One of my favorite pearls of wisdom from Yogi Berra is, “You have to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” In our industry, this is almost a truism. Like most people in the craft beer business, I had no idea 25 years ago that I was on a career trajectory that would end up where I am today, president of the second largest brewery in St. Louis, in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. As with almost all of my colleagues in the industry, the circumstances that propelled me to this point would have seemed ridiculously improbable a quarter century ago.
While the circumstances that got me into beer were wholly unforeseeable, what beer has gotten me into was even less foreseeable. Back in 1991, when we first started brewing and selling Schlafly Beer, I never would have dreamed that our little brewery would soon be responsible for my marrying a woman who wasn’t a beer drinker. No one in his or her right mind would have. But that’s exactly what happened.
Within two years of when we opened I decided that as an aspiring beer baron I ought to be learning German. Considering the proud heritage of German brewers, especially in St. Louis, this just seemed like the right thing to do. I undertook this project as a firm believer in the principle that anything that’s really worth doing is worth doing badly. Amateur guitarists can enjoy what they do without playing like Eric Clapton. And weekend golfers don’t have to be anywhere close to the caliber of Tiger Woods to have fun. Likewise, I didn’t expect to be able to write like Goethe or Schiller or to speak without an accent. All I wanted was a minimal level of conversational fluency.
In this spirit, I signed up for a class at a local community college in September of 1993. Three months later I was at a Christmas party at the Missouri Botanical Garden where I heard two women speaking in German, presumably thinking that no one else at the party could understand what they were saying. Having supplemented the instruction in class by listening to tapes while driving, I had learned enough to say, “Entschuldigen Sie, bitte, sind Sie Deutsch?” (Excuse me, are you German?) As it turned out, Ulrike was indeed German, having grown up in Cologne.
Courtship, With Beer
When her three brothers found out we were dating, they enthusiastically approved without ever having met me. As one of them said to her, “He has a brewery? Marry him.” Unlike her brothers, however, Ulrike was not a beer drinker. Despite having grown up in a city with dozens of breweries, she much preferred wine and had had only one beer her entire life.
One of the rocky moments in our courtship occurred at her apartment on one of our early dates. Ulrike, noting that I owned a brewery, asked if I’d like a beer. When I said I would, she rummaged around her refrigerator and finally found a single can of light beer with a “born on date” years earlier. At that point I changed my mind and said the wine she was offering looked pretty good after all.
Ulrike and I were married on Labor Day Weekend in 1995. For over twelve years, we have reminded ourselves that she grew up on the banks of the Rhine and I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi. One of the reasons we’re still happily married is that we never forget that these are both great rivers, but they run in opposite directions.
Shortly after we celebrated our twelfth anniversary I came home with the October 2007 issue of Playboy. Ulrike was predictably skeptical when I said I was primarily interested in an article and not in “The Girls of the SEC” promoted on the cover. Triumphantly, I opened the magazine to page 69, which featured “Playboy’s Top 10 College-Town Microbreweries” and included Schlafly on this list. The article noted our “dizzying range of styles” and praised our lineup of “full-bodied beers.”
You read that correctly. Playboy said our beers were “full-bodied.” Considering the rest of the editorial content of the magazine, it’s hard to imagine greater praise. As I said at the outset, when I first got into the beer business, I never would have predicted what beer would get me into. And I really wouldn’t have predicted the publications it would get us into.
Tom Schlafly is the president of The Saint Louis Brewery, which he co-founded with Dan Kopman in 1991. He’s also a lawyer and the author of A New Religion in Mecca: Memoir of a Renegade Brewery in St. Louis.