Craft Beer: Nothing New for the Lou!

19, May 2016

Last year, in a pair of posts written for my personal blog (Distilled History), I detailed a crazy plan of mine to identify every single brewery that existed in the city of St. Louis exactly 140 years ago. That specific number was significant, because 140 years would take me back to 1875, the same year Richard Compton and Camille Dry published their mind-blowing, 110-plate perspective map titled 1875 Pictorial St. Louis. That important map, recently featured in a (superb) exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, was actually the final piece in my brewery-hunt puzzle. I didn’t just want to know who was brewing beer in St. Louis 1875, I wanted to know where. Specifically, I wanted to point out where beer was being brewed on that map. And when the dust settled, the twenty-nine breweries I had highlighted in blue on Compton and Dry’s map told me a pretty good story about the history of beer in St. Louis. In fact, I learned that the beer scene in St. Louis today isn’t much different from how it looked in 1875.

Image taken from Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis featuring the Bavarian BreweryThe Bavarian Brewery in 1875, as seen in Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis.

The story of beer in St. Louis can’t be told without mentioning the style of beer that made it all happen. Craft beer aficionados today may lament the worldwide appeal of Bud Light, but it can’t be denied that lager, the cold-fermented version of beer, is what made St. Louis a beer town. The first to brew lager in St. Louis (and maybe anywhere in America) was a man named Adam Lemp. A name well known in St. Louis, Lemp was a German immigrant who began producing and selling lager to the customers of his grocery store in the late 1830s or early 1840s. Lemp’s lager turned out to be quite a hit in a city that had started filling up with thirsty Germans, and Lemp soon made the wise decision become a full-time brewer. Also the first to recognize the potential of the vast network of natural caves beneath the city, Lemp turned the caves into a giant climate-controlled lagering cellar. As a result, Adam Lemp essentially launched the beer industry in St. Louis. By 1875, Lemp was producing over 60,000 barrels of beer annually in a city filled with 28 other breweries that had followed his lead. This group included the Bavarian Brewery, a large (but smaller than Lemp's) operation located near Lemp’s Western Brewery in south city. That would begin to change in 1876, when the Bavarian Brewery introduced a new product, a lager beer named Budweiser.

Lemp’s Western Brewery and the Bavarian Brewery (which would become known as Anheuser-Busch in 1879) dominated the beer market in St. Louis and beyond until Prohibition brought the entire industry to a screeching halt in 1920. Their success was the result of efforts to expand distribution beyond St. Louis and increase demand and availability for their lagers nationwide.

Image taken from Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis featuring B.F. Young's St. Louis Ale BreweryB. F. Young's short-lived St. Louis Ale Brewery in 1875, as see in Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis.

But during that time, St. Louis was also home to dozens of smaller breweries. These operations varied in size, with a few looking to compete with Lemp and Anheuser-Busch, but many that didn’t sell their product outside the neighborhood or building the brewery was located in. An example is the Milentz Brewery in south city, a brewery so small that it’s not clearly identifiable on the aforementioned map published by Compton and Dry. Milentz brewed weissbier (German for “white beer”), which also appealed to a very small slice of the 1875 beer market. Another example is B. F. Young’s St. Louis Ale Brewery. Once located near where the southern leg of the Gateway Arch now stands, Young’s brewery was small and didn’t stay in business for long, but maybe it was simply ahead of its time. Young focused on brewing ale, the warm-fermented style of beer that is the featured style of beer among microbreweries and craft beer aficionados today.

Image of Anheuser-Busch brewery workers gathered together in 1891Anheuser-Busch brewery workers, 1891. Collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

Anheuser-Busch was the only St. Louis brewery to survive Prohibition and has remained the “King of Beers” until this day. But in 1991, when the St. Louis Brewing Company opened and introduced the Schlafly brand, the St. Louis beer scene began a welcome transformation. Today, St. Louis is home to a seemingly countless number of excellent microbreweries such as Urban Chestnut, 4 Hands, Perennial, and Ferguson Brewing Company. And as each one opens, the beer scene in St. Louis takes another step toward what it looked like in 1875. The key difference is that today’s breweries focus on ale, not lager (B. F. Young’s ale brewery would likely fit right in today). With Anheuser-Busch offering all the lager once could want, and all those craft brewers offering IPAs, stouts, and porters, St. Louis remains the best place to be for any beer lover. Just like it was in 1875.

—Cameron Collins, Founder of DistilledHistory.com