Early July. A massive heat wave struck seemingly all of the US, except for Humboldt, naturally. Of course, it was the perfect time to schedule a trip to the heat stricken mid-west. I was going there for a work related conference. Aside from that, my agenda was this:
1. Explore some breweries
2. Try some new beers.
Challenge accepted. Target: St. Louis. I had an advance scout, however, in the form of Humboldt Homebrewer, Nathaniel Letcher. Nathaniel moved from Humboldt to St. Louis in 2011 and I met up with him on a Tuesday night. I apologize for diverting from the “Humboldt” theme lately with HumBrewNation. The first thing they teach you in blog school is to write new content on a regular basis and I grab content when I can.
But back up to Sunday morning, where this story gets a little interesting for me. I do a scan of Facebook and notice that the author of Brew California, a blog linked at the bottom of this page, posts that he is at Sacramento airport on his way to St. Louis for work. “Huh”, I think, “That’s a coincidence.” Wheels turn and I click on his profile to learn a little more about him. Sure enough, we work in the same industry. We are going to the same conference. I met Mike Pistoia Tuesday morning and after chatting for a while about craft beer, I invited him to join me that evening and try out a couple of breweries and he happily accepted.
After meeting Nathaniel in front of the hotel we headed to nearby Trailhead Brewing Company for a flight of samplers then made our way to the next stop of our guided tour which was Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Cottleville, a St. Louis suburb. From the outside, it looked more like neighborhood bar than brewery. You may remember my last blog entry about Sonoma Springs. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny craft brewery when I was expecting food serving brewpub and crazy things hanging from the wall. I encouraged the reader to support your village brewery, lest it vanish if you don’t drink enough of its brew and then you have nothing to drink. Exit 6, while a larger drinking establishment, was a much smaller brewery, a nano-brewery actually, making craft beer on a 1 1/2 bbl system. For those that don’t know what the heck a “bbl” is, bbl=barrel which is 31 gallons. Common American kegs are half barrels, or 15.5 gallons. Do the math, and a batch of beer at Exit 6 is being brewed on a 46.5 gallon system, plus or minus.
46.5 gallons. Remember that for a minute.
I saddle up to the bar an preview the tap handles and list of beers on the dry erase board. There were familiar names on the list like Lagunitas and Deschutes but I didn’t come all that way to drink beer that I can get anywhere at home. I looked at the man behind the bar, seemingly unapproachable and gruff, and he asked me what I wanted and I stated firmly, “I want some of your beer.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what I was saying but I soon realized I wasn’t talking to the bartender, but the brewer, and he was pouring his own beer.
I was speaking to owner/operator/brewer/bartender Jeff Britton. I was almost ecstatic at the rare opportunity for the brewer to be pouring me a beer. In my quest to find a beer server who actually knows everything about the beer they are serving, I was Captain Ahab, and I found my white whale. Except we weren’t trying to kill each other and Queequeg wasn’t around and– well you know what I mean. I had found what I was looking for. I enjoyed Exit 6 APA, a full bodied quaffing pale ale, a half pint of 2nd Shift Brew Cocky DIPA and Exit 6 Applewood Smoked Blonde. The last was quite a treat, although I wouldn’t want to have several of them in one sitting. Jeff explained he smoked the malt himself and it was like “Drinking a Bud next to a campfire while eating bacon.” If you love smoked beer, this is for you. If you hate smoked beer, you won’t like it. It was so potent, I imagined the draft lines being permanently infused with smoke smell and flavor that would carry to other beers if one were to reuse the lines for a different beer.
The more I spoke to Jeff and listened to his story, the more I realized he wasn’t unapproachable and gruff, he was burned out and exhausted. Here is his story. Forgive me Jeff, if I don’t get it exactly straight.
Jeff told me that before starting the brewery, which had been opened for about a year, he was a homebrewer and worked in IT for 10 years and “hated 9 1/2 of them.” One day, while in a four lane bumper to bumper interstate parking lot, Jeff decided he was done with the rat race. Right there, he formed an exit plan. And he wanted a better life for his daughter who was 6. Hence, Exit 6. He cashed out his vacation leave and 401(k) and went for it.
I recently penned a yet to be published article for BYO magazine that had this line: “Any homebrewer that becomes engrossed in their hobby will eventually dream of turning it into their career in one way or another. This usually sparks dreams of massive conical fermenters, brewing a DIPA that is hopped in some new or unusual way or naming your brew using the word ‘dog’ somehow. ”
I’m here to tell you, if you want to start a brewery, you either do it with a huge loan or investors, or both, or you begin as a nano-brewery and grind it out. Jeff chose to grind it out. Sam Calagione started Dogfish Head on a 10 gallon system in 1995. On the day of writing this blog post, Dogfish Head accepted delivery of ten more 600 bbl fermenters. “I work 105 hours a week”, Jeff told me and that’s when I pinpointed the look in his eye. It was tired. 46.5 gallons tired. “I get here at about 11 AM and start brewing, then I open up and pour beer until 1:30 AM. Jeff showed me a pre-brewery photo of himself which was a 40 pound heavier version, but it also still had life and spark in his eye. “What about your daughter?” I asked. “Is it better now for her?” He quickly and flatly stated “No.”
I instantly related to Jeff. While I will never feel like I have the right to complain about how many hours I work ever again, he and I chose the “start from nothing, build it and persevere” method. The beer tasted even better from that moment on. I bought a T-shirt.
Part two of his story was a bit dumbfounding. He told me about how he tried to establish his brewery (nano-brewery) in a nearby township and it met heavy resistance. This was completely asinine to me because we were in Anheuser Busch HQ, St. Louis, Missouri. Locals rallied to keep his brewery (…..nano-brewery) out of their neighborhood because it was going to be 600 feet from a school. Notwithstanding the three bars within a closer proximity, one nay-sayer claimed it would have given the impressionable kids a poor image to look at on the way to school. Still, while he is telling me this, I’m struggling with the fact that this town was in existence largely due to a brewery. Jeff claimed that the public hearings involving his permitting process were the most well attended civil meetings in that town’s history. He finished his story by telling me the police chief of the Cottleville had followed his struggle in the other town and contacted Jeff and lured him to his town. Its probably safe to say the chief didn’t do it because he is a beer drinker but because he knows that more business is more tax base and a stronger community, which is apparently something the other town didn’t want.
I bring you this story of Exit 6 for a couple of reasons. Starting and operating a brewery or being a brewer is not a glamorous or exciting career choice. It can be fun and often is. Sam Calagione now spends his days tasting and exploring beer and doing the fun things, but it took him 17 years to get there. Jeff will be there too someday, 1 1/2 barrels at a time. His hard work will pay off; earned by his sweat and deserved for his daughter. The other half of this post — and a continuation of the last — is you must support your local brewery. Support craft brew and buy the beer as localized to the brewery as you can, even at the brewery if possible. That stretches their dollar in the best way. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of picking up a case of Steelhead at Costco. Its a darn good price but its really not helping the brewery much. Breweries invest so much money in bottle packaging and distributing it cuts into their bottom line tremendously. The best thing you can do for them is enjoy a draft at their establishment. And the venerable nano-brewery needs this support more than any brewery.