How Abbey Spencer went from homebrewer to head brewer at Third Wheel Brewing
The second beer Abbey Spencer ever brewed was terrible. It was a porter she made using one of those homebrewing kits – the kind where you just add water and hops and let it do its thing.
She had just moved to St. Louis from Chicago and found herself at the back bar at Cicero's with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Benn Overkamp. “The bartender gave us a bunch of samples of all these crazy craft beers,” Spencer recalled. “He mentioned that Cicero's had this free beer school, which, you know, was unheard of at that time. So we started showing up at this class. I got sucked in.”
A fellow classmate told her about the homebrewing kits, and soon Spencer brewed her first beer – a “drinkable” wheat. The second? That less drinkable porter. So she dumped it but kept brewing. Soon she had made more great beer than she and Overkamp could ever drink, so she started having parties – lots of parties – for her friends and family.
“I’m not saying [they were] ragers,” Spencer chuckled. It was a bunch of beer nerds with written descriptions of the brews. “Just nerding out left and right.”
As Spencer immersed herself in the local craft beer scene, working at the Flying Saucer and Craft Beer Cellar and hanging out at beer bars like The Stable, she started to notice how often men would order for their girlfriends and wives. It made Spencer think about women’s place in the craft beer movement.
In 2014, she co-founded The OG, an organization dedicated to educating and getting women involved in craft beer. They started hosting brewing demos, guest speakers and events for women interested in beer.
Spencer had made a name for herself – and not only through community involvement. Just two months after she dumped that first porter, she made another and began to medal with it at competitions, calling it Redemption Porter.
In 2016, The Stable’s former owner, Brad Wheeling, approached her about working at a St. Peters brewery he was opening with partners. They had met years earlier, when Spencer and Overkamp could be found at The Stable most Fridays for pizza and a few drafts. Wheeling had been out of the beer scene for a few years after selling The Stable and its small-scale brew operation, Amalgamated Brewing, but he’d been attending Spencer’s homebrew parties and was impressed with the quality she was turning out.
She was stoked. She had been doing mostly front-of-house work and was excited to help open the place. “He’s like, ‘Nope! We would like you to brew.’ I mean, I think my jaw just dropped. I was not expecting that at all. I was just a little homebrewer in Dogtown. So I asked him to let me think about it. I figured if I said no, that would probably be one of my biggest regrets ever.”
Wheeling was so sold on her beer that his partners didn’t share Spencer’s hesitation. “She was the hardest person to convince!” he said. “With her personality and her beer, I knew she was the right person for the job. Every time, the next beer she made was better than the last.”
In 2017, Third Wheel Brewing opened its doors with Spencer as head brewer. She focused on what she did best: “unique takes on classic styles and classic takes on unique styles.” She wasn’t going to be a trendsetter. She wanted to focus on quality, make beer she felt proud of – beer she wanted to drink. Included in that list was the Redemption Porter, this time renamed for its new home: Saint Peters’ Porter.
Third Wheel was St. Peters’ first brewery, and for this Bud-heavy town, the learning curve was bigger than Spencer and her partners expected. “You have all these people from the St. Charles, St. Peters, O’Fallon areas coming in,” Spencer said. “They see a bar, they see it's a beer bar, and they want Bud Light. And that's because so many of them had not been exposed to the small microbrewery, brewpub environment.”
But the partners trudged through it, and around the six-month mark, they saw a shift. Suddenly, there was excitement about them being there. The age of the Third Wheel customer dropped dramatically. They started hearing things like, “We’re just so glad we don’t have to cross the river every weekend.”
“Our business out here is about creating this community of our locals, our neighbors,” Spencer said proudly. “Those who are coming in every day and sitting at our bar – it’s not people traveling from the city out here.”
Today, Third Wheel beer is hitting drafts in Columbia and will soon pour from taps at more bars in St. Peters and St. Charles too. Spencer is learning to can and playing around with beers inspired by the creativity of the cocktail scene, like Sloe Clap, her take on a sloe gin fizz brewed with plum puree, juniper berries, lemon peel and lots of creamy lactose.
“Coming in in the beginning and just being so overwhelmed – so much fear and so much anxiety – and now, being two-and-a-half years in, looking back on me freaking out about my abilities and my capabilities,” Spencer said. “You know, I just want to hug her and tell her, ‘You’re going to be OK. It’s fine. There are so many people to help you. It’s gonna be great.’”
Preparing to open Third Wheel, Spencer apprenticed with Cat Golden at Mark Twain Brewing Co. and Jared Sefill and Rick Hagen at Heavy Riff Brewing Co. on her days off from Craft Beer Cellar. They held her hand, taught her the ropes and let her pepper them with questions about the business and how to brew on a large-scale system.
Before the brewery opened, Spencer also joined Pink Boots, a national society committed to the advancement of women in the beer industry. She’s active in the new St. Louis chapter and is still a member of The OG as well. As a co-founder, she raised funds, collaborated with areas brewers to put real beer out into the world and, most importantly, she has seen the landscape shift.
“There’s a lot of women in beer,” Spencer explained happily. “I do feel like the conversation has started to change a little bit. I don’t want to ever say it’s an irrelevant conversation because we’re still paid less and we’re still seen less – especially in production rolls. Women owners are still few and far between. It’s still a relevant conversation, but we have a lot more resources than we did.
“It feels good that these conversations can be moved out from these small rooms with just a handful of us to larger spaces, more public domains – and it’s not just women talking to women anymore. It’s women and men and people of color, LGBTQ people trying to push the craft community to be much more inclusive of everybody across the board.”
And now, as another way to give back to the community, Spencer took on a faculty position at Saint Louis University’s new brewing science and operations program. She has a course called Flavor, Quality Control and Sensory Evaluation alongside other local brewing pros, teaching students how to improve their palates and accurately judge beer in preparation for their first cicerone test.
Beer education is one of Spencer’s biggest passions. She has always been a teacher. When she lived in Chicago, she oversaw a nonprofit program teaching English, civics and more to immigrants. She developed an education program for staff at Craft Beer Cellar when she was there and has always focused on training staff in her industry jobs.
“For me, to be approached by Troika Brodsky [director of the SLU program] – it’s one of the biggest honors ever. To be in that environment, especially to be teaching alongside these guys I’ve idolized for years – Mitch Turner [sales director at Major Brands] is teaching, and he’s the one that really inspired me.”
Turner taught at the old Cicero’s beer school Spencer attended when she moved to St. Louis and was part of the reason she became a certified cicerone. “I wanted to do what he was doing; now he’s a colleague of mine. You can imagine how I feel about that. I totally fan-girled out hard.”
Among all the beers Spencer has on tap at Third Wheel, the Saint Peters’ Porter is still her favorite. Using almost the same recipe she redeemed herself with after dumping that first porter, it’s proof-positive that after years in the industry, Spencer’s impact on the local scene – and her beer – aren’t going anywhere.
Stacy Schultz is a longtime contributor to Sauce Magazine.
More stories like this
Checking in with… Tai Nalewajko and Paul Fullerton of Takashima Records
In our new column, Checking in with…, we caught up with Paul Fullerton and Tai Nalewajko ...
What I Do: Jillian Tedesco of Fit-Flavors
Jillian Tedesco went from personal trainer to CEO and founder of flourishing St. Louis-based meal prep ...