Before Dan Kopman and his partner Tom Schlafly, could open their brewpub in Missouri in 1991, they first had to go about changing state laws. “We were the first brewery to open in Saint Louis since Prohibition, and the first brewery-restaurant in the State of Missouri,” says Kopman. “There was not a law that would allow a brewer to have a retail license, unless it was a 60,000-seat sports stadium.” The process of creating a brewery-restaurant license took about three years from start to finish, and “it didn’t hurt that Tom and my father were attorneys” says Kopman.
They named their brewery The Saint Louis Brewery, and located the Schlafly Tap Room in an abandoned three-story brick building in Midtown—a turn-of-the-century light industrial warehouse district that had been home to the garment and shoe manufacturing industries, and automotive dealerships.
The City of Saint Louis was founded in 1764 by French-born fur traders who journeyed up the Mississippi from New Orleans. By the late 19th-century it was the fourth largest city in the United States. The City of Saint Louis reached its peak population of over 856,000 in 1950, but by 2010 the population had fallen to less than 320,000.
The decline started in the 1960s. “And a lot of the companies that were located in this area, including the printing company that owned this building, simply walked away and opened modern facilities in the county,” says Kopman, speaking of their Tap Room location. “There was no demand for these buildings.”
The Schlafly Tap Room had stood empty since 1969 when Swift Printing moved out. Seven years later, a firestorm engulfed it and several surrounding structures. The area had become so derelict that it became the backdrop for a scene in the 1981 Kurt Russell film, “Escape from New York.”
“They were looking for a post-apocalyptic site, and they found Midtown of Saint Louis as an attractive post-apocalyptic location,” says Kopman. “Across the street from us was the President’s plane crash.” Watch the film closely and you’ll see the brewery’s iconic iron gates behind Kurt Russell.
“We were committed to locating the brewery in the city. My partner, Tom Schlafly, felt very strongly that he wanted the project to be part of a rebirth of the city,” says Kopman. The site search lasted several years, and they had tentative leases on two other properties, when a builder and architect convinced them to locate the brewery at 2100 Locust. “Many people doubted our ability to survive. A lot of folks gave us weeks,” says Kopman, both because of their location, and their decision to sell only their beers.
People avoided traveling to the area. “Even though there was a perception that there might be significant crime in the area, there was nothing left to steal. There was nothing here,” says Dan Kopman. “When we bought the building, there were no roofs, no windows, and significant damage to the inside of the building.” The only reason the structure still stood, was that “there had never been enough money to tear it down,” says Kopman.
Not only did they survive, they thrived. And in doing so they attracted a host of other businesses to convert the remaining structures into hospitality businesses, offices, and lofts.
The Saint Louis Brewery now brews and bottles six year-round beers that are sold at both their Tap Room and newer Bottleworks locations, as well as liquor retailers throughout the region. Special Brewer’s Choice beers are seasonal with extremely limited availability. In late fall 2011, they will offer a Schwarzbier, a traditional German black lager with a smooth malt profile.