Stephen Hale & KT Ayers
One of the keys to a successful interview is proper research beforehand. It's what professionals (like me) do. You want to channel your inner Diane Sawyer or Howard Stern. You need to understand the people you're talking to. That's why, in preparation for my conversation with Schlafly's Ambassador Brewer, Stephen Hale, and Executive Chef of Schlafly Bottleworks, KT Ayers, I ate and drank a fairly substantial amount beforehand. It wasn't for pleasure, I can assure you. No, sir, eating that mushroom and pesto pizza with a tall glass of White Lager was all work, no play.
I researched so hard that I found myself expressing Charlie Rose levels of excitement when the interview began. Fortunately, Hale and Ayers needed little in the way of questioning to discuss their backgrounds, their thoughts on the ever-growing beer scene, and their favorite places to eat in St. Louis.
KT Ayers: I've been cooking since I could reach the counter. My parents opened Riddles Restaurant in the late '70s. In '85, they moved it to UCity and it became Riddles Penultimate Cafe and Wine Bar. I’m not sure my dad had a plan for why it was called "Penultimate."
Stephen Hale: It was his almost last restaurant! Maybe he’ll pull one out yet…
KA: That’s what he was telling people. I cooked there my whole life, and eventually started getting paid for it. He used to throw ingredients at me—not literally—and I'd have to make use of them, sometimes racing against over-ripening or other factors.
SH: It’s always fun to talk to people in St. Louis because 6 degrees of separation here is a lot, because it’s even smaller than that. My wife, Sara Hale, who brewed, wrote the newsletter, and made the very first website for Schlafly, she and her sister started Fair Shares CCSA. One of their suppliers is Eat Here St. Louis, owned and operated by Andy Ayers, KT's father! Not only that, but Riddles became one of my early favorite restaurants here. They had a beer dinner that stands as one of the best I ever went to.
KA: I bet I can remember the year.
SH: It would have been the late 1990’s.
KA: 1998. I was really intimidated years ago by the wine and beer pairing dinners. I was young, working on these dinners before I was 21. My dad partnered up with Au Bon Climat winery for one, so I did some research—they had done dinners at Les Halles and Gramercy Tavern!—and was really intimidated. I thought, “I’m not at that level!” The point was made to me that good food, simply prepared, can hold its head high around any table. And that's true.
SH: Stephen Hale, Schlafly brewer since October of 1991, two months before we opened the Tap Room downtown. Dan Kopman and I were college classmates at Kenyon College. Eight years after graduation, he called me in Maine to see if I wanted to move out here to brew beer and I said yes, and I moved out sight unseen.
My background is home brewing—since 1979, if you want to do the math. I was in production and operations for 22 years, and since October 2013, I've been Schlafly's Ambassador Brewer. I like that title because it sums up a lot of what I do: traveling, talking to people, beer dinners, taproom takeovers. Not much hands on brewing anymore.
I live in Soulard, and when the wind blows just right, I still love that aroma from a little brewery down on Pestalozzi street...
SH:The food scene right now—unbelievable. A lot of outsiders who come are blown away that St. Louis has such an amazing scene. It’s happening all over the country, but we’re lucky to have some unbelievable people cooking here.
My wife and I did a double-header this year: Peacemaker then Sidney Street. Is that a Spencer thing to do? We kept it light at both places. Those bourbon slushies at Peacemaker...man. I love the vibe, I love the po'boys, and I love the Nashans. What else? Farmhaus.
KA: I really like Farmhaus.
SH: It's great. Taste. Brasserie. Franco. Niche, of course. There are too many to name. Capitalist Pig, all the great barbecue places; and although he may not know it, I'm one of Andy White's biggest fans, the man is incredible.
KA: I found myself at Element a number of times. I also frequently find myself at Taqueria Durango. I go there about twice a month because they’ve got some really good tacos. I’m tickled that Guerrilla Street Food has opened a brick & mortar. We used to work together, so I would steal a lot of chicken adobo. But now I can go get it! Oh, I just had some really good goat at De Palm Tree.
