St. Louis Libraries and Libations
Never has a trip to the library made us quite so thirsty for beer.
But there we were in St. Louis Central Library, moving from poster to poster and getting thirstier and thirstier. We paused in front of a German-made poster. Pictured was a man who had stopped in the desert, his jacket in hand, palm trees in the distance. He was looking toward the sky at a large glass of golden beer with a billowing white head and drops of moisture running down the side.
The caption read: Durst wird durch bier erst schön. We interpreted that to mean “Only beer makes thirst beautiful.” We realized that it was about time to head to the St. Louis Brewery.
For six weeks in August and September, the Culver Gallery at the Central Library downtown and the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis featured about 150 posters from the collection of Heinrich Becker of Cologne, Germany. It was the only showing in North America.
Becker, who owns the Gaffel Brewery and is a graduate of the famous Weihenstephan brewing school, has about 350 posters in his collection. That collection also includes postcards, labels, signs and more. Most of the posters come from western and central Europe, particularly southern Germany and Munich. In Munich, competition among so many breweries kindled the need for original and commanding beer posters long before there were television and radio commercials, magazine advertisements or billboards.
“At first, I thought, beer posters–whoa!” Gerald Brooks, the director of marketing and public relations for the St. Louis Public Library, said when the exhibition opened. “But people will be surprised. It’s actually art, and some of it’s really fabulous.”
The earliest known posters date back to France in the early 1800s, but many of the most stunning images in the collection are from a golden era for posters, the 1920s and 1930s. Beer posters, as well as other pieces of eye-catching advertising for food products, wine, travel and other items from this time have become highly collectible (that is, expensive).
A Perfect Match for St. Louis
Some of the beer posters are quite large–more than 3 feet wide and close to 5 feet tall–and most were part of a larger display at the Mercantile Library. About 100 of the 150 posters filled three distinct areas of the library, mixing comfortably with books on Native American history and other historic exhibits.
Because they were at UMSL instead of the public library, these were also the “uncensored” posters. “We had to exclude some (at the main library), mostly the posters showing children hoisting glasses and mugs of beer,” Brooks said. “We have to be very careful; the Mercantile Library has a little more leeway.” That said, one of the most striking, though not particularly large, posters was in the Culver Gallery. It featured a youth riding a long-horned goat, with one hand on the goat’s horn and a stein of beer in the other.
The public library’s executive director, Glen E. Holt, said: “Considering our city’s rich German heritage, the community’s love of great art and the historical significance of the numerous breweries that have dotted our landscape, this exhibit is the perfect match for the library and the region.”
A few days after the show opened, a library employee told us that representatives of Anheuser-Busch had already been by to visit and indicated they would be happy to loan the library artifacts from A-B’s extensive archives for another beer exhibit.
There was a time that Anheuser-Busch, now the world’s largest brewer, was one of 22 breweries in St. Louis. Eventually it was the only one, until the St. Louis Brewery opened in 1991. Brewery president Tom Schlafly–whose wife, Ulrike, is from Cologne–got to know Becker five years ago. Becker’s Gaffel Brewery provides St. Louis Brewery with yeast for its crisp kölsch.
Schlafly Beer was the official sponsor for the exhibition, and Schlafly was inspired to install an 8-foot-tall Litfass Column in front of the brewery’s Tap Room at 2100 Locust St. It’s a cylindrical advertising pole. The column is named for a pioneering 19th century Berlin poster maker, Ernst Litfass, known as the “advertising king.”
Time for Beer
Fortunately for our thirst, it wasn’t far from the Central Library to St. Louis Brewery. The brewery has grown considerably since opening in December 1991. It took the first brewer, Dave Miller (author of several popular homebrewing books), two years of lobbying to convince the Missouri legislature to change state laws and legalize microbrewery restaurants in August 1990.
When the brewery opened, capacity was 900 barrels per year. This year the brewery will produce nearly 5,000 barrels of draft beer (August Schell in New Ulm, MN, makes the bottled Schlafly beers available throughout the region).
