When you think of beer and St. Louis, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you think of a port barrel-aged chocolate imperial stout in an imported bottle with a pewter label?
Well, that’s what the good people over at Schlafly Beer – fittingly known as “The Saint Louis Brewery” – are trying to pull off with The Variant, and oh boy, do they. The latest release in their Ibex Rare Series and our featured Beer Drop for the week, this beer cuts zero corners, checks off all the boxes, and is as dang good to look at as it is to sip on. We were lucky to get our hands on it, and hope you take advantage as well – grab one now, age it, and give it to that special beer snob in your life around the holidays.
I loved chatting with Schlafly’s founding brewer, Stephen Hale, and hearing the story of how it all came to be in a town most wouldn’t dare open another brewery in. That mentality and continual innovation is textbook craft beer, and pretty inspiring if you ask me. Grab a beer and settle in for this Q&A – cheers!
Let’s jump right in! Tell us more about The Variant:
This is a pretty special beer for us. Aging the beer on cacao nibs as well as in port barrels creates an amazingly richly textured beer, it’s one of our grandest beers yet.
Jam packed with flavors not found in other beers, this stout is dark in appearance, full-bodied and brimming with complex, intriguing flavors. Sweet, hearty, and robust, a roasty, richer version best summed up as a big, bad Port-barrel-aged Chocolate Imperial Stout.
We also spent a lot of time creating the bottle itself. We’ve never used this style bottle before and love its sleek design, incorporating both the “tax stamp” on the neck as part of the image, as well as the startling pewter label, both of which were applied by hand by our team. Fun times!
The bottle is incredible – definitely a conversation starter I’ll probably have on my desk for a while. So what’s the best way to enjoy a big, bad beer like this?
Cellar temperature, which is traditionally in the low-mid 50’s, and even warmer if you prefer, but certainly not 40 degrees. A snifter would be perfect, and I’d suggest possibly a super-rich Chateaubriand or your favorite cut from the grill or smoker. Some decadently rich chocolates or cheeses would be a great partner as well. Let’s also not forget that this beer is fine as is, enjoyed all by its lonesome self, while just contemplating the universe.
How did Schlafly first come into existence, and how long have you been around?
While studying at Oxford University in the UK, Tom Schlafly fell in love with a wide range of beer styles that simply weren’t available in St. Louis. The St. Louis beer scene was dominated by a large, well-known brewer and while they offered a lot of brands, the range of styles was simply lacking. Schlafly changed all of that. I started a few months before the brewery opened its doors.
Let’s step back for a minute – what were you doing before beer, and how did it ultimately become your full-time gig?
I put my Classics degree (Greek and Latin) to good use teaching 8th grade English and Latin for a few years before harvesting sea urchins on the coast of Maine for several winters, jumping off a lobster boat in a dry suit. Sometimes I miss that job… And I continued to sweep chimneys here and there, a business I started during a year off from college. So, a variety of jobs before finding one that has so far lasted more than a quarter century.
My brother taught me how to homebrew when I was 19, a long time ago in Upstate New York. I was hooked from that moment, and I kept brewing until the “microbrewery” movement started gaining traction in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. A Kenyon College classmate, Dan Kopman, was the only other student homebrewer on campus so we bonded over beer. When he and Tom Schlafly teamed up to open The Saint Louis Brewery (home of Schlafly Beer), Dan called me up to help open the brewery. I packed my worldly belongings and drove out to St. Louis in October 1991, my first visit to this fine city. We opened the brewery, the Schlafly Tap Room, in December of that year, and I’ve pretty much been here ever since. After twenty-two years in brewhouse and cellar operations, which included helping to open our second location, the Schlafly Bottleworks, a few miles away, it was time to put my talents to other use. I transferred to working with both the Sales and Marketing teams and now travel a lot for my job, as well as work on a lot of projects the brewery has going on.
