Last month's news that Anheuser-Busch InBev is purchasing Chicago's Goose Island brewery is one more confirmation of the obvious: Craft beer is big business. According to the Brewers Association, a trade group, retail sales of craft beer grew by 12 percent from 2009 to 2010. In St. Louis you don't have to look far outside the shadow of the world's most iconic brewery to see evidence of this phenomenal growth. Over the past year, several craft breweries have opened or announced plans to do so, including Ferguson (formerly Hill) Brewing, Urban Chestnut, the Civil Life and 4 Hands. Meanwhile the Saint Louis Brewery, maker of Schlafly beer, is celebrating its twentieth birthday.
Six Row Brewing Company joined the fray at the very end of 2009. Though comparatively new, it has a direct link to the area's rich brewing history: The building, on Forest Park Avenue west of South Grand Boulevard, was once a part of the Falstaff Brewing complex. Besides the brewing operations, this structure houses a small pub where you can try one of Six Row's regular or seasonal styles and, as of a few months ago, order food.
The drinking and dining area is pitched somewhere between authentic pub and modern bar: There are dartboards — real, not electronic — on one wall, as well as flat-screen TV monitors tuned to ESPN or the Fox Soccer Channel. Brewing equipment gleams behind a glass partition. There is a bar, of course, and table seating for roughly three dozen.
Brewmaster Evan Hiatt is one of the six partners behind Six Row. (The name is a double pun — on the size of the partnership and a reference to a type of barley used in brewing.) Hiatt's beers range from an easy-drinking honey wheat to a hop-heavy, high-alcohol double IPA. If you want to try everything on tap, a sampler is available; if you're especially fond of a particular style, you can snag a growler to go.
The most intriguing beer might be the Whale, a happy accident of sorts, brewed as a trial run of the company's equipment without any intention of being a regular, let alone signature, offering. The name is a mashup of wheat and pale ale, and while it bears characteristics of both styles, the Whale's flavor is unique and complex, thanks in larger part to the inclusion of different malts in the recipe. It's a beer hardcore aficionados will enjoy discussing and craft-beer novices will simply enjoy.
The foreign extra stout, a seasonal selection, impressed me with its strong flavor, a definite note of coffee and a mild, plum-like sweetness. True to the stout style, the body isn't as heavy as the beer's dark color would suggest. (I intended to compare the foreign extra stout to Six Row's regular stout, but I couldn't differentiate between the two. As I reviewed my receipts later, I realized I'd mistakenly been served the foreign extra stout twice.)
The ESB (extra special bitter) was a decent representation of the style, a hint of malty sweetness and an edge of hops, but it is also representative of the dilemma facing new craft breweries. With the steep incline in the number of both craft breweries and craft-beer drinkers, individual breweries can no longer distinguish themselves solely by the fact of their existence. A perfectly acceptable beer like Six Row's ESB is also perfectly forgettable. And when a beer misfires, as Six Row's double IPA does, lacking the face-punch of hops for which double IPAs have become so popular, it stands out.
Operating as a brewpub, as opposed to a stand-alone brewery, gives Six Row another way to make its mark. The menu skips the gastropub trend of recent years in favor of a crowd-pleasing selection of starters, sandwiches and pizzas — the sort of food that you tend to crave after a beer or three.
The pizza is St. Louis-style, though the crust is a skosh thicker than the usual cracker style. I didn't see any mention of Provel (or "St. Louis pizza cheese") on the menu — when asked what kind of cheese was used, the server said "shredded" — so I was the unwitting victim of a Provel sneak attack. But if you don't object to the cheese product, you might find this a satisfying pie.
Sandwiches are straightforward constructions, which is no complaint. I liked the roast beef, topped with a tangy beer-cheddar sauce and red onions and then grilled panini-style. (You can also sample that beer-cheddar sauce alongside an order of soft pretzels from Companion Bakery as an appetizer.) The roasted-turkey "club" is also grilled, the mesquite-flavored meat served with Swiss cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and chipotle aioli.
Though a brewpub practically demands a burger on the menu, Six Row offers none. There is, however, a burger-size salmon "patty" served on a sourdough roll with that chipotle aioli, red onions and lettuce. The flavor is mild, the patty's exterior charred just to the point that you know that it was grilled, but not so much that the unpleasant flavor of even slightly overcooked salmon appears.
The online menu still mentions another beer-friendly staple, chicken wings, but they aren't on the printed menu. The chicken in the chicken nachos is tossed in Buffalo-style wing sauce and then drowned in melted cheese and sour cream. Which beer to pair with these Buffalo chicken nachos? Which to pair with any of Six Row's food?
Here is the true challenge facing Six Row as a full-fledged restaurant: Sure, you can find a beer — the Whale, I'd wager — that will pair well with most of these food items. But the beer and the food don't yet complement each other. For now, at least, the restaurant side of Six Row feels like an afterthought. Which is a shame, because it has the most potential to call attention to Six Row's beer in an increasingly noisy marketplace.