Breweries That Make Liquor!

The oldest profession in the world, as I understand it, is making passive-aggressive comments on the internet; however, coming in a close second is booze making! There are many wonderful places in the world that excel at brewing beer, or distilling spirits, or fermenting wine but excelling at one thing isn’t cool, you know what is cool? Quoting lines from The Social Network and excelling at two things.

Now, it takes a special kind of place to have a brewery and distillery under the same roof. There are space issues, staffing issues, and having someone with the knowledge to both brew beer and distill spirits. There is a growing list of breweries that are, or have been, branching out into the world of spirits. The names include giants in the craft beer industry like Anchor, Rogue, and New Holland. Places that offer both craft beer and craft liquor are still rare though, and should be treated like the unicorn that they are. Let’s take a look at some of these beautiful horned horses and see what makes them tick.

In 2010, I went on a brewery tour of Michigan and one of the stops was at the aforementioned New Holland Brewery, in Holland, MI. New Holland’s spirits division has been in existence since 2005, but they were unable to sell them until December 2008 and by the time I visited, their spirits program was really humming along. However, despite their successes there were severe space limitations. Storing all the barrels of liquor is a main limiting factor in getting into the distilling game, as you can see by looking at this well photographed shelving unit of barrels at the New Holland distillery/pub in downtown Holland.

It’s the same problem that many breweries run into when trying to start a barrel-aged beer program: namely, space. Beer fanatics always lament the fact that their favorite brewery doesn’t produce enough of the super exclusive, super imperial, super barrel-aged stout that they’re known for, and the reason for that is barrels take up a butt-load (official unit of measurement) of space. Check this pic taken at New Holland’s beer production facility on the north side of Holland.

The dashing, drunk young man in the picture aside, look at how big those barrels are! For reference, I’m 6’2” and weigh, uh, plenty. Now, imagine having to have all these beer barrels as well as liquor barrels. There aren’t too many places that have space enough for that. New Holland has two separate locations, and when we were there, they had complaints about how quickly their space was being taken up by barrels (they’ve since expanded to accommodate the demand for their spirits).

Taking the tour at New Holland was interesting and a great first-hand look at the operations of a brewery/distillery, but I was on vacation and didn’t really get into the details with the crew over there. A similar operation to New Holland that I discovered is Square One Brewery & Distillery out of St. Louis. Opened in 2006 by Steve Neukomm, Square One calls the Lafayette Square neighborhood of “The Lou” home. I admit that much of my knowledge of St. Louis comes from songs featuring Murphy Lee, so it was enlightening to talk to Mr. Neukomm and his beverage program director and master brewer, Dr. John Witte. Mr. Neukomm has been in the restaurant game for a long time in St. Louis. He opened Augusta Brewery in 1999, which is about the same time he became interested in craft distilling, and has owned the building that Square One is located in since 1985. In 2005, the building that now houses Square One suffered major fire damage and the tenant moved out. Mr. Neukomm decided he wanted to open up Missouri’s first microdistillery/restaurant, but state law was not in his favor and he decided to open a new brewery while he waited for the law to change. In August of 2008, Square One was able to open it’s distillery wing and became the first of it’s kind in Missouri and one of the first of it’s kind in the whole country. These two gentlemen were kind enough to give me some of their time and answer my questions, via email, about brewing, distilling, the craft beer boom, and which Nelly songs most accurately describe their city. Here are their answers, only edited for space and clarity.

The Nobler Experiment: What are the challenges of having a brewery and distillery under the same roof? Does it sometimes feel like Square One is trying to do too much? What are the benefits?

Steve Neukomm: Having the two operations actually works well together because everything starts out in the brewery and for the distillery it finishes in the still. The biggest challenge was finding how to schedule time in the brewery, so we now have two shifts. The other biggest challenge is space. When we make whiskey we have to lay down barrels and that takes up a lot of space. But we have expanded this last year for the distillery and we are still looking for more warehouse space.

The Nobler Experiment: Do you see the craft beer/liquor/wine market continuing to expand or do you think eventually there will be a market saturation and people will become overwhelmed by too many choices?

Steve Neukomm: As far as saturation of the market in the craft segment, I hope it would follow what boutique wineries have done since they were kind of first in the handcrafted beverage segment. When craft wineries opened the big guys were doing Chablis and red table wine in gallon jugs, and the craft guys started with big Cabs and buttery Chardonnays. Now that is just about how the market has shifted towards the craft products. Beer seems to be following that same direction with the big guys imitating the craft segment. In craft distilling I see more and more unique products, and we are turning heads to new and interesting flavors that I feel the consumer will be searching for.

I was also able to talk with master brewer, Dr. John Witte, who has a degree in veterinary medicine and has been brewing beer in St. Louis since 1994. He offered some more insight on the day to day operations of a brewery/distillery as well as revealing some of the process that goes into making Square One’s beers and spirits.

The Nobler Experiment: It looks like Square One produces 27 different beers in a given year. Where do you get your ideas for a new beer from and have you ever considered expanding distribution from just your taproom?

Dr. John Witte: I draw inspiration from several sources.  First, I browse the style guidelines from the GABF.  These are sent from the Brewers Association and are an excellent source of flavor, color, and technical ranges for any given, recognized style of beer.  I also do my best to listen to customer feedback and input.  At least two different beers I created last year were from customer suggestions.  Along the same line, each year I have a contest with the server staff in which I will brew the top two or three most interesting beer suggestions (they give me a description of the beer, including color, flavor, bitterness, alcohol %, etc) and they get to brew it with me.  One of our summer seasonals came out of the competition three years ago and we continue to make it each year.  I have also had suggestions come at me at beer festivals by well meaning, but intoxicated, drinkers who have suggested beers they have tried in other states or in other countries, letting me know how much better their day would have been, had that brewery been there serving that beer (some people talk before they think).  The majority though simply come from me thinking about what I have brewed over the last 19 years and if there is a way to re-create something, making it more special or the opposite, by looking at what styles of beer I haven’t tried brewing yet.  Because of the layout of the building, the amount of space required by the distillery and the fact we are constantly challenged to keep our own beers on tap for our customers who come to our restaurant, we really are not equipped to distribute our beer off premise.

The Nobler Experiment: How many kinds of liquor does Square One produce in a given year?

Dr. John Witte: Our spirit line is called Spirits of St. Louis and we currently produce about 12 different spirits, 6 of which are distributed throughout the state of Missouri.

The Nobler Experiment: Square One decided to start distilling spirits in 2008, how did this decision come about to start distilling spirits? Was there a given event? Just wanting to try something new?

Dr. John Witte: Steve wanted the distillery as part of the business as we were opening, however, the state interpreted the laws in such a way they were going to classify a distillery the same as a winery (because wineries already had stills in order to make fortified wines, like port).  In Missouri, a winery can serve food and other alcohol, however it has to close at 10 pm.  That wasn’t going to work for us as a full service restaurant and bar. Two years later, Steve called the state and they told him, that since he already had a retail liquor license in place and established, they had no problem letting him add the distillery. He broke the idea to me about 10 months before our still arrived, and, to be honest, until he told me he ordered the still and began working on making a secure space for it, just off the bar area, I wasn’t sure if it would actually happen (sometimes ideas simply stay ideas). So, I will put all the laurels (or the blame…ha) at Steve’s feet.  I didn’t grow up with spirits, even though my grandfather was one of the largest spirits distributors in the midwest in the 50’s and early 60’s. I grew up drinking beer and so has always felt natural brewing it.

The Nobler Experiment: What are the challenges of having a brewery and distillery under the same roof? Does it sometimes feel like Square One is trying to do too much? What are the benefits?

Dr. John Witte: The challenges of having both is a space issue. We are one of the few craft distillers who is also a restaurant and brewery who also makes a barrel aged whiskey. The amount we are now putting up into storage and the size of the casks is simply gobbling up more and more space. All malt for the brewery and distillery is warehoused in a separate location, due to a lack of on site storage. Logistically, it requires a second shift, which again, is unusual for a brewpub which does not distribute its beer. As a very logical, engineer minded individual, it almost constantly feels like we are overextended. One of Steve’s great strengths is his ability to look outside the box and see opportunities to get creative…then he hands it to me in order to implement it. If you don’t like challenges, I wouldn’t suggest this as a career choice. The biggest benefit is having the brewery on premise. Most distilleries don’t brew whiskey exactly like a beer, with a mash and lauter tun, kettle, whirlpool, heat exchanger, etc. We treat our whiskey wash exactly like one of our beers, except for a shorter boil and no hops. Everything else stays the same. I think this is one of the reasons our JJ Neukomm all malt whiskey is the highest rated of its kind in the United States (rated 95, Exceptional, from BTI 2013). Those extra production steps really show themselves in the quality of the finished product.

The Nobler Experiment: Do you, as the master brewer, collaborate with the head distiller on any of the products?

Dr. John Witte: I oversee production of all the alcohol produced here at Square One. With that said, our distiller (Steve’s son, Jonathan Neukomm), has a fantastic palate for spirits (something I am willing to admit I do not have) and he is responsible for the day in and day out production, blending, filtration, etc. of all the spirits we produce. Most of the inspiration for new products in the distillery actually come from Steve.

The Nobler Experiment: Do you see the craft beer/liquor/wine market continuing to expand or do you think eventually there will be a market saturation and people will become overwhelmed by too many choices?

Dr. John Witte: Humans crave choices and diversity in their choices. At least we Americans do (problem with communism…no choices; 1 car (crappy), 1 grocery store (out of food), 1 restaurant (never open). So I think there will always be someone out there pushing the envelope and creating something entirely different. Will we ever get like Germany where you have 1200 breweries, almost all of which make a pilsner, a helles and a hefe weizen? I would have to guess no. At some point though there is no longer any shelf space for additional products and those on the shelf can suddenly look like an overwhelming sea of choices. How do lion tamers get the lion to sit there? They use a stool. The lion tries to focus on the different legs and goes into a continuous loop, stuck where he is. Too many choices can lead to the same sort of freeze in the decision making process. Technology has certainly helped people in this decision making process, with blogs (such as your own), rating websites, etc. I see the biggest limitation is going to be physical space for shelves. Will the small guy, even if he/she makes the product in town, be given the same opportunity to market his/her products on the shelf at a store as a well known brand like Bacardi or Absolut? The next 2-5 years are going to be really interesting. I don’t see a slowdown in the craft beer market happening. Gen iY is coming into their 20’s now (or very soon). They have never known beer in the US to not include craft beer, just like they have never known life without a cell phone or the internet. It’s a paradigm shift we older brewers have to embrace right now. We are no longer just out there on the cutting edge making beers for the few brave souls searching out craft beer. We are now producing for an entire generation who has never known life without us. Either we get that and run with it, or we find ourselves like Pete’s Wicked Ale…gone. I will defer to Steve on the spirits portion of the question.  He has a much better handle on where the market is heading for those products. (editors note: see Mr. Neukomm’s answer above)

The Nobler Experiment: What has the response been like in your neighborhood to having a brewery and distillery “right down the street?” Does Square One participate in/organize community events to help ingrain yourselves into the neighborhood?

Dr. John Witte: We have an awesome relationship with our neighbors and the neighborhood. Steve has owned this building since 1985, so he has a well established, long history with the residents. They know the type of businesses he operates and they appreciate the improvements he has done over the decades to the property. Community service and participation in helping nonprofits in our community is a very strong part of our companies culture. As of January 1 of this year, we support through donations of beer, spirits, gift baskets or our time, 50 organizations in the St. Louis area. Square One has alway felt that the amount you give will determine the amount you get back. We have begun working on a “Giving Tree” which will hang in the restaurant, each leaf representing an organization or group who we support throughout the course of the year.

So there you have it. There are places that do brewing and distilling under the same roof, and do it right. Let us know of your favorite double threat in our passive-aggressive comments section!

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