Thursday, January 17, 2013

St. Louis: Disneyworld for Beer Geeks

I've already recounted my food finds in St. Louis. Here's the beer side of things:

In my food roundup, I described the great mashed potatoes (and very good mahi-mahi tacos) at Schlafly's. Their beers are also winners: artfully crafted, with great balance and consistency across their long line of offerings.

Tasmanian IPA was a delightful evocation of New Zealand's aromatic, tropical fruity hops, and Tripel was as close to the classic Westmalle version as I've ever tasted from an American brewer. The beautifully balanced Single Malt Scottish Ale avoids the excessive booziness that's trendy in barrel-aged brewing, and the Barleywine's Tootsie Roll-ish mellowness ably cloaks its daunting alcoholic heat. And the Rauchbier, though just a bit light in the smoke, is eminently drinkable. Ask for Phil, the most knowledgable bartender; he loves to guide and discuss.

Urban Chestnut (3229 Washington Ave; 314-222-0143) is another local brewpub, this one run by a guy who's put in time at Germany's Weihenstephaner brewery, reknowned for its skilled lagers and characterful yeast. Yeast is put to good use here, too, and while a few English styles are available, I stuck to Germans and was impressed.

Their Hopfen is the first-ever "German IPA", and is one of the most creative beers I've tried lately. It's a full-bodied German lager with a big blast of hops...but there are no American hops. Instead, it's all Hallertau, so the result is nothing like hoppy American IPAs, with their citric hops and gripping bitterness. This one's delicious and utterly unique.

Urban Chestnut also makes what may be America's finest kellar beer, which they call Zwickel (served, appropriately, in pewter mugs). Kellar is an ancient style that's unfiltered, subtle, slightly earthy, and oh-so-drinkable, and their's is catching on; it's available all over town.

The only Urban Chestnut beer I didn't love (in fact, the only beer in St. Louis I didn't love) is their eponymous chestnut beer, which I found sweet and nebbishy.

Perennial Artisan Ales (8125 Michigan Ave; 314-631-7300) is yet another great local brewpub, this one an intense out-of-the-way spot for serious beer geekery. I got a laugh from the online reviews frowning at the lack of pool tables, TV sports, and fried foods.

Saison de Lis, brewed with chamomile flowers, manages to meld the slightly cloying aroma into a balanced, drinkable quaff rather than a mere novelty. It's the best chamomile beer I've had. Aria is a saison with just a touch of brettanomyces - lending funk rather than full-out sourness. Heart of Gold, an ultra strong wheat beer ("wheat wine"), is beautifully lush though still drinkable.

These are intense, mostly high-gravity beers, so you'll want to have a bite. The menu's not exactly ambitious, but I loved Prairie Breeze cheddar from Iowa's Milton Creamery.

I tried to hit The Civil Life (3714 Holt Ave; no listed phone), but was crestfallen to learn they close early - 10 pm even on weekend nights. These guys specialize in "session" beers - the term for friendly, lo-alcohol beers that can be enjoyed all night without getting blotto (not an issue for me on this trip, as I was trying tiny samples). Hence their name.

Mild needn't mean watery; marvelously tasty beers can be brewed at low strength. Their line-up of German kellars, alts, kolsches, and dunkelweizen, and British milds and milk stouts are supposed to be quite good.

It's a timely business model, getting in ahead of an incipient trend (in a year or two you'll see low-alcohol session beers trending everywhere). And it's also an indication of how far the craft beer market has come in the Midwest.

The first wave of local craft brewers specialized in big, bombastic ales in backlash to the insipid output of hometown villain Anheuser-Busch. A new market was established, but there was a hole, and the success of Urban Chestnut's Zwickel, and of The Civil Life, proves there's demand for subtler, mellower beers. Neophytes might superficially compare them to mass-market American lagers, but they have all the quality of fine craft beer. And since local beer lovers have grown savvy, local brewers no longer feel compelled to scream in their faces to stake out turf. No more proving yourself the "Anti-Bud". This means the market's maturing. Much more so than NYC, SF, Denver, and lots of other supposedly sophisticated markets.

I missed 4 Hands Brewing Co (1220 South 8th St; 314-436-1559), whose IPA comes very highly recommended.

It should be no surprise that St. Louis' beer is so good, given that the Midwest has, recently, transformed into an epicenter of great brewing. Nor is it surprising the town's so under-radar, with Anheuser-Busch casting its dark shadow of sudsy shame. But I know no American city boasting a better, broader, and more consistently delicious bunch of brewpubs. I really liked nearly every beer I tried (and I'm a hard-ass).

You won't find any of the listless blond ales, pandering apricot weizens, or ashy oatmeal stouts so endemic to most American brewpubs, nor any noxious beer snobbery. Terrific beer, cutting across all styles, in four very different settings, with serious beer geeks next to you at the bar, everyone friendly, easy parking, low prices, and some very good food. St. Louis is Disneyworld for beer geeks, and I'd recommend it for a special trip.

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