In a few hours the first St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival would begin, modest in one way and grand in another. But Schlafly Beer co-founder Dan Kopman wasn’t talking about the near future on the second Friday of May 2007 when he suggested, “We’re going to find out how passionate St. Louis is about beer.” He was thinking about the next 10 years.

There were, after all, only seven breweries from the region pouring beer. But the cooperative effort was funded by Anheuser-Busch and little expense was spared. After rain soaked Forest Park, A-B hauled in 10 truckloads of wood chips to cover the festival grounds. (“It smells like the Clydesdales,” one A-B employee joked.)  

Beers were presented in a most egalitarian manner, basically unbranded. A sign above each station displayed the name of the style in large type, the brewery where it was made in smaller type. The beers were grouped by styles rather than by brewery.

Heritage Festival
(Photo ©2016 Michael Kilfoy, Studio X)

Last month the big tent (which some years had been two or three) was gone. Forty-three breweries set up their own much smaller tents, most of them appropriately branded, along the banks of the Mississippi River for the 10th Heritage Festival, the first major event on the renovated grounds of the Gateway Arch.

“To see the changes in the festival from its beginnings to now speaks to St. Louis craft beer as a whole,” says Mike Sweeney, who has attended every festival, first as a consumer, then while working for a distributor, and last month as operations director at 2nd Shift Brewing. “It’s fascinating to see how Anheuser-Busch has stepped back from a major contributor to the festival to a participant like the other 40-plus breweries.”

In fact, A-B did not pour Budweiser or Bud Light. Instead, Research Pilot Brewery brewmaster Rob Naylor talked to festival goers primarily about a smoked beer and an oatmeal stout he had “drafted” the rights to serve at the festival. (Two other RPB beers, Faust, a recreation of a 19th century beer that A-B sells in St. Louis, and Shock Top were also available.)

This unique draft in February guaranteed a wide range of beer styles would be on offer. Basically, the St. Louis Brewers Guild created a list of styles based on the Great American Beer Festival style guidelines. With the first draft choice, 4204 Main Street Brewing Co. in Belleville chose Belgian-style Tripel, and with the second Naylor took Bamberg-style Märzen Rauchbier. So it went until each brewery had selected two styles to bring. (They also had the option of serving others, but were not compensated by the guild for those.)

There were occasional bits of theater. “Putting the heritage back in Heritage Festival, Griesedieck Brewing selects German-style Pilsner,” Bob Griesedieck said when it came time to make the 35th pick. The Griesedieck family operated a brewery in St. Louis from 1850 until it was sold to Falstaff Brewing in 1957, and at one time Griesedieck Brothers Light Lager was a million-barrels-a-year brand. The Griesedieck Brothers brand passed through various hands before the family reacquired it, now contracting to have packaged beer made in Wisconsin and draft beer locally. They are shopping for a half-barrel brewing system to produce draft beer themselves.

After Falstaff closed its last St. Louis plant (the former Griesedieck Brothers brewery) in 1977 Anheuser-Busch was the only brewery in town until Schlafly, officially known as The Saint Louis Brewery, opened in 1991. Dave Miller, its first brewmaster, spent two years lobbying the state legislature to legalize brewery-restaurants. “The market here is totally dominated by Anheuser-Busch,” Miller said not longer after. “If you go into a fancy restaurant, the ‘premium beer’ isn’t Sierra Nevada, it’s Michelob.” It wasn’t until 1995, when Schlafly produced 2,200 barrels and could still list all its accounts (about 45) on a chalkboard at the taproom, that a third  St. Louis brewery opened.

“We kept waiting,” says Stephen Hale, a brewer at the pub for 22 years and its ambassador brewer. “Where is somebody else? Why aren’t they opening?”

The landscape didn’t look that much different in 2007, although Schlafly sold 18,545 barrels that year. It seems so obvious that it can’t be that simple, but InBev’s hostile takeover of A-B turned out to be the catalyst for more explosive change. “They (A-B) were such a big part of everything that went on here,” says Kopman. “A not for profit never went without when it came to beer, never had to buy a case of beer, never had to ask twice for a donation.

“The sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev meant the social contract between Anheuser-Busch and local people, St. Louisans, was broken.”

St. Louis already had economic problems—the number of Fortune 500 companies within the city has dipped from 23 in 1980 to nine today—before the recession that began in 2007 and layoffs that followed the forced merger. Per capita personal income shrank by 5 percent in 2008 and the metro unemployment rate climbed to more than 10 percent.