Although the original brew house has been greatly modified, nestled behind a glass wall beside the dining room it doesn’t look that much different than it did nine years ago. The cellar, though, has changed as dramatically as the expanded dining and entertainment areas above. It’s fun to visit because, while St. Louis Brewery hardly qualifies as small (it’s not exactly Budweiser, but Schlafly beers are in hundreds of accounts around town), the spirit is decidedly micro.
Throughout a tour, head brewer Stephen Hale–Miller left in 1994 to start the Blackstone Restaurant & Brewery in Nashville, TN–can point out Rube Goldberg-type gadgets built to make a small brewer’s life a bit easier. Most are inventions of brewer James Ottolini (just Otto to the Midwest brewing community), who started working at the Tap Room in 1992. Hale helped Miller open the brewery, left and then returned in 1994. Sara Choler (now Sara Hale) also started at the Tap Room in 1992 and matriculated into brewing. Most of the brewers who’ve come on board since also remain.
Sara Hale pointed out that, because brewers stick around, they are more likely to suggest the back-saving devices and insist they are worth building. For instance, brewers no longer lift and pour sacks into a mill, but instead punch in the number of pounds of a particular grain they need for a brew and watch machinery take care of the rest.
She and Stephen Hale extended the concept of “brewing family” last year when they were married. Sara brewed Bridalager to celebrate the wedding–a malty, clean and absolutely delightful Vienna that she described as a beer “to fall in love with.”
Beyond the Brewery
During the course of the year, the Tap Room will offer almost three dozen different beer styles, many of which are available only there. The Tap Room also was one of the first brewpubs in the country to serve cask-conditioned ale from British firkins. Because the food is also excellent, it could be tempting to make this your only beer stop in St. Louis.
That would be a mistake. Not only are there several solid brewpubs, but the sheer number of comfortable pubs and restaurants serving Schlafly beers and those from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City is surprising. We could have headed to any of several neighborhoods the evening before visiting the libraries, but we chose University City.
The area was hopping even though it was Sunday. We parked in front of Brandt’s Market and Cafe, a deli by day and bistro at night that has an excellent though not gigantic selection of imported and American microbrewed beer. People were seated along the sidewalk outside, listening to live music. We had already eaten or we might have stopped at Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe, which has St. Louis’s best wine list and outstanding food, while it remains delightfully casual. The draft beer menu is modest but the bottle list is outstanding.
We also could have headed a few blocks down to Cicero’s. Fans of the “old” Cicero’s complain that the establishment lacks the character it had in the 1980s and much of the 1990s when it was a premier rock club in a dark basement. Cicero’s moved above ground in 1997 and two blocks west. It offers a little of everything–live music, Italian dining, pool–and a lot of beer. Its 50-beer draft selection, the largest between Kansas City and Chicago, includes many otherwise not available in St. Louis.
Instead, we settled in at Blueberry Hill, a U City fixture since 1972. The hamburger annually wins the “best of” awards in St. Louis and there are 16 draft beer choices. Blueberry Hill expanded in 1997 but, while the new area is a little airier, the decorations are a seamless extension of 30 years of collecting and the feel is much the same. This is what Hard Rock Cafes would be like if they were cool.
Cashbox magazine voted Blueberry Hill’s jukebox the best in the United States. You pick from 2,000 selections by looking up their numbers in a large notebook. Plenty in the bar salutes St. Louis’s native son, Chuck Berry, and pictures show owners Joe and Linda Edwards with dozens of other celebrities who have visited, from Stan Musial to Buddy Ebsen to Eddie Vedder.
There are giant amusement park animal heads and characters, vintage advertising signs, album covers and oversized baseball cards. Display cases are loaded with collectables such as Howdy Doody dolls, old beer bottles, Simpsons and Batman memorabilia and Soakies. Several nonworking but beautiful jukeboxes are on display. Game boards are part of some tabletops. The darts room has seven boards, and the club hosts a major tournament each year. Blues, jazz and other live music can be enjoyed downstairs.
Years from now, when the St. Louis Library wants to host an exhibit on American pop culture in the second half of the 20th century, there will be no need to even leave town.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).