Crafting the Future: A new brewery taps into the potential of the local beer scene

To me, it’s just a patch of grass, tiny – just big enough to fit maybe 25 people – and oddly located, only a few steps from the cars driving up and down busy Washington Avenue. But to Florian Kuplent, it’s the beginning of something. It’s long, wooden tables filled with customers, laughter and the clinking of beer mugs. It’s white gravel and shady chestnut trees, just like home. It’s festivals and barbecues and live music. To him, it’s a dream that’s finally coming to fruition.

When I met with Kuplent and his business partner, David Wolfe, to talk about Urban Chestnut Brewing Co., the new craft brewery they’re opening in Midtown later this year, they didn’t have much ready yet in terms of structure. The 1920s garage they had renovated for the brewing room was empty. A few dark wood tables and an unfinished bar were the scant population of what would one day be the tasting room, and the lab, in which Kuplent will one day mull over recipes, tasting and tweaking, was only a line of chalk.

Even when it’s finished – hopefully in November – it’ll be a long cry from the stainless steel tanks and historic halls of Anheuser-Busch. For the past several years, Kuplent and Wolfe called the brewing giant home – Kuplent in the brewing department, Wolfe in marketing, both working on a craft line of beers for Michelob. But within the past year, both left A-B and now, after more than 20 years in the brewing business, they’re starting over. And they couldn’t be more excited.

The philosophy behind Urban Chestnut is simple: combining old with new, honoring tradition while encouraging innovation. It’s a mission statement they call “beer divergency” and one that, for some, may seem contradicting, even confusing. But for Kuplent, a man whose life has been dedicated to the history of beer and whose passion is driven by beer’s ever-evolving potential, it’s the perfect fit.

Many who know Kuplent say he grew up around beer. He, however, put it differently. “You want to talk about the beers? I’ve lived them,” he said humbly. “I’ve worked with them. I don’t just know what they’re supposed to taste like or how I like them to taste, I know things about the brewing process other brewers might not know. I’ve lived them.”

Kuplent was born in Germany, where appreciating Belgian lagers was as imperative as going to church on Sunday. His father had his own dreams of brewing one day, and when he ended up in banking instead, he projected his brewing aspirations onto his son. By the age of 17, it was clear that Kuplent had no plans of disappointing his father.

By the time he wound up at A-B in St. Louis in 2002, he had worked in more than six breweries in four countries. He had received a master’s in brewing science from the University of Munich-Weihenstephan, one of the oldest and most renowned institutions offering such a program. He had learned all the practical aspects of brewing – the importance of the right equipment, the varieties of hops and malts, the perfect temperature for each phase of the brewing process. He had brewed traditional European lagers and less-traditional American styles. He had written and rewritten recipes, developing a palate that was trained to notice even the most subtle of differences between brews of the same style. He had, as he said, “lived beer.”

So when he was offered a job in A-B’s pilot brewery with the mission of new product development, he was ready. It was then that he met Wolfe, a native St. Louisan who had worked in A-B’s marketing department for more than 10 years. With their passion for beer evident – and their wives both pregnant – the two men sparked an instant friendship.

“It was fun, because we’d sit down and talk about what we wanted to do and collaborate,” Wolfe said affectionately. “We’d have input from the brewers’ side and the consumers, and at the same time, we’d tell them what we loved about beers we tasted. We’d talk about specific styles or ingredients we liked. They’d brew four or five, and we’d talk about what we liked and didn’t like – the nose here or the bitterness there. We really educated each other.”

Together, Wolfe and Kuplent created more than a half-dozen craft beers for Michelob, including the blueberry-based Wild Blue. Their creations garnered awards, including some from the Great American Beer Festival, the North American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. Kuplent was making a splash in the craft-beer world too, attending beer festivals, meeting other small brewers around the world and working with local brewers at the Heritage Festival in St. Louis.

But it wasn’t just the workplace that these two brewers had in common. They also shared a goal of one day brewing their own beer, under their roof, their way. “As I got more and more immersed in the total beer world outside of A-B, having learned a lot about craft beer and being a home brewer, we would talk at times about having a place of our own,” Wolfe said. “It’s creating something with your hands, doing something that you built yourself – and that’s exciting.”

