The Saint Louis Brewery, the producers of Schlafly Beer, is Missouri’s largest independent brewery and soon will celebrate 25 years of brewing.
From 1991 to 2013, Stephen Hale primarily served as its chief brewer. In 2013, he moved into a new role as ambassador brewer. Hale explained, “After working 22 years in the brewhouse, I know the company from the inside out and can share its story with confidence. You have to walk the walk before you can talk the talk to move from brewing to marketing. I meet a lot of Schlafly fans at beer events, and I’ve become recognizable by wearing my kilt to every outing. I’ve earned the affectionate nickname ‘Schlafly mascot,’ and am so proud to promote this company.” Meanwhile, stepping into the role of director of brewing operations is Emily Parker, a University of California Davis graduate who has worked her way up the brewery ladder. Her education centered on food science, with an emphasis in brewing.
When did you start at Schlafly?
Emily: I started about six years ago as a lab intern in the quality assurance lab, which developed into a job as few months later. I became the quality assurance manager, and then recently moved into brewing operations. It was a pretty fun transition. I love it.
How do you like your new position as ambassador brewer, Stephen?
Stephen: I didn’t know that I wouldn’t miss the brewing operations. I spent most of my time at the Tap Room downtown, and I loved almost every minute of my time there. So I thought I would miss it a lot, but I took to the new role rather naturally. I enjoy doing a variety of things and I love talking about Schlafly Beer. For the most part, I’m still fully involved in the line of beers we brew, and that’s important. I let Emily and the rest take care of the hands-on parts of the job now. The only hard part is being away from my family. The travel is great, but not being at home is tough.
You have such a large, diverse portfolio of beer. Does that make brewing more fun, or more challenging and stressful?
Stephen: Brewers usually start at home, or do something small. We effectively make new beers on our Small Brews system, which we call Pilotworks, and get a keg or two of it, and then scale up to fifteen barrels, maybe tweak it again, and before you know it, we’re making several hundred barrels. So if you think about it, what makes brewing on such a large scale so different than small scale? We just make more of it.
The challenge is for the sales crew to be aware of our entire portfolio. It’s a lot of beer. I mean, when we print a big pamphlet about the beer, it’s almost outdated by the time it’s done being printed. We brew almost 70 beers, including ones we only serve at both locations. We like to make sure the total selection is really good, providing an overall consistency and good taste. Besides, we just like to keep our brewers interested [laughter].
Emily: Yeah, we have the two locations. Maplewood is our big production facility, but at our smaller brewhouse, we can knock out a lot of new, experimental beer. We love letting our brewers get creative. We just put in a new pilot system and they’re brewing a new beer each week. We test the beers, get feedback, and then hope it can graduate to the Tap Room and then to bottle. It could take years, but it works.
For me, it’s been interesting moving from quality assurance to my current position. Quality has always been a part of Schlafly’s brewing philosophy, so it was a natural transition to go from quality assurance to brewing. The main thing we want to do is put beer out and keep it “true to brand.”
Emily, you noted that you really enjoy rum. Any chance we might see a few rum barrel-aged brews?
Emily: [Laughter] Oh, yeah, I do like rum. I love rum cocktails like a Painkiller and Dark ‘n’ Stormy. So yeah, I definitely could see rum-aged beer in our future.
You’re adamant about remaining a “local brewery first.” Are there any advantages or disadvantages to existing in St. Louis, away from craft brewing hotspots like California, North Carolina, and Colorado?
Stephen: We are Missouri’s largest independent brewery, and we’re proud of that. Our initial focus was the local area, 300 miles from the brewery or a 6-hour drive. But then we got pretty popular out East; we just grew in that area naturally, on its own. But we think St. Louis is the perfect market and there’s plenty of room to grow here. We’re not about chasing barrelage.
Emily: I have been shocked over the years at how much St. Louis has grown in the craft industry. When I started, I think there were two or so, and now there are more than 30 around here, and it’s exciting. I would actually say it’s easier here than it is in California with how saturated the market is out there. But I’m glad we see these new breweries popping up, and we’re making it.
Do you monitor what is said about you on social media and online craft-beer rating sites?
Stephen: About a year ago during a meeting, I offered to monitor those sites and clarify errors on them, but I never really made that happen. I don’t have a lot of experience with it. I have the same attitude with competitions. We never pursued medals. We really love when people come in and enjoy the beer. I really love seeing repeat customers, which is a great thing. We just let the taste of the beer sell the beer.
Emily: I’ll come at it from a different perspective than Stephen. Sensory is a tough thing to handle, so to me, it’s really interesting to read them. I’m interested to see how people perceive them and see them, pick up on them. What I see or taste may not be what others are picking up on.
One thing came up recently with our Walking Tree Wheat beer. The mango came through so amazingly from the puree, but a lot of people also picked up on a white pepper character. They swore it was in the beer, but it just developed through fermentation.
Stephen: Yeah, seriously, I even noticed the white pepper. It’s interesting. We set up tasting panels here, and you can really see the tasters in your company who have a higher sensitivity to things. I might be sensitive to a few particular aromas and tastes in beers, and others have strengths in other areas. It’s interesting to see what some can perceive and what they can’t. It’s cool.
Listening to Stephen and Emily discuss their jobs at Schlafly reminds one of talking to people excited about a new hobby, rather than two people speaking of their careers. But this is no hobby—Stephen and Emily match that enthusiasm with deft brewing skills and artistic minds. For those that brew Schlafly beer, it’s about imagination, innovation, and exploration. For those who drink the beer, it’s all about one thing: enjoyment.