A few weekends ago a few friends and I engaged in the great American tradition of jumping in a car and hitting the road. Our destination: the Gateway City. While I'd driven through it previously I had never actually spent any time outside of my car there. My cohorts all agreed that Pappy's Smokehouse
had some of the best barbecue in all of Christendom with their ribs being singularly tasty. A weekend of beer, barbecue, and good company was just the way to help usher in spring.
We had reserved a minivan but ended up with a giant black Suburban featuring tinted back windows. It was luxurious. The middle bench where I sat had its own climate control with vents on the ceiling a la airplanes. There were a couple displays and a Bluray player too. In addition to temperature and fan controls, the rear panel also had a USB jack and, oddly enough, RCA jacks. Apparently there are portable home electronics that don't use HDMI.
As Chicagoland faded into central Illinois I noticed the exit for the town from which one of my grandmothers hailed. Actually she grew up on a farm and I'd bet the landscape hasn't changed all that much in the 100 or so years since she had lived there. Flat with fields seemingly everywhere. I could completely understand why in 1933 at the tender age of 18 she ventured to see the World's Fair in Chicago and decided not to return home. Electricity, indoor plumbing, and head-first humanity – all 3.3 million of them.
The flatlands of Illinois finally gave way and soon the Arch could be seen in the distance. Having seen it before I suppose it wasn't quite the thrill that it could have been. Still, this was St. Louis. On the Mighty Missisipp. Land of Mark Twain. And Son Volt. (Who had a gig that night in town.) Honestly, I had "Afterglow 61" in my head the whole weekend. Attempts to locate the highway failed, however.
St. Louis was very much a city on the make back in the 19th century. Being on the shores of the Mississippi River gave it a significant edge in transportation. But it never became the industrial powerhouse of the central part of the country because Chicago became the nation's rail hub. Still, St. Louis was no slouch and it was eventually home to plenty of industry and some 850,000 people at its peak in the 1950s. And then industry left followed by people leaving St. Louis at some 315,000 inhabitants today.
That about exhausts my knowledge of St. Louis history I had going in.
Our first destination was The Schlafly Tap Room
for lunch and our first sampling of St. Louis microbrews. The Tap Room is just west of downtown nestled amongst some beautiful old buildings. Sadly, there were some that were empty and boarded up. This would emerge as a leitmotif as I wandered the city. But after 60%+ of your population decamps, it is no surprise that there would be abandoned buildings. I suppose I just didn't expect them to be so close to downtown.
The Schlafly Tap Room was fairly busy when we got there and became only more so as two or three large groups of young women came in shortly after we did. I figured that these were gals out celebrating a birthday. "Tap Room" is something of a misnomer because The Tap Room was really more of a gastropub. The eatery portion of the joint was co-equal to, if not more prominent, than the drinking one as the bar was on the small side. While certainly pleasant and sunny, the décor was on the prosaic side. It was a mix of patrons although the hipster craft beer aficionados were greatly outnumbered by non-hipsters including families with children.
It was a beautiful sunny day and rather warm so I ordered the Hefeweizen
which was perfect. A big blast of wheat followed by a generous helping of banana accented by a hint of clove. It also had a nice lemony tang to it. We were eventually seated for lunch.
The menu was what I think of as being typical for brewpubs these days. You've got your standard American dishes done upscale like meatloaf, hamburgers (served on an English muffin), and so on accompanied by things such as curry, falafel, schnitzel, Shepherd's Pie, et al. A real hodgepodge of culinary traditions with no emphasis.
For my part, I had a catfish po' boy which was tasty although it seemed well-dressed.
Tangent: I think the only po' po' boy I have ever eaten was in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana at their crawfish festival. I stepped up to the table run by something like the Breaux Bridge Women's Auxiliary and a kindly old lady provided me with a shrimp po' boy. (I would go on to eat a lot of crawfish. So much so, in fact, that I had hives by the time we hit the road home.) No vegetables here. French bread, mayo, and enough shrimp to feed an army. I don't know how she stuffed all of them in there.
Anyway, my po' boy was tasty and my friends enjoyed their burger, Shepherd's pie, and mussels (flown in from the Pacific Northwest). The schnitzel was less warmly greeted as it seemed a bit over-cooked with the theory being that it was not pan fried but instead deep fried.
My friend Randy got a flight of beer that we shared with our meal. And so we tried the Hefeweizen, Kölsch, Irish Extra Stout, Cask Coffee Stout, and Cask Chocolate Stout. There was just too much coffee for Randy in the stout so I had it all to myself and found it delicious, although I do concur that it was heavy on the joe. The chocolate stout was tasty and featured a lighter touch on the chocolate than its sister brew did with the coffee. I'll go for the trifecta and say that the Irish Extra Stout was also very tasty. Lots of good, unabetted coffee and chocolate notes.
On one wall was the big hop board noting that Lemon Drop was the hop of the moment although I don't recall which brews they were featured in. Presumably a pale ale of some sort.
I had a window seat at our table and this was my view:
The streets were deserted. Well, I did see one bicyclist but overall it felt like I was in a scene from The Day After
and I just dated myself terribly. There were no pedestrians. Inside was all convivial and Gemuchlikeit
but outside was almost a ghost town. The pavements were not teeming with intense energy, to borrow a line from Neil Peart.
After lunch we headed west (where else?) to Urban Chestnut's
Midtown Brewery & Biergarten. On the way there I noticed the odd parking stalls of St. Louis. They are at an angle but the lines point in the direction of traffic instead of against it. St. Louisans must stop and back into them. I also noticed several gorgeous old churches along the way.
Urban Chestnut appeared to have been built into a disused auto garage with the brewery in the former bays. The area for us customers was in a rectangular room with wooden benches and featured spartan drinking hall décor. Brewmaster Florian Kuplent learned his trade in Germany and so UCBC's line-up is a blend of traditional German styles and more contemporary American ones.
I had a dunkel and it was good. Randy ordered Urban King, an extra cream lager, which I sampled and enjoyed even more. Oats made it smooth and I really loved the big, green, grassy hops.
UCBC was bright and airy. They served food and the menu included Landjäger, curry wurst, and smoked salmon salad. Keep this latter one in mind for my next post. There were several young families enjoying themselves as we drank as played Connect 4. If Schlafly was akin to a Rock Bottom, then UCBC had the vibe of Sugar Maple in Milwaukee. It was less of a restaurant and more of a neighborhood joint.
Having said that, both places brew excellent beer and they both offer a nice mix of lagers and ales, traditional styles and newer ones. UCBC and Schlafly appear to be the larger breweries of the St. Louis craft beer scene. To finish the day we would visit a couple of the smaller ones.
Labels: Beer, St. Louis, Travel