A Craft Beer March Through The Arch: My Beercation To St. Louis Pt. 2
Of all the cities in the United States, St. Louis, Missouri, is probably most associated with beer because of its ties to the legend of Anheuser-Busch and Budweiser. The ethos behind the brand is polarizing, for sure. For some, Anheuser-Busch represents a narrative that is Americana. For others, the name represents a villain pitted against small craft breweries, wielding its power and resources in both noble and unseemly ways.
In a town dominated by beechwood-aged bubbles and clydesdales, it seems unlikely that a craft beer scene would be allowed to exist, much less flourish. However, like an ice-cold Bud, America also loves an underdog. Craft beer is not only a thing in St. Louis, but it is thriving and robust; perhaps one of the better craft beer scenes in the country.
Why St. Louis? Well, It’s Complicated…
I first visited St. Louis in 2009 to see the Minnesota Twins play the St. Louis Cardinals. At that point, craft beer was not the focal point of my summertime travels. In fact, the only two breweries I visited during that trip were Budweiser and Morgan Street Brewery. The Morgan Street Brewery is now defunct, and Anheuser-Busch is still prominently occupying coolers from here to Timbuktu.
Yes, I toured what many consider the “Evil Empire” of breweries, Anheuser-Busch. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of Budweiser in any way. In fact, knowing what I know about their resources and quality of beers they could choose to make, I think their existence is both confounding and abhorrent. Just like the New York Yankees in baseball, Budweiser has the ability to buy any and every advantage they can in beer. My biggest takeaway from that Budweiser tour was how many different “crafty” brands Budweiser actually owns.
It wouldn’t be long before AB-InBev would acquire a major craft brand Goose Island in 2011. That move would signal a seismic shift in the landscape of craft beer. In the years to come, notable craft breweries like Elysian Brewing, Breckenridge Brewing, Wicked Weed and Devil’s Backbone would be acquired by AB-InBev.
In fact, if Anheuser-Busch wanted to buy every craft brewery in the country, they could-they have the money. Although, in order for that to happen there would have to be breweries that wanted to sell. I guess that one of the many wonderful things about craft beer. What I discovered during my 3 days in St. Louis is that there are craft breweries existing and thriving both in the metaphorical and, in some cases, literal shadows of Anheuser-Busch’s sprawling brewery complex. St. Louis is a beer city for both big and small breweries. What cannot be argued is the blueprint of consistency that Anheuser-Busch lives and dies by set the standard for all to follow.
The Magical First Beercation Wakeup
I awake to Aaron getting ready to head out on his daily run. The first beercation wakeup is always special to me. There is a slight fogginess that results from a combination of being on the road and the festivities of the night before. When I get my wits about me, I get up and hit the shower. It is then down to the lobby for the breakfast at the hotel.
Are You Not Entertained?!?!?!
The people-watching at a hotel breakfast is one of the most phenomenal joys one can have in life. You get to see the vast spectrum of social awareness and competency all while you munch on lukewarm scrambled eggs that may or may not have come from a chicken. What’s not to love?
Grab a Seat, The Show Is About To Start!
For the optimal viewing experience, I try to station myself within a clear sight-line of the waffle station. This vantage point provides the best bang for your buck if you like the timeless trope of person versus machine. You can tell who is a seasoned traveler based on the aptitude of navigating this, fraught with peril, obstacle course for the mind. Rather than age determining whether or not one is ready to become a member of our country’s electorate, I contend that successfully navigating the waffle station without incident in a hotel is a much better litmus test. If you can’t follow the seemingly simple order of operations for creating a waffle that didn’t burn, then you have no business participating in the act of who should or should not be able to help choose the next leader of the free world.
Before you even get a chance for a second-degree burn, there is the wonderful game of “How Do I dispense the Waffle Batter Into the Dixie Cup?” This leg of the breakfast journey typically results in something that looks like a General Mills-sponsored Jackson Pollock art showcase. The first problematic facet of this is that only one in seven people have the cognitive aptitude to find the line on the cup to ensure the optimal amount of batter.
Then there is the batter dispensing mechanism itself. As far as I can tell, there is no government oversight regulating how fast the batter shoots out of these contraptions. The propulsion of batter blasting forth from the dispenser falls somewhere in the range between a slow maple syrup tap in Vermont during February and the exit velocity of a t-shirt canon at a Monster Truck Rally. This makes for a wildly enjoyable spectacle for the hotel breakfast onlooker.
