Cellarman Steve Crider: Serious beer doesn't have to be serious
Mullineaux, Saison, 6-percent ABV
In 1999, Charlene Mullineaux Crider bought her son, Steve, a homebrewing kit for Christmas, a gift that not only changed his life, but served as the impetus for great beer for Missouri and a growing portion of the nation.
What might have resulted in the usual new homebrewer routine (bottling two or three batches of mediocre beer and then dismissing the apparatus to the basement to collect dust), for Steve Crider, had a different effect.
“In three months, I was unhappily obsessed,” said Crider. “I read and studied everything.”
By Thanksgiving, Crider had 10 taps and 42 kegs of homebrew. He was making beer so fast (20 to 40 gallons a week), he couldn’t find enough friends to drink it all, which says a lot – his friends like beer. Soon he had three temperature-controlled deep freezes: one set for fermenting, one set for crashing the beer and one for serving.
Fast-forward to 2006 when Crider and his uncle were driving across southern Utah. At the time, Crider, like his father and grandparents before him, was working as a machinist, a welder, a self-described jack-of-all-trades. During one of his turns behind the wheel, his uncle suggested Crider open a brewery. “I said, ‘Nah, that wouldn’t work,’ and he said, ‘Fuck it! Do it!’”
So he did. But first, because Crider had never worked in the service industry, he went to Chicago to take a course in how to own a brewery. In 2008, with approval from the Tobacco Trade Bureau and the state of Missouri, a brand-new microbrewery license and now nearly 10 years of homebrew experience, Crider finally felt ready to open a brewpub in St. Louis.
But instead, he landed at Cedar Creek Center, a corporate conference and retreat space in New Haven, Missouri, which isn’t quite as random as it sounds. At the time, Crider was working at Cedar Creek Center, heading up building projects and maintaining the grounds.
“I can make anything out of metal or wood,” he said. (Or grain and hops, we’d like to add.)
The folks at Cedar Creek Center offered him the space, so he built what would become 2nd Shift Brewing, a production facility that would provide beer to Town Hall Restaurant on Cedar Creek’s premises and a home to his cats, nicknamed Albino Pygmy Puma and El Gato Grande. Namesake for two beers which came later, you may also recognize them from 2nd Shift’s social media, where they can be seen sitting on aging barrels, perched on top of a ladder, casually riding a pallet jack and hanging out in a fermentation tank.
Art of Neurosis, American IPA, 7.6-percent ABV
In November 2010, Crider released his first beer, Art of Neurosis, to the public. The name comes from Crider working on it for what felt like “forever” – 30 different renditions – until he thought it was right.
St. Louis beer blogs, message boards and social media platforms also felt he had gotten it right, many citing it the best IPA they’d ever tasted. Beer Advocate gave it a very good score of 88 out of 100. Not bad for a homebrewer’s first commercial release out of a tiny operation facility no one had ever heard of.
“The first beer is supposed to be horrible,” Crider said. “I wish I had that story. You’re supposed to. But I’ve never made a gross beer – not a bad, bad beer, not technically.”
Since Crider is considered one of the more experimental brewers in the area, it makes one wonder how he can’t produce at least some crappy products. After all, only months after releasing the highly lauded Art of Neurosis, he already had barrels of brews aging and funkifying with wild yeasts.
Perhaps what makes Crider great instead of just good is that he lives in the space between being unafraid of failure and being technique- and research-obsessed enough that he won’t allow himself to fail.
“He’s the most curious person I’ve ever met,” said his wife and co-owner, Libby Crider. “If he gets addicted, he’s going to be the best at it. He’s going to give it 135 percent.”
And if a beer doesn’t work? “He wants to hear how much you hate it,” Libby said. “He loves it when people tell him they hate his beer because he’s invoked a passionate response. He says, ‘Good. My beer isn’t middle-of-the-road.’ If you’re ‘meh,’ then he wants to know why and what you think. He’s like a 3-year-old. He always wants to know why.”
Katy, American Brett saison, 5.4-percent ABV
In early 2012, Crider released Katy, named after the Katy Trail that runs along the river across from Cedar Creek. Crider described Katy simply as a “Brett beer.” Brett, or Brettanomyces, is a wild yeast strain that can be added to beer for a touch of funkiness and complexity. Katy is aged three months in oak barrels, which, along with the Brett, give it wine-like notes and an effervescence that makes it both delicate and refreshing.
While nowadays experimenting with Brett is commonplace, in 2011 Crider was one of the first, if not the first, local brewer to put one out. And again, the beer nerds were buzzing.
But Crider hasn’t stopped tinkering with Katy. Last year, Libby bought 250 pounds each of peaches and blackberries, and Steve added them to some barrels of Katy. This year, she bought 260 pounds of organic raspberries, so he’s doing the same. “Brett eats sugars from the fruits, but it’s not a fruity beer. The fruits that come in here also have wild yeasts, which are risky,” he said.
