by Cheryl Baehr
Martin Toft IV laughs when he recalls his first foray into making beer. "It was awful. Technically, I suppose it was beer. I don't know why I kept going with it, but it eventually got better," he says.
It certainly did. As a brewer and brewery manager at 4 Hands Brewing Company (1220 South Eight Street; 314-436-1559), Toft is responsible for some of St. Louis' finest craft beers.
Under his watch, 4 Hands has grown from a small operation with just a few-barrel capacity into a major operation -- not bad for a former philosophy and psychology major who started messing around with home brewing while in college. "I was just sitting in my apartment [in Indiana] with my roommate when a show about home brewing popped on TV," recalls Toft. "Something just clicked. Within ten minutes, I was ordering equipment."
Toft thought of home brewing as a hobby, but during "one of those existential crises that all philosophy majors go through," the budding beer maker decided to follow his passion back to St. Louis where he began interning at some of the city's local breweries. He went on to study brewing at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and its sister school in Munich, the Doemens Academy. Upon his return to St. Louis, he was introduced to Kevin Lemp through Stephen Hale of Schlafly Beer. Lemp was getting ready to launch 4 Hands and needed an assistant brewer. Fortunately for Toft, his first batches for Lemp turned out way better than his original home brews.
Toft took a break from brewing to share his thoughts on the St. Louis beer scene and the one ingredient you'll never see in his beers.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? Before I started making beer I was planning on going to law school. I come from a family full of attorneys, and it just seemed like the logical choice. Thankfully, I changed my mind once I got into home brewing. Law is a wonderful profession, but my job is a lot more fun.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Enjoying a cup of coffee and writing down a daily to-do list. There are always a hundred different things going on simultaneously at the brewery, and I'm easily sidetracked. If I don't take a minute to get some caffeine in my system and set a list of priorities, I don't think I'd ever get anything accomplished.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I think teleportation would be pretty cool. I love to travel, but driving and flying are two of my least favorite things. If I could snap my fingers and end up on the other side of the planet, without having to deal with airport security, that would be amazing.
What is the most positive trend in brewing that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? Experimentation. Recently I've noticed a surge of interesting and innovative beers being produced by almost every brewery in St. Louis. I think that there is some really exciting progress being made in barrel-aging and sour beer in particular.
Who is your St. Louis beer crush? Steve Crider [of 2nd Shift Brewing]. Not only does he make amazing beer, but he's one of the funniest guys you'll ever meet.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis brewing scene? Jonathan Moxey at Perennial. He's already made some really fantastic beers, and I think we'll see even more interesting things from him in the future.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Hops. Particularly the beautifully citrusy and tropical hops that are coming out of the Pacific Northwest right now. I don't know that they're representative of my personality, per se, but they are by far my favorite ingredient to work with.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' brewing climate, what would you say? It's growing. Fast. We've seen a lot of breweries open up in the past few years, and there are even more in the planning stages. St. Louis has always been a beer town and now it's really becoming a craft beer town.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your brewery. At this point, I don't really know. It seems like every time I decide that there's one ingredient I just can't stand, someone brews a beer with it and it turns out great. In the past couple months I've tried a bloody mary beer, a beer brewed with breakfast cereal, and a homebrew where the guy threw whole candy bars right into the kettle. They were all delicious. When people are doing things like that, it's hard to rule anything out. Right now, I'm totally against the idea of putting habanero in a beer, but I'm sure someone will prove me wrong.
What is your after work hangout? Actually, it's 4 Hands. I know it sounds strange, but I usually end up finishing my work and hanging out at the brewery. I'm fortunate enough to work with an amazing team of people who are dedicated to making great beer. I really enjoy drinking that beer with them at the end of the day. It also doesn't hurt that we drink for free.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? I drink Busch sometimes. Don't tell anyone.
What would be your last beer on earth? Bell's Two Hearted. I love that beer.