The Main Event: The Waffle Iron
If you made it through the batter stage of the waffle station, you are rewarded with the always tricky, but never reliable hotel waffle iron. This 21st century marvel is a confounding combination of NASA ingenuity and dumb luck. If you just go willy-nilly pouring your batter on the iron before it is hot, it will be a disaster, and you won’t get the dueling textures that make the waffle such a breakfast delight. So, the first thing you need to do is make sure the waffle iron is hot. Once optimal temperature is achieved, you want to pour the batter into the iron and close it. The machine tells you when your waffle is ready, not your biological breakfast clock.
Fortunately, the contraption has 2 built-in failsafes to help ensure you don’t burn your waffle. The first is a light on the device that lets you know when it is hot. However, you need to be looking for it and that immediately puts 72% of waffle makers at risk.
The second failsafe is an alarm to let you know when your waffle is done. Now, depending on the make and model of waffle iron, this sound might be set at a frequency that only an elite-level service dog bred in the Quad Cities can hear. So, you really need to stand right next to the machine or you will miss it and burn your waffle.
The sweet finish
After all the pomp and circumstance of the waffle maker, there is the syrup dispenser that is also a recipe for sticky hands and dashed hopes. I have watched many a halfwit try to rotate their waffle underneath the syrup dispenser that has maybe an inch of depth between where the syrup comes out and the rest of the machine. This causes a huge mess and the syrup just pools in a few waffle squares. The pro-tip here is to grab the dixie cup from the batter area and put the syrup in there to pour it on and get a nice ratio of syrup coverage.
Well, I am watching young and old people, alike, try to make waffles and the time just flies by. As I eat my fake eggs and rubbery sausage, I admire the chutzpah of the travelers around me as they approach the waffle station with resolve and courage. A few walk away victorious with some delicious looking waffles. However, the majority of them sit down seething with frustration at the mess on their plate.
Meet Me In St. Louis
Before long, Aaron joins me after his run. Soon after that, Jeff comes down and we chat about the day. There is definitive agreement that we will need some better coffee than the swill they have coming out of the carafes in the lobby. We finish breakfast and pack up the room.
We make a pitstop at Tru Coffee which is close to the University of Iowa campus to fuel up for the 4 hour drive ahead. Awake, alert, and excited for more beer, we head onto the Interstate and onto Narrow Gauge Brewing.
Narrow Gauge Brewing
Aaron and Jeff have been friends with Jeff Hardesty, the owner and brewer of Narrow Gauge Brewing. Narrow Gauge Brewing is in the suburb of Florissant, Missouri. Narrow Gauge Brewing shares the space with an Italian restaurant called Cugino’s. What you are about to read is not to dismiss or give short shrift to the beers at Narrow Gauge Brewing because they are spectacular. However, I enjoy a culinary experience that causes me to reach peak happiness when I eat the stuffed meatballs.
We arrive with empty stomachs and full bladders. We get situated at the end of the bar and then make a bee line for the restroom. As we peruse the tap list, we find that there are quite a few different options.
Narrow Gauge leans heavy into IPAs as that is what they are known for. I spy a Keller Pils on the menu in cans and that is what I go for. You might be wondering why I would opt for a can when there are other options on tap. Well, you see, Keller Pils is my liquid love language. I see Keller Pils, I drink Keller Pils. I have rarely been disappointed by that style. Our beers arrive and everyone is quite happy. Aaron and Jeff have had these beers before. However, I am dipping my toe in the pool for the first time and the liquids are wonderful. The Keller Pils is crisp, delightful, and refreshing. It has a crisp snap to it that quenches my thirst and warms my cockles.
Get the Stuffed Meatballs at Cugino’s!
The food menu is causing some consternation because everything looks delicious. I land on the stuffed meatballs. What are the stuffed meatballs, you ask? Well, they are amazingly delicious little balls of love that are fried and stuffed with Provel cheese. What is Provel cheese, you ask? Well, from what I can gather, it is a St. Louis thing just like fried ravioli. I’m guessing it is an amalgamation of provolone and unicorn tears that melts perfectly. The stuffed meatballs are a revelation. They crunchy texture along with the succulent meatball all come together and are elevated by the luxurious and decadent cheese in the middle.
We are drinking and loving life. All the while, we are waiting for Hunter, Aaron’s sister’s husband to join us. His flight was delayed thanks to the blizzard in Minnesota. We are also watching the clock because we have to check into the Airbnb and then get on our way to meet Aaron’s friend at the St. Louis CITY SC match. Our itinerary for today is more aggressive than a wombat in heat, but that is the way of things on a beercation.
Goodbye, Narrow Gauge, Hello Hunter!
So, we bid adieu to the fantastic beers and insanely delicious Italian food and wait in the parking lot for Hunter to get dropped off. His Lyft arrives and we pile back into the car. With a new case of beers and bottles from Narrow Gauge, there is less space than before. However, it doesn’t matter. We are now four strong in our party and ready for a soccer match.
