Civilization began because of beer. Not until early man stumbled upon patches of slurpable grain made wet by rain and fermented by yeast -- perhaps as much as 10,000 years ago, some say -- did he find potent reason to abandon his nomadic ways for the stationary, interdependent life of a farmer and to cultivate the crops necessary to swill at will. Connecting the dots from that sociological innovation through the alcohol-fueled pillaging of the Vikings (dubbed "the most beer-drunken people that have ever lived" by cultural anthropologist Alan Eames), the inebriated yet still fruitful reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I (noted to have favored a breakfast of bread and ale), the Pilgrims and early colonial taverns, any thorough beer history must wend its way through America's brewing capital: us. The Lemp family business started here in the 1840s and is widely regarded as the first to bring lighter, golden-hued lagers to American taste buds. By the 1860s, St. Louis was a city of 40 suds-houses -- Anheuser-Busch only the 29th largest among them that year, though it would become the first national beer brand in 1880 and achieve world domination by the time the World's Fair rolled around.
Picturing what foods such primitive boozehounds sopped up with, it's easy to imagine crude stews, freshly defeathered fowl and game that's still registering a pulse, beans, grains and potatoes stirred in cast-iron cauldrons over open fires, fish straight out the stream -- real frontiersman, fat-of-the-land stuff. In this way, the large and curious menu at the five-month-old Schlafly Bottleworks not only makes sense but reads like a homage to olden days. At the Schlafly Tap Room, the Bottleworks' downtown-dwelling big brother, the fare flops between classic British pub grub (rarebit, ploughman's plates, liverwurst sandwiches, meat pies, fish and chips) and more chichi fare (pâté, organic portobello mushroom sandwich). Bottleworks instead seems to strive for a new kind of semi-casual heartland cuisine, New American meets Old West: smoked trout, venison chili, a "greens & grains" salad, sardine sandwiches.
Perusing the Bottleworks menu was great fun. It made me want to enroll in grad school and draft up a thesis on the evolution of American food and beer and their countless geographic, agricultural and cultural influences. The sole drawback was that reading about the food was occasionally more fun than actually eating it.
Housed along with Schlafly's new bottling operation in a former supermarket just off the two main drags of downtown Maplewood, the Bottleworks building offers several seating options: in the bar area, outside on the patio (which has its own bar and where waits for a table recently hit two hours on weekends, as reservations aren't accepted) and inside a cavernous main dining area that feels a little like a high-school cafeteria. Along one side is the open-air kitchen -- usually a nice touch, but the room is so big it defeats the setup's intimate purpose. Considering how much ingenuity appears to have gone into the menu, the décor scheme lacks verve and doesn't build upon the Tap Room's nostalgic, red-brick charm (here the walls are painted muted tones of maroon and green). Since most of the brewing equipment is not visible from the restaurant (you can see it if you take a tour), the most interesting thing going at the Bottleworks, as far as charm, is checking out the board games available in the study-like waiting area. (They have Candy Land! And Chutes and Ladders!)
One problem with the food: It often doesn't carry intense enough flavors, and therefore registers as nothing special. The "bowl o'nuts" -- a mix of roasted almonds, pecans and walnuts -- fends off hunger but accomplishes little else. A beer bread appetizer did boast a great, greasy crust and tasted just like cornbread but without the loose texture; it was served with a lip-smacking chive-cheddar butter but also a blue cream cheese that somehow managed to offer no hint of blue cheese. Crawfish cakes featured salty-sweet bits held together with quinoa (a grain known for its blandness) and were topped by a lemon sour cream that tasted a lot like the blue cream cheese, in that it carried not a trace of lemon. A bacon-wrapped filet of beef ordered medium but served blood-red likewise failed to capitalize on its spotlight ingredient. In fact, what stole the show on that plate were two skewers of grilled vegetables (which can be ordered à la carte as a side dish) that featured wonderfully savory cremini mushrooms and sweet red onions. The "ultimate" grilled cheese sandwich -- baby Swiss and white cheddar on sourdough -- was good (could grilled cheese ever be bad?) but too staid to deserve its superlative moniker.
Other items falter because their flavors are too intense. Served on a John Boos cutting board (the industry standard, manufactured in Effingham, Illinois), the farmer's platter appetizer paired a boring baguette with a generous portion of luscious Wisconsin Muenster (served properly, at room temperature). But the platter was done in by an acidic peach chutney that called to mind cleaning solution and chorizo reminiscent of what you'd find in a slinger. Another appetizer, goat cheese dip, refused to leave plenty delicious alone: Blended with roasted red peppers until it assumed a yellow-orange hue, the viscous substance that resulted was like goat cheese whiz. In the "Crusty the Trout" entrée, none of the fish's essence emerged out from under a hefty layer of breading, while a "grain blend" (quinoa, black barley and kamut) served on the side tasted like pure salt. A similar fate befell the lamb skewers, so candied they may as well have been yams, sitting in a pool of curried raisin-almond couscous that tasted like sugary breakfast cereal left standing in milk too long.
But oh, has the Bottleworks provided a home for buffalo lovers to roam! This kitchen knows its way around a bison. Both the burger and the meat loaf showcase the lean meat's deeper flavor, furthering the case that cows ought to take a back seat. Little on the menu outranks the bison meat loaf entrée, accompanied by two standout side dishes (also available separately). Pan-fried corn lives up to its description: "simple, creamy and delicious"; potatoes au gratin, baked with smoked Gouda, is one of the most delectable things ever done to a spud. A short list of personal pizzas -- along with pastas, the menu's departure point from more down-home fare -- makes for lovely shareable appetizers or a meal. Particularly the pesto chicken pizza: Absent tomato sauce but loaded with smoked chicken, pesto, kalamata olives, spinach, feta and (hooray!) pine nuts, it's positively Greek-looking in presentation and flavor, and a wonderful item.
I also loved the house salad, a ridiculously simple bowl of large lollo rossa and red oak leaves tossed with a few thick cucumber slices, a plump cherry tomato and a delicate vinaigrette made with Schlafly hefeweizen. The menu notes that the lettuce was grown hydroponically, suspended in nutrient-fortified water rather than rooted in soil, which eliminates the need for pesticides to stave off weeