There’s no question today that the St. Louis area is going through a resurgence in the brewing culture. Despite a few recent closures, there are more breweries here now in St. Louis than there were in the years before Prohibition. Drive anywhere inside I-270, odds are you’ll pass a brewery within 5-10 minutes. Areas outside of the beltway are starting to pick up steam as well. St. Charles, St. Peters, Wentzville and Jefferson County are adding breweries, however on the Illinois side of the river in Waterloo, two breweries located in its town square are making ripples in the craft beer industry here. One is Stubborn German owned by Chris Rahn, the other is Hopskeller owned by Matt Schweizer, who walked us through the brewery as he rebuilds after a severe fire back in October roughly one month after his grand opening.
As we began, Matt pointed out that the beer and drink menu was still up and perfectly legible on the bar’s chalkboards from the night before the fire. Schweizer said he can find some weird humor in that. “I saw pictures of the Titanic shipwreck a while back, and some of them showed china still perfectly stacked up in some rooms. That’s how I look at the chalkboards now.”
There wasn’t any humor for him the morning of the fire however. “I live in an apartment built into the brewery, and I was fortunate enough to be out of town at a conference. Otherwise, given how the smoke spread out from the fire I wouldn’t be here today” he said as he showed us the rest of the main bar area, which only sustained minor smoke and water damage. “The sprinkler system did its job and kept the fire from spreading too far, and was what also alerted the fire department to get over here.” A fair amount of the reclaimed wood from old farmsteads around the area has been replaced, but some elements such as beams from the old Singer factory in Red Bud and gratings from the McKinley Bridge were able to be kept.
The building is originally a house from the 1850’s, and a beam in the basement dated September 1877 shows where the original building was expanded upon. It’s fitting given how Schweizer plans to do the same in a sense. “The rebuild is giving me the chance to do things differently and use the space better. I’ll be putting an additional cooler in the basement for more food and beverage storage, and I’ll be installing a ten barrel brewhouse this time around instead of the seven barrel system I was using.” The smoke damage from the fire totalled out the original cooler for keg storage, all of the kegs and the brewhouse. There was also five feet of water in the basement from the sprinkler system, which fried the electrical system and the computer system Schweizer kept all his financial and brewery data on. “It gave me a good lesson in computer forensics that I never planned on,” he said with a laugh.
We then moved back upstairs to the kitchen, the starting point of the fire. Photos on the brewery’s Facebook page show the burned out portions and collapsed ceiling. New plywood and drywall take its place now, and the wood-fired pizza oven is gone. Schweizer looked around as he described his plans for the kitchen and will be replacing the wood-fired oven with a full sized commercial one. “On opening night and other nights we were producing a pizza every 3.5 minutes, but the wait times didn’t reflect that. The oven and the new system we’re putting in place will fix that.” In the brewhouse, windows had been cleaned and pipes for glycol had already been installed in preparation for the brewing equipment arriving in June. “Everything’s been piped at this point, just waiting on the equipment and then I can start brewing again. Hopefully by mid-August we’ll be back in business.”
As for the brews he’ll be making, Schweizer will be continuing with his session English beers, milds, and Northwestern style American Ales, some of which helped him win the Young Friends Cup at the 2016 Missouri Botanical Garden Fest-of-Ale. The milds and his Northern English Brown were some of his top sellers before the fire, and the advice he offered for homebrewers wanting to make dark or pale milds was simple. “A complex grain bill (use a lot of adjuncts), adjust your water profile to the harder side and mash at higher temps around 155-160°F.”
As the walkthrough came to a close and Schweizer answered questions about the response from the craft brewing community, none of us were surprised by the response he received, especially from one brewery in particular who had a similar experience a few years back. “Troika (Brodsky) from the St. Louis Brewer’s Guild was one of the first people who texted me that morning asking what he could do to help. The money he raised from the Brewer’s Guild Halloween Party and the GoFundMe page he set up was a big help to me. And Ferguson Brewing was extremely generous as well with their fundraisers. The brewers here are a tight knit community and really do come together to help each other out at a moment’s notice.”