A Growing Industry
SH: The count of breweries open and operating is close to 4,200. 24 years ago, when we opened, the only other breweries in Missouri were A-B and Boulevard. We were the first brewpub in Missouri, and we were the first brewery to open in St. Louis since Prohibition. (Now, as part of the 4-year old STL Brewers Guild, there are more than 42 members.) We hit a bubble in the mid-to-late '90s. A lot of breweries in this country were opened by people who saw green but did not do a good job. They didn’t have the background experience. They didn’t have a Dan Kopman or a Tom Schlafly.
I remember meeting in the Club Room at the Tap Room with Tom and Sara, sitting down and filling out the schedule for the dozen or so beers we were brewing in the '90s. We realized there were a lot of types of beer out there. Keep in mind, there were 320 breweries open in the country. The thing known as the internet wasn’t in the public domain. We traveled and tried beers. You could get Belgian beers, you could get sour beers, but not with the prevalence you can now, by any stretch.
Hop-Heads They Are Not
SH: I like balance when I’m drinking, which is why I’m not a hop head. I’ll drink them, I appreciate what they are, but I won’t order a lot. Not that I pay for beer that often these days; why do you think I got into this business?!
KA: The trend of competitive hoppiness and ABV...I’m not really into it. I want to enjoy myself!
SH: It can be a lupulin-strength contest (lupulin is the active oil in hops). I’d like to think that Schlafly Beer brews traditional beer styles with a pretty solid core of very drinkable beers that span a spectrum that can make almost any beer drinker happy. That includes the fringes—beers that excite experienced beer drinkers and bring new ones into the fold, whether they be sours, barrel aged, high alcohol, or anything in between.
SH:Our whole portfolio has in the neighborhood of 70 beers this year, including the year-rounds. We're adding the Grapefruit IPA to year-rounds. We’ve been diligent about seasonals. I’m pretty excited about the Double Bean Blonde. I keep thinking it’s a stout because it’s got coffee and chocolate in it, but you pour a glass of it and it’s a blonde. It’s a beautiful head twister.
Farmhouse IPA is another I’m excited for. It’s basically a Saison, farmhouse style beer, dry-hopped but not heavily dry-hopped. Really delightful beer. I’m very excited about Sticky Toffee Porter. It was the original dessert when the Taproom opened and it’s still on the menu. It’s the only food item on both menus at the Taproom and Bottleworks. You can’t come here and never try it.
KA: When I sat down with Andy [White] about menu changes, I asked if there was anything that’s untouchable. He said, “No. Wait! The sticky toffee has to stay!”
I didn’t want to rock the boat too hard [taking over as Bottleworks' executive chef in November]. I’ve got some dishes that are signatures of mine, and I’ve got a style that is really seasonally dependent. But I do want to be fresh, inviting, and interesting. I don’t want to be snobby and alienating. I don’t want someone to wonder, “what can I eat?”
Part of Bottleworks' identity is celebrating, utilizing, and making good pairings with the beer. Local sourcing and buying "happy meat," like Stephen mentioned, which is so much easier than it used to be. I mean, c'mon, we have farmers markets here! If Nicola [MacPherson] from Ozark Forest Mushrooms shows up with chanterelles, we're getting them. (SH: "Mmmmm"). We’ve got our garden out back. We get to essentially plant ratatouille right outside.
I would like to maintain the casual comfort feel, but make sure it’s destination worthy. We don't need to reinvent the pretzel. We're just going to make a really good pretzel! There’s no reason not to drive across town to get some really great locally-grown food, paired with some delicious beer that made right here in Maplewood.
SH:There’s some background at this pretzel that most people at this company don’t know about. Getting pretzels on the menu...
Hale and Ayers continued their conversation, discussing the history of Schlafly's pretzels, the future of Schlafly's pretzels, and the merits of beer cheese until until Ayers had to head back into the kitchen to prep for dinner service. Listening to these two discuss their passion—food and drink—for well over an hour was an absolute pleasure. Make sure to stop by the Bottleworks to try Ayers' new menu while drinking a Grapefruit IPA in Hale's honor.