What a ride! I also have a lot of questions about the sea urchin harvesting, but in the interest of staying on topic, we’ll save that for another conversation! Back to the beer…
How did the name Schlafly come about?
We’re Midwestern in our values, and believe in calling things what they are. In keeping with brewing traditions, we put Tom’s last name on the bottle and we call our beer by the style it is. Our Pale Ale is called Pale Ale. It’s an English Pale Ale – made with English Hops, English Malts and an English Yeast.
Any story behind your labels and branding?
Clean and simple, we attempt to be straightforward and recognizable with our names and logos. The Variant is one of our one-offs, but still part of the family.
What’s your favorite thing about Schlafly?
The brewery’s commitment to being forthright with so many things, from brewing classic beer styles to creative and high-quality food in the two brewpubs, as well as a huge commitment to all things sustainable in so many ways: a huge garden next to our brewery, weekly Farmer’s Market in the parking lot, solar panels on the roof, we use 100% renewable energy, spent grain that goes to farmers, the list goes on.
How about the community you operate in?
We’ve improved two zip codes! The neighborhood known as St. Louis Downtown West, and the neighborhood of Maplewood, just seven miles away. We offer huge community support through hosting numerous events and being a bit of a pillar in each neighborhood. We like to be as fully involved as we can be.
Speaking of St. Louis, how have you seen the craft beer industry grow locally in a place known for decades as an AB town?
There were only two other breweries in Missouri when we opened in 1991, and just over three-hundred in the country. There are now around 5,500 in the country and nearly 60 within an hour’s plus drive from downtown. It has just exploded in recent years. And yet, if you casually asked every single person in this region, “Where’s the brewery?”, they’d give you A-B’s address. We are a very longtime beer city.
Where do you see Schlafly going from here?
We distribute in 12 states after 25 years, not 25 states after 12 months, and we think that says a lot. Renewing our commitment to being just who we are and doing what we’ve been doing for more than twenty-five years is important to us. We love innovation, and we love the classics. Having a few fabulous big parties along the way makes it even all the more fun.
Hot Hop Takes
Favorite craft beer festival?
There are many, but I have to urge you to come to HOP in the City at the Tap Room in September. Amazing. As well as Stout & Oyster Festival in March where we fly in 60,000 fresh oysters from the coast and have celebrity shuckers.
Shuck yeah. Going on the calendar now.
How about a favorite beer quote?
Blessed is the mother who gives birth to a brewer.
Biggest beer pet peeve?
I suppose if I had a nickel for every time I heard a different pronunciation of Schlafly I’d be a wealthy man, but really, just look at the letters S-C-H-L-A-F-L-Y, you just have to pronounce each one, we’re not making people say Olde Frothingslosh for crying out loud.
Favorite beer other than your own?
Some of the mad, delightful creations from the ever-burgeoning homebrewing community. Without a doubt.
Pick a character from history to drink this beer with:
Either Bacchus (Dionysus) or Gambrinus, just to drink beer with a god or a saint. But I haven’t heard that they could convert water (okay, bathwater) into beer, so perhaps Ste. Brigid makes more sense if we need to get more beer in a hurry…who doesn’t want a friend like that?
What do you think the next big beer trend will be?
It’s already started. Brewing the classics, and doing them well. It sure makes me happy as a former rugby player to see this happening. I know our third-halfs would have been shorter, and likely rowdier if we’d been able to find only an abundance of strong, hoppy beers. Kölsch, Helles, Pilsner and other lagers, good English Pale Ales, strong traditional beer styles are “what the world consumes,” and more examples of these are being brewed by a lot more breweries now.
Many, many thanks to Stephen for taking the time to chat with us, and to Schlafly for brewing the good stuff. The next time you’re in town, be sure to stop by “The Saint Louis Brewery” for a pint and a bite – we know we will!
777 check-ins and counting – keep tabs on what Sean’s been drinking here. Toast your favorites, and maybe you’ll see it as an upcoming Beer Drop!