For Crider, his risky infatuation with wild yeasts is one of the best parts of brewing. While many strains of yeast have been isolated and cultured over the centuries so brewers can have total control with their recipes, it’s the untamed yeasts Crider seeks out. Even though they’re hard to manage and have the capability of making a beer undrinkable (think notes of horse poop and cat urine), they also have the potential to make a beer truly remarkable.
“That’s the fun of it – that’s the art side. There’s the technical side and the artistic side. The artistic side is the best part.”
“Every beer you drink you can get inspired by,” Crider said. “A lot of brewers won’t say, ‘I had beer X and I want to make one like it.’ No one wants to admit it. But everyone does it. You wouldn’t come up with dark chocolate if you had never had it before.”
As for Katy, though, Crider thinks it might be an original and sees it as a good entry point to funky beer. “I still don’t know if I’ve had one like it yet,” he said. “But I’m not saying that’s good, bad, right or wrong.”
P.A.R.K.A.S., Barrel-Aged Sour, 6.2-percent ABV
For years it’s just been Steve and Libby at 2nd Shift. “We do everything,” Steve said. “It’s a tough business to make money. We are literally just breaking even. We try to take one day off a month, but usually it just becomes a half-day.”
Yet, the Criders wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve never gotten up at 4 a.m. and said, ‘Shit I have to go to work,’” said Steve. “I get to go build a brewery!”
“We love what we do,” seconded Libby, even the parts of the job that involve cleaning kegs and scrubbing floors.
Part of what makes the grind fun is the couple’s commitment to not taking themselves too seriously. One of Steve’s brews, named by Libby, is P.A.R.K.A.S., made in collaboration with Cory King of Side Project Brewing. It stands for Puppies and Rainbows, Kittens and Shit. “You know,” Libby said, as if this made total sense, “rainbows blowing out of your asshole.”
While Libby agrees with the public’s perception that Steve is a total free spirit (“He’s lived 10,000 lives before we even met; he does what he wants”) she was quick to point out that he takes his family and brewery very seriously – just nothing else.
“It makes him happy to see people having fun. He’s the good-time facilitator,” Libby said. “We just want to make good beer.”
Annabelle, Farmhouse Brett, 4.8-percent ABV
And now there is a third Crider to add to the mix, Annabelle, Steve and Libby’s infant daughter.
With the addition of Annabelle and the Criders’ desire to finally turn a profit, they knew their tenure at Cedar Creek was nearing its end. After searching for almost two years, looking at more than 30 buildings, the Criders found a new home. Come this fall, they will open their 13,000-square-foot production facility and tasting room on The Hill.
“It’s incredibly bittersweet,” said Libby. “This is our home, this is the area that fostered us.” In homage to their first home as a brewery, the Criders plan on always holding their annual summer beer festival out at Cedar Creek.
Even though another brewery in St. Louis doesn’t seem profound, for St. Louis beer drinkers, this one is. (On the day the Criders made the announcement to move 2nd Shift to St. Louis, they were trending on social media over the Cardinals and Blues – and the Blues were in the playoffs).
With the move, the Criders hired Mike Sweeney, founder of St. Louis Craft Beer Week and the STL Hops blog, to take over operations, so that Steve can spend more time with his beers and release some self-described “freaky stuff.” And now Libby can cross cellarman, gopher and at least a few other of the thousand job titles off her list.
But the move to the city and the addition of more staff doesn’t mean the Criders will rest much. During 2nd Shift’s first year, Steve made 250 barrels of beer (one barrel equals 55 gallons). Last year, the Criders produced 750 barrels; this year they are on track to produce 1,300, and next year they are hoping for 3,000 with the help of the larger St. Louis facility. Yet, becoming gigantic is not their end goal. “At 5,000 barrels, we want to plateau,” said Libby. “We never not want to work in the brewery.”
“It’s just what we do,” Steve agreed, over the sounds of Annabelle’s coos as she wiggled on his desk. “It becomes your life. She’s going to take this stuff over.”
And she just might. Even now, she refuses to be maneuvered into any sort of baby carrier, preferring Steve’s hip as he brews. “Just like Steve,” said Libby, “she can’t be restrained. I tried everything. That child wants to be free.”
Funky Phoque, aged wild ale, 5.5-percent ABV
One morning in late July, in the middle of a heat wave, hundreds of people stood sweating inside a warehouse with no air conditioning and no seating. Why? At noon 2nd Shift would release its newest beer, Funky Phoque, at the site of its soon-to-open tasting room.
Just after noon, Steve Crider climbed to the top of a 10-foot ladder standing incongruously in the middle of the empty warehouse and let out an ear-piercing whistle. The call to attention didn’t do much good in the cavernous space reverberating with hundreds of people’s conversations.
Unperturbed, Crider shouted out information about the new beer and plans for the layout of the new production facility and tasting room. Maybe he talked about how Funky Phoque was aged 17 months in French oak with a mixed wild yeast culture of Brett, Pedio and Lacto. Maybe he described the tart and funky beer, with its notes of white wine and oak – who knows?
Finally, someone in the crowd yelled, “We can’t hear you!”
So Crider cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted back, “Get drunk!” before descending the ladder.
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