But with enthusiasm comes competition – and plenty of it: Urban Chestnut will be the 15th microbrewery to open in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Wolfe doesn’t view this as an obstacle; instead, he sees great potential to launch in a city whose craft-beer scene is still in the early stages of development, a sentiment shared by other craft brewers in town. “It could increase tenfold and it wouldn’t be saturated,” said Schlafly chief brewer Stephen Hale. “A city this size can handle a lot more. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Besides, Wolfe’s got his secret weapon: Kuplent, whose expertise has earned him a solid reputation in the beer world. “I think he has the skills to bring a lot to the beer scene in St. Louis,” said Hale. “Anyone with his talents should bring a good dose of new energy to the business. He’s stellar. He’s organized, thoughtful and he knows his stuff.”

“I tease him about this all the time, but Florian’s path is so different than your typical craft brewer’s,” said Wolfe. “Oftentimes, a brewer is limited by the brewing system that’s brought in. Florian is having [brewing equipment] customized for how he wants to do things, with the flexibility to adjust to the different styles. We believe that means we’re going to be brewing great beer.”

That customized equipment will be installed in October, at which point Kuplent will fine-tune UCBC’s beer recipes, which currently exist “just in my head,” he said.

Still, he’s counting on his experience to set his beer apart. “In the brewing process, for instance, oxygen is a bad thing, so making sure your oxygen levels throughout the brewing process are being kept low is important. We’re also planning to use a system to acidify our mash and wort, getting the natural acids from the malts to the beer while it’s being brewed, which makes it softer and smoother and improves the taste and flavor of the beer.

“It’s little details, boring, boring technical stuff – how long does it take to heat something up or how fast can you cool something down. We want to keep the system as flexible as possible to really re-create different styles. Some beer styles are brewed with slightly different equipment depending on what location they were in or … the water that was in the location, so you can influence that.”

He also plans to play with ingredients. “There’s a lot of focus on hops [in the craft-brewing scene], and while we’ll certainly be brewing some beers with different hop varieties, there are a lot of different ingredients out there – whether it’s fruit or nuts or coffee – that you can use. Of course, you may have seen some of these, but I think there’s still … a lot of stuff that can be created.”

Urban Chestnut will offer two lines of beer: the more traditional European-style Reverence series and the modern-American, innovative Revolution series. For Revolution, Kuplent hopes to use new ingredients to shake up time-tested recipes, some dating as far back as the Middle Ages.

The microbrewery will launch with two beers – one from each series – and while they aren’t giving away any flavor notes just yet, the owners are making a few promises: “The Reverence series beer will be a lager style that most craft-beer drinkers haven’t experienced in St. Louis before,” Wolfe confirmed. “Then, for the Revolution series, we’re playing around with one ingredient in particular that will give it a little bit of a funky flavor.”

As soon as possible (if not immediately), those two beers will also be bottled and distributed to local restaurants, bars, liquor stores and groceries, part of an effort to develop the potential Kuplent and Wolfe see in St. Louis’ craft-beer scene. “There are a bunch of great brewpubs and craft breweries in St. Louis and even quite a few of them are doing some bottling, but most aren’t hitting the market with a lot of their bottle products,” Wolfe explained. “In St. Louis, there’s a lot of craft beer being purchased out there, but there’s an opportunity for local craft beers to have a greater market share of the overall craft-beer segment in St. Louis. ”

Hale agreed. “There’s a whole lot of beer consumed locally that isn’t made locally, and if we can get people to consume locally made beer, so much the better for us.”

When the brewery opens its doors this winter, the space at 3229 Washington Ave. will look quite different than it does today. The brewing area will be full of custom-made equipment. The tasting room will be filled with dark wood tables and handmade bars with 10 to 15 beers on tap (some its own, some from other local craft breweries). The lab in which Kuplent will write – and rewrite – recipes will be back behind the bar. And the biergarten will be able to seat at least 100, filled with narrow, long, wooden tables imported from Europe and shaded with chestnut trees. Kuplent and Wolfe, who plan to tend the bar as often as possible, will serve paired meat and cheese samplings, all sourced from local merchants.

But once the kegs are tapped and the beer is poured, how will these two men know if they’ve helped to grow the craft-beer scene here in St. Louis? To Kuplent, it’s about becoming part of an old tradition – and starting a new one. “If we can create interesting beers and people like them and we’re a part of the great beer community here, that would be the most rewarding. Hopefully we can brew beer for the next 20, 30, 40 years … that would be fantastic.”