makes a brewery a craft brewery, there are a few guidelines that may help put a circle around the burgeoning trade.

According to the Brewers Association, craft breweries produce six million barrels – 252 million gallons – of beer or less per year. They focus on innovation, creating entirely new flavors or styles, and often add twists to classic styles. In addition, craft breweries generally maintain integrity in what they brew and in their independence from non-craft breweries.

Bible study and a wort chiller brought three guys together to create Good News Brewing. As the story goes, co-owner Josh Miller was in the hospital waiting for results related to his unborn child while the guys were attempting to solidify a name for their North O’Fallon-based brewery. With Josh’s longing for good news about his yet-to-be born child, he suggested the name Good News Brewing and the name stuck. In addition, the guys enjoy spreading good news. Their 1,000-square-foot space – a former dairy – will feature a brick fire pizza oven, a large patio and eight to 10 taps pouring a line of experimental beers including a dark chocolate-pomegranate stout and smoked cherrywood wheat in a homemade, one-barrel [31 gallon] brew system.

New and unique is the defining feature of the beers produced locally – and many are produced in  micro batches.

Exit 6, located in Cottleville, brews all of its beers a 1.5 barrel brew system, which allows them the flexibility to brew more often and be more experimental. One such beer is their Iced Oatmeal Cookie, a sweeter variation of a classic amber ale that, thanks to some special ingredients, tastes just like a glass full of grandma’s iced oatmeal cookies.

“There was no place to get a wide selection of craft beer in St. Charles when I opened,” said Exit 6 owner Jeff Britton. “Being involved in the community, I knew there were craft drinkers out here, but a huge void in options. I wanted to try and fill that void.”

Beer, friends and fun

While experimentation is key to brewing  beer, so is producing and drawing attention to classic, oft-forgotten styles. According to Dave Johnson, head brewer for the O’Fallon-based Missouri Beer Company, “craft beer should be approachable, come in a wide variety of styles and honor the tradition of classic styles.”

One such classic and very approachable beer is Missouri Beer Co.’s dark mild, a style that originated in 17th century England. The full-flavored, dark-colored beer features light, toasty notes, no hop bitterness, low alcohol [around 3.5 percent alcohol by volume] and a much thinner body than most dark-colored beers. The dark mild is good gateway style for those on the fence about dark beers.

After tasting such a wide variety of experimental and classical styles, creativity often takes hold, leaving a newly minted  beer enthusiast thinking about experimenting on their own. This is where homebrewing comes in and where a bulk of today’s craft breweries got their start.

Due to the increase in popularity of homebrewing, shops focused on carrying the malt, hops, yeast and equipment used to make beer at home started popping up across the county. Once such shop in the area is Design2Brew.

In addition to shopping for ingredients, customers can brew a beer right in the shop and Design2Brew is licensed to serve its small batch beers on the premises.

“Homebrewing is a unique way to better appreciate beer,” said Christian McCarthy, head brewer at Design2Brew. “Tasting the ingredients during the stages of brewing helps [the brewer to] understand the flavors each ingredient imparts into the finished beer.”

All-in-all, craft beer, whether making it or drinking it, should be fun. The recently opened Two Plumbers Arcade + Brewery has embraced this sentiment with its combination of nano-brewery and retro arcade.

“Beer and games, what could be better than that?” asked Two Plumbers’ owner Robert Schowengerdt. He said the catalyst for opening Two Plumbers was “because we kept running into other residents at beer festivals in St. Louis. We started to realize there were a lot of people like us who wished there was a craft brewery in our home town.”

Sampling the oasis

With a focus on fun and promoting St. Charles County’s craft beer scene, April 22-29 has been designated as St. Charles County Craft Beer Week – a week designed to highlight what each local brewery and other beer-focused establishments have to offer. Each venue hosts special events throughout the week beginning with a beer fest at Shamrocks Pub & Grill in St. Peters.

“Tasting is the best way to experience beer,” said Kyle Dent, Shamrocks owner and craft beer aficionado. “The beer fest is like an appetizer designed to whet the appetite for more good things to come throughout the week.”

For more information and a schedule of activities, visit www.stccraftbeerweek.com and check the special St. Charles County Craft Beer Week section in the April 19 issue of Mid Rivers Newsmagazine.

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