Craft Beer in St. Louis: The View From Behind The Bar

Craft Beers

By Maureen Zegel

Tom Behnen has been selling beer in St. Louis for more than a decade. He talks beer history in compressed archeological terms to describe the craft beer movement. Layer upon layer, new beers arrived in the St. Louis market, he says, and the beer-drinking public responded with enthusiasm.

“You can see the evolution of St. Louis’ taste buds in beer, says Behnen, director of operations for Llywelyn’s Pub’s six locations. Llywelyn’s opened in 1975 in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. Behnen has been with them since 2006.

“Given Llywelyn’s Celtic heritage and food, we used to sell a lot of imported beers. Then Schlafly came along (1991) and we made a commitment to them. Then O’Fallon Brewery opened (2000) followed by a whole lot of other local breweries. Four years ago we started getting Colorado beers, East and West Coast beers – all really good, really different beers. They were savory and thick and went well with our food.”

Llywelyn’s Pub in Webster Groves has 44 taps serving up a variety of draft beers at any given time. It’s bottle beer choices number in the hundreds. Its five other locations (Central West End, Soulard, St. Charles, O’Fallon and Wildwood) all offer similar selections.

“Craft beer is so diverse, it can be paired with anything. There really are no restrictions any more,” says Behnen. “Because we make a concerted effort to use locally grown and raised produce and meats, our local craft beers are a natural.”

Jen Whitney, general manager of Llywelyn’s Webster Groves site, says she’s especially impressed with the collaborative spirit of people involved in craft beer.

“The breweries, the brew pubs are not trying to take the other guy out,” she says. “They’re not telling their customers, don’t drink that other beer. I wish we could have that in other industries.”

Across town, around the corner and 120 miles away from Llywelyn’s sit the four locations of International Tap House, iTap to those in the know. A beer emporium of sorts, its Soulard bar boasts nearly 500 bottled beers from 25 countries. More than 40 taps deliver draft beers, many of them local. None of the sites has a kitchen, so it’s a BYOF kind of place that encourages patrons to stop at their favorite eatery before their iTap visit. Or, you can order a pizza or sandwich from nearby restaurants and have it delivered.

Launched in 2009 by friends Sean Conroy and Brad Lobdell, the first iTap opened in Chesterfield. Sites in Soulard and the Central West End soon followed. Last year they opened a Columbia, Mo. bar, a stone’s throw from Mizzou and a seemingly never-ending flow of beer drinkers.

Sarah Scherer has been at iTap for three years, first as a server, then bartender and assistant general manager. She’s now taken on the enviable job of marketing an already successful idea.

“Once we added that fourth site I kept coming up with more marketing and event ideas until it was decided we needed a marketing person,” says Scherer. She calls them her “four babies.”

The summer bottle beer menu at the International Tap House in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood boasts nearly 500 beers from 25 countries. More than 40 taps deliver draft beers, many of them from nearby breweries. And as the number of choices increase for the consumer, the job of educating the public is up to the people who sell it.

Do you order a bottle of Afligem Tripel from Belgium, the Charleville Hoptimistic from Missouri or the Rogue Double Dead Guy from Oregon? You’ll have to try a draft beer – Schlafly Pale Ale, Urban Chestnut’s Schnickelfritz from St. Louis or Delirium Tremens from Belgium, which at 9 percent alcohol by volume, is appropriately named.

Don’t worry. The staff at both iTap and Llywelyn’s are experts, some of them nationally certified.

“Many people in the beer industry study for Cicerone Certification, a three-level education program for beer professionals that’s the equivalent of the wine industry’s sommelier,” says Scherer, who has attained the first level designation of Certified Beer Server. “It’s all done to elevate the beer experience for the consumer.”

Whether you’re a beer aficionado, novice or somewhere in between, you can learn a lot more and enjoy some of St. Louis’ finest beers during 2014 St. Louis Craft Beer Week. Breweries, distributors, restaurants, bars, retail outlets and beer fans all come together to celebrate craft beer. Talk to brewers, pair food and beers and meet other craft beer enthusiasts. Events run from Aug. 26 through Aug. 3 at various spots in the region.

For details, visit http://www.stlbeerweek.com.