Monday, September 20, 2010

Here's to Workhorse Beers and Workhorse Breweries.

Highway 100 shoots straight west from Interstate 44, after you've driven southwest from St. Louis for about half an hour. Heading west, if you keep an eye on the northern hills, you might catch a glimpse of a nondescript warehouse. You might even spot some wooden barrels sitting on the dock.

That would the technical home of the Augusta Brewing Company, in Labadie, Missouri. That would be the same Augusta that just won a gold medal for its highly drinkable Hyde Park Stout at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. As far as I know this is the first really national splash made by this small rural brewery, the sort of workhorse that's been toiling away for its local customers in relative obscurity for years.

That nondescript warehouse brewery in Labadie is not really open to visitors; it's just where the work gets done. Augusta's spiritual home is in, well, Augusta--across the Missouri River and another 30 minutes' drive--at the brewery's popular and pastoral beer garden. Owners Jeri and Terry Heisler bought the brewery and beer garden in 2008. They also built the scenic John G's Bier Deck in Washington, Mo., as a showcase for theirs and other locally made craft brews.

Incidentally, thanks to the three-tier system, the Heislers pay a distributor to carry their own beer for them from their own brewery to their own Bier Deck and Beer Garden. "We have to sell our beer and buy it back," Terry Heisler told me when I visited. "The state laws are set up for the wineries and not the breweries." On the other hand, he added that he's glad he doesn't have to buy trucks, hire drivers, and do all those other things that distributors do for them. Augusta can focus on making and serving good beer.

The guy making that beer--and the one who deserves most of the credit for that GABF gold--is head brewer Shawn Herrin. He's there in the photo, on the left, next to Terry Heisler on the right. Up yonder there is 21-year-old assistant brewer Kate Crombie, doing all the hard work with the shovel.

Herrin also is overseeing a relatively new barrel-aging program. When I visited there was some Tripel and the Hyde Park Stout maturing in Chambourcin wine barrels from the nearby Blumenhof winery. Meanwhile, this is an area that grows a lot of corn, soybeans and pigs. You want to talk about farmhouse brewing? It might be in a warehouse, but Augusta is using some old dairy tanks as fermenters. "I've had people tell us that our Belgian-style beers taste more Belgian than others," Herrin said. "I think it might be because of the antiquated setup."

Business is still growing locally for Augusta. In particular, the wineries that dot the Missouri River valley are selling many of Augusta's 750 ml Belgian-style bottles. Heisler said they're still adding accounts "because people want to go local. ... Now people are going to the microbreweries again. Everybody wants to feel special, and I don't blame them."

But now for the team at Augusta--one of hundreds of neighborhood micros out there--it's their turn to feel special. Congratulations to Augusta Brewing and all the other GABF winners.


  1. Total respect to Kate. Sadly, female brewers are still a rare breed.