“You had beer lovers, homebrewers, people in the industry, all of them saw the opportunity despite the fact there was a recession,” says David Wolfe, who worked for A-B until 2010, when he and fellow A-B alum Florian Kuplent announced they would open Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.

Urban Chestnut was the first of four breweries to open in St. Louis in 2011. The number may seem modest compared to what has happened elsewhere, such as in Chicago, but each is quite different than the other, and from Schlafly for that matter. Their beer is as diverse as it is local.

The city recently gained a certain amount of attention as an “entrepreneurial boomtown,” praised for nurturing startups. Business creation in St. Louis has risen every year since 2009, jumping 18 percent from 2012 to 2013 in a year the rest of the country contracted. A story in Washington Monthly even mentions brewery growth, but the connection is mostly coincidental. Certainly young breweries have benefited because the people occupying newly created jobs often drink beers such as those brewed at 4 Hands Brewing Co., Perennial Artisan Ales and Civil Life Brewing Co. (the other 2011 brewing startups).

However, Wolfe points out, unlike tech startups that may vary “in nature, product focus and market (end users), we brewers are all creating a similar product with our primary market being the same pool of end users.” Although they may not be large enough to tap into connections and networks created in St. Louis for tech startups, nonetheless the new breweries benefited from similar mentoring provided by Kopman and Schlafly co-founder Tom Schlafly. “Dan is at the crux of all this happening. He is from day one,” Wolfe says. “He was absolutely a mentor from a visionary standpoint.”

By 2011 there were 16 breweries at the festival. Counting brewers may not be the best way to measure change, but the difference between the first and the 10th is stunning. “What it is today, what it was, are two distinctly different beasts,” says St. Louis Brewers Guild executive director Troika Brodsky.

The guild was only formed in 2012. Brodsky became director before the 2015 festival, and is an unabashed cheerleader. “There is nothing like (the guild) anywhere in the country. It is not a ‘craft brewing guild.’ It is a regional beer brewing guild with a very clear and inclusive mission,” he says. “If you make beer in the greater St. Louis area, you are who we are promoting. No politics, just beer.”

The festival showed a significant profit for the first time this year and those funds will be used in campaigns within St. Louis itself and to attract visitors. He hasn’t forgotten why it was first named Heritage Festival.

“Beer tradition and history are going to be our ace in the hole going forward. I believe we are now in a period where the idea ‘best beer cities’ really has lost a lot of its power,” Brodsky says. “With over 4,500 breweries nationally and growing, at this point, any city with a decent sized population is probably a pretty great beer city. So … if we know that, what truly makes a great beer city a great beer city? Is it just a numbers game now?

“This story, and this history that is powerfully interwoven into the fabric of our city is unique to us, and it differentiates us. Tampa or Portland or Asheville can have as many breweries as they want, and that is cool, but they don’t have the history, they don’t have the stories, they don’t have the families who have been in the brewing industry for three, four, five or more generations.”

Pats Tavern
(Photo by Stan Hieronymus)

The past and present don’t always meet as dramatically at neighborhood gathering spots as they do at the Pat Connolly Tavern, which is otherwise known for its fried chicken. Last year new owners and the Dogtown Historical Society contracted to have a ghost sign for Griesedieck Bros. beer on the side of the brick building restored. Dogtown is a part of St. Louis that encompasses four of the city’s 79 official neighborhoods. The owners also kept a vintage Budweiser neon sign above the entrance, so it is no surprise to see Griesedieck and Bud on tap at the end of June. Other choices included three Irish imports, Urban Chestnut Zwickel, Civil Life Angel and the Sword, Schlafly Pale Ale and Six Mile Bridge Bavarian Hefeweizen. Six Mile Bridge Beer opened in 2015. Several places in Dogtown offer even more local beers on tap.

“It’s crazy to me that when the festival first started in St. Louis you had to seek out bars and restaurants with craft beer and now even the diviest of bars carry Schlafly Pale Ale at a minimum,” Sweeney says. “It’s because people want this. People are asking for local beer.”

(Disclosure: Stan Hieronymus was one of more than a dozen journalists invited to the first Heritage Festival by Anheuser-Busch. The company paid for a flight to and from Albuquerque, two nights in a hotel, and provided meals. He since moved to St. Louis and lives in Dogtown. He paid for his ticket to attend the 10th Heritage Festival.)