For those of us craft beer drinkers old enough to remember, our first live Blues game was likely at the St. Louis Arena, aka the Checkerdome for the more seasoned hockey fans in the St. Louis area. My first game was there with my dad, along with a friend and his dad. My dad’s first Blues game was there as were my uncles, and so was my grandfather’s when they came into existence. Where it once stood along Highway 40, there now stands office buildings and apartments. But bits and pieces of it live on with fans and alumni lucky enough to either purchase or receive things such as the old chairs, boards and penalty box. Now they find a second life with Steve Albers, a local homebrewer, hockey player and lifelong Blues fan with the opening of Center Ice Brewery over on Olive Street.
We arrived as Albers was working to get his 7 bbl system ready for a clean in place (CIP) cycle in preparation for his first brew, pitching in to lend a hand in connecting piping between the hot water tank and the brew kettle. “It’s a Newlands Brewhouse originally from the Fort Collins Brewery out in Colorado” he said. “Way it’s designed it caps off at 12 bbls even though it’s supposed to be a 7 bbl system, so we’ll be doing 10 barrel batches to dial it in and fill up the four fermenters. Dave Wohldmann from Square One and Denny Foster from Main and Mill have been a Godsend for me and will be helping me on the first couple brew days.” While Albers finished up some additional prep work, the bar manager Katie showed us around the bar and brewhouse area.
“All the wood you see on the bar and the wall behind it is made from the original wood from the St. Louis Arena,” said Katie as she walked us out to the brewery area. “The penalty box is also from the arena and was given to us by a friend and the boards were custom built by us. We’re going with an open concept (no dividing glass) so folks can experience the sights and smells of a brewery, but still be separated from it so they’re safe.”
After the CIP cycle was started, Albers sat down with us in his office and told us how it all started back in his junior year in college when he realized he wanted to open his own business one day. “I had the entrepreneur light bulb turn on inside my head prior to homebrewing. I started looking to founding guys like Tom Schlafly, Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), and Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and fell in love with the whole David vs. Goliath attitude they had. Then St. Louis’s Class of 2011 came along with breweries like Urban Chestnut and 4 Hands. I knew what I wanted to do.” Steve then began homebrewing one year after college and was hooked after his first batch.
After some struggles with getting enough funding to begin purchasing equipment and a space to have the brewery, a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 got Albers where he needed to be financially to take a year off from work to track down additional investors, equipment and a much needed building. “I made an agreement with my wife that if I didn’t have everything I needed in place by July 3, 2016, I’d go back to work.” Our interview occurred on July 3, 2017, with the grand opening scheduled for July 21st, only three weeks away.
Albers did admit to pure luck on two aspects of the build process: finding a building and the original Arena wood. “The lease I was getting on a place in Chesterfield fell through in April 2016 so my realtor and I were scrambling. We looked at the old Nash Automotive building on Locust, it didn’t work, then we found our current spot on Olive a few blocks over. It was less than two miles straight down the road from Scottrade Center, and a few doors down from Pappy’s Smokehouse.” And the wood from the St. Louis Arena? “A buddy of mine knew the guy who originally bought a lot of the wood after the demolition. So we reached out, and it was all sitting untouched in his barn. Now it’s being used for our bar and tables.”
Albers won’t be distributing his beers, and only crowlers will be available to take home. But he plans to eventually include some special release sour and barrel aged beers among other things later on down the road that, in his words, will push the envelope of traditional styles. And with beer names like Puck of the Irish Dark Chocolate Stout and Hopshelf IPA, they show how serious he is about Center Ice becoming a true St. Louis hockey hangout. “A brewery name is an extension of who you are as a person,” said Albers. “I’ve been playing hockey all my life, and love the game almost as much as I love my family. I want to carve out that niche place in the city for hockey fans to enjoy watching hockey games.”
Center Ice Brewery opens July 21st. You can follow their journey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or at www.centericebrewery.com. No word yet if there’s going to be a ceremonial puck drop, but we saved the best for last: there will be bubble hockey available.