St. Louis CITY SC Match
We check into the Airbnb which is spacious and in a wonderful location. There are coffee shops and breakfast spots all within a walkable distance. It is no Bueller House, but it will do… Now, the first order of business: crack a beer with the entire fellowship of the pint! Also, we are pretty revved up for the soccer game. We load a bunch of beers into the fridge and crack a few to just sit down and enjoy the fact that we are all together. We are going to have a bit of a walk to the soccer game and we are meeting some of Aaron’s friends there.
Bringing People Together Through Craft Beer & Soccer
Like craft beer, soccer has a unique way of bringing people together. Over the last few years, Soccer is becoming more and more popular in the United States. I would say that the World Cup has a lot to do with this. However, I also believe that breweries that really lean into game days for their local MLS teams are also playing a role in bringing a fun experience to the masses. The St. Louis CITY SC team, an expansion franchise this year, has really brought a B12 shot of energy to a part of the city that was languishing.
Located in the shadows of the shiny, new Soccer stadium is Schlafly Brewing Company. Schlafly is St. Louis craft beer brand with quite a bit of longevity. They have several locations in and around the city. The Midtown location brews around 2,000 barrels a year, exclusively for their Ibex Cellar Series. However, on game days for St. Louis CITY SC, the streets and parking lots surrounding the brewery become a soccer-inspired Carnivale.
Pre-Match Beers With Friends
After a nice walk to the stadium, we meet up with Alfie (Chris Alfaro) a friend of Aaron’s, who works for 2nd Shift Brewing. Alfie is a kind individual who is a font of information for us. He gives us a plethora of suggestions of places to go. Alfie leads us to where there is a mass of food trucks and a beer garden, across the street from the stadium. This is my first crack at Schlafly Brewing Company beers, and I am excited to try some different things.
As we are at the beer garden at Schlafly, we meet up with Chad, another friend of Aaron’s who got us the tickets for the soccer match. The Zierdts and Chad met at Side Project during a previous visit to St. Louis. They found out that Chad has a connection to Rochester, Minnesota, an exciting craft beer scene. They became friends and here we are about to watch a Soccer match together. The beers are tasking great and I go for some food truck tacos which are delicious.
It is time to head into the game. As we are standing outside the stadium, some jabroni with a religious sign is yelling at people that they are all going to hell. What is unclear about his messaging is the “why” behind it. Does soccer send you to hell or is it joy? I am all for free speech, however, when the message is delivered by a hunyuck holding a homemade sign with no charisma, I get aggitated. Luckily, this dude just becomes a comical distraction that eventually fades away into the night.
Pitch Perfect: New stadium smell
We walk into the stadium and it is beautiful. The atmosphere is electric. The St. Louis CITY SC squad is undefeated and they have scored a lot of goals. The Loons are a team that has always had trouble scoring goals. Keeping this in mind, we were bracing for a tough ride. Of course, when you are a Minnesota sports fan, you know how to prepare for a letdown; drink the local beer! We find some cans of the beer that 2nd Shift brews as an exclusive beer for the Soccer matches. This beer, Brewligans, is a juicy and balanced New England-style IPA. Buying beer at the stadium is weird. We have more liquid refreshment and it is time to find our seats amidst the madness of the match.
Loons win in St. Louis!!
We make our way to our seats up in the second level with a perfect view of the pitch. The game is sensational. The St. Louis squad moves the ball so effortlessly, but cannot crack the Loons “bend but don’t break” defense. As the minutes move closer to the 90th minute, the games intensity ratchets up like my blood-alcohol level since earlier in the afternoon. Finally, the Loons catch a massive break and earn the chance for a penalty shot thanks to a foul in the box. Luis Amarilla buried the penalty shot in the back of the net and the crowd morphs from a sea of fervent cheers to shocked silence. Our little party of four did our best to hoot and holler to make our presence felt. The final whistle blew and it was time to relish in our victory.
On the way out of the stadium, we hailed a Lyft driver who made it known immediately that he was on the aggressive end of the ride share driver continuum of risk tolerance. To this man, stoplights and traffic laws were mere suggestions. At one point, he yelled to someone in a perpendicular, oncoming lane of traffic, who definitely had the right of way, something to the effect of, “I’m going because I’m a professional driver!” One nice thing about copious amounts of beer is that it really dials back your natural instinct to be afraid. Well, we arrive safe and sound back at our Airbnb. We head upstairs, order some pizza, and crack a few celebratory beverages.
The food sustains us and also makes us sleepy. It was a packed day filled with a myriad of fun and adventure. Tomorrow, we have an aggressive plan of attack to hit at least 4 breweries, more adventures, and infinite laughs! Cheers!