It’s Friday night. You’re at a local bar on Cherokee Street listening to a band when suddenly you hear someone shout from a cave below your feet: “Goonies never say die!”
That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that Adam McBrady, retail manager for Urban Chestnut Brewing Company (UCBC) and historian for the Cave Archaeology Investigation and Research Network (CAIRN), took full advantage of while touring the old lagering cellars beneath Earthbound Beer’s new location.
McBrady and CAIRN President Craig Williams told this and other stories about their explorations of the cave systems underneath the city that were used to store beer before Prohibition as part of this year’s UCBC Speaker Series. The event, scheduled for a hot Tuesday evening, was titled “Bottles to Bricks: Looking at Remnants from St. Louis Lagering Caves.” I expected about 10 people to show up to what promised to be a Powerpoint-heavy presentation. Boy, was I surprised that it was standing-room-only, and a couple rows deep at that.
It makes perfect sense, though. St. Louis has always been a beer town — perhaps even more than the average suds enthusiast realizes. You see, despite today’s burgeoning craft beer scene, the number of local breweries has yet to rebound to the pre-Prohibition era: nearly 125 breweries then compared to almost 60 now, Earthbound estimates.
A Boon for Brewers
It turns out that caves, with their stable climate and a cool 55-degree average temperature, made the perfect place to store beer before mechanical refrigeration, making St. Louis, a city built on a complex of natural caves, the perfect place for early German immigrant brewers to set up shop.
And, in addition to storing lager, it quickly became obvious that the caves would cool people, too. In these pre-A/C days, underground beer halls, complete with live music, began cropping up. During Prohibition, the caves served as hideaways to make alcohol. Of the city’s 37 caves, 24 have been associated with early breweries, Williams said, citing Joe Light of the caving group Meramec Valley Grotto.
Before there was Anheuser Busch, there was the Lemp Brewery, established in 1840 and built on top of the Cherokee Cave System. The brewery enjoyed the lion’s share of the St. Louis market but did not survive Prohibition. You can still visit the Lemp Mansion, which had an underground tunnel through the natural cave system leading to the brewery and used by the family to commute to work. The mansion, now a restaurant and inn, features ghost hunting and haunted history tours.
McBrady and Williams’ group CAIRN works with local caving groups and private landowners to visit, document and preserve the archaeological sites in the caves. Once mechanical refrigeration took off in the late 1800s, the caves were abandoned and used as dumping grounds. Or, in the case of the Lemps, one of the caves was converted into a Bavarian-style theater and a swimming pool.
The work that CAIRN does is certainly not flashy; essentially, what they’re doing is documenting people’s decades-old garbage dumps. In addition to wading through literal feet of sewage, the volunteers have the thrilling job of photographing “possible” ink bottles, glass bottles, duct tape, old tires, an old headlight…you get the picture. They don’t clean up, either, but rather leave the artifacts in place to observe how they change over time. Certainly not a job I’m chomping at the bit for, but it seems to get McBrady and Williams pretty excited.
“Cultural resources are being lost at a faster rate than natural resources and, once gone, they are gone forever,” CAIRN says.
A lot of love (and money) went into Earthbound Beer’s new location, 2724 Cherokee St., to restore the lagering cave that had been filled in with dirt. Owners Stuart Keating, Rebecca Schranz and Jeff Siddons dug it out, literally, by hand. They plan to use the cave to age beers, open top fermentation and barrel beers, and give tours to the public who wish to experience a slice of St. Louis history.
There’s some talk of theatrical productions and pop-up dinners down there, too, but no concrete plans yet, says Keating, who walked me around the brewery one week before it opened. Men in coveralls raced across every room, popped out of underground tunnels and interrupted Keating to give him updates on their progress. Keating’s wife, an immigration lawyer, had even taken the day off to help with cleaning. The brewery was going to host its first event, the wedding of one its employees, in the cave on Saturday.
Keating became a brewer after a full-time lawyering gig drove him out of the office and onto the seat of a bicycle for a cross-country trip from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine. He now only takes cases on a volunteer basis; that evening, in fact, he was headed out to represent local protesters who had been arrested.
In addition to the lagering caves already cleared out under Earthbound, there’s a whole other set beneath that level. Schranz and Keating have actually kayaked in the sludge and water down there. They say they hope to restore those lower caves at some point; but, for right now, their time, energy and clean clothes are focused on getting the new location up and running.
I’m looking forward to trying the brewery’s black wheat seasoned with oak leaves: a historical beer Keating tells me is a recreation of a recipe found on pottery shards in a Bavarian tomb 2,800 years ago. He and his crew pick the oak leaves themselves.
True or not, it’s a good excuse for a cold one.
Earthbound Beer plans to offer scheduled tours of its new location at 2724 Cherokee Street, including views of its lagering caves, once the dust settles from its grand opening. Visit earthboundbeer.com for more information.
You should also check out the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company’s Speaker Series to learn about beers, food, bees, gardens and more! See its upcoming schedule of topics and times at urbanchestnut.com/ucub-speaker-series.