I'm stopping into Schlafly Bottleworks before my interview with Ambassador Brewer Stephen Hale and Executive Chef KT Ayers to do a little research in the form of eating too much and drinking more than one should before noon. Before I even walk into the Bottleworks, I notice two guys on the heated terrace: one is peddling a retro-fitted stationary bike (found in Tom Schlafly's parents' garage) connected to a mill, while the other is pouring grain into said mill. They tell me that the bike, along with the mobile 20-gallon Pilotwerks system parked next to it, is part of a new Small Brews Program Schlafly's using to quickly make prototypes of (potential) future beers using interesting ingredients. For those of you who attended this weekend's Cabin Fever event, some of those beers came from this contraption. If you're interested in watching them, make sure to stop by around lunch on Thursdays—though they may put you to work on the bike.
Speaking of Cabin Fever—make sure to add it to your calendar for next year, if you didn't attend. Yes, it's cold in January, but there were something like 30 beers to try to keep you warm. I've made a note-to-self that I need to make myself a pretzel necklace for next year.
I realize that it's been awhile since I've been to the Bottleworks as soon as I step inside. The restaurant and bar have both been revamped (I'm getting sort of a Peacemaker vibe with the large photos), as has the front retail space. I consider buying all sorts of things, but manage to resist. For now.
Enough wandering around! I'm hungry. I walk into the bar area to sit down, but I'm immediately distracted by a huge chalkboard I've never seen before. Schlafly has started doing hop trials. Each month, the Bottleworks will try out a new hop—this month's is called Jarrylo—which local beer enthusiasts can try and then comment on. Your feedback goes directly to the brewery and the farmers growing the hops. I read a few of the comments, then finally go sit down. It's eating time.
I've made my way through all the distractions Bottleworks has to offer—it's like the Magic House for adults—and finally sit down. I start perusing the menu, trying to decide what to eat, when Chef Ayers hunts me down. She's got some dishes she wants me to try, and damnit, I'm not going to let her down. Bring it on, I say!
First dish of the gate is a golden fried tofu, paired with Schlafly's newest year-round addition, the Grapefruit IPA. It is surprisingly hard to find good fried tofu in this town, but she nailed it. The outside is as crunchy as tofu gets, served over a roasted red pepper tahini and topped with a green tomato chutney. It is fantastic. Ayers has an obsession with fresh, local produce cooked simply. I'm on board with that.
Countering the relatively healthy tofu dish comes out a massive bowl of Cajun Cavatelli (along with a tall glass of White Lager). This is one of those dishes that you know you shouldn't keep eating, but you do it anyway. Especially in winter. A generous portion of crawfish tails swim in an even more generous portion of spicy cream sauce, along with onions, garlic, red peppers, and poblanos. The cajun flavors are on point. I feel my stomach expanding.
Here comes Ayers, once again. I'm beginning to wish I had come in a disguise. I fear that I will be asleep midway through our interview in a few hours. Has she been keeping track of my Tweets, whining about wanting a banh mi? I don't know. But there's a banh mi in front of me, and resistance is futile. The French bread is filled with thinly-sliced pork loin and a five-spice rillette (I would eat this plain, and I'm notoriously picky about pates/rillettes), then your typical banh mi filling of quick pickled carrots, jalapenos, cilantro, and a sriracha aioli. It's not an absolutely traditional take on the sandwich, obviously, but I'm loving it.
I'm feeling a lot of things right now, but mostly what I'm feeling is my belly growing. I'm waiting for Ayers to pop out again so I can thank her then go nap on one of the booths before our interview, but when she shows up, she's not empty handed. No, my friends, she's holding something that I cannot resist, even in my fattened up state.
She's got a pizza.
And that pizza (made from a Kolsch dough) is covered in pesto, goat cheese, and roasted Ozark Forest Mushrooms, not those boring, flavorless button mushrooms. What is that? Oh god, there's an egg in the middle. I tell myself I'm only going to eat one piece, but then I eat almost half the pizza. I drink some Irish-style Extra Stout with it. The nutty, earthy pairing goes well together. Too well. I am a monster, but a happy one. People at the bar are turning around and looking at me. I hope I'm impressing them, but mostly, they look worried for me.
I beg Ayers to not bring me any more food, and mercifully, she obliges.
Bottleworks was a lunch staple for my family for years, but our visits have lessened over the last few years. Ayers and her team are working hard to revamp and push things forward, and the results were obvious. Her style is seasonally-driven, which should lead to Schlafly Bottleworks being a destination for a type of brewpub dining that you can't find elsewhere in the city. Especially in the recently-booming Maplewood area. I have faith.
Oh, and they're going to be unveiling their own housemade pretzels soon. Boy, they are good. Especially with that Hefeweizen cheese sauce.
Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming interview with Ayers and Hale for insight into the future of Bottleworks, what 2016 has in store for Schlafly on the beer side, and what their favorite meals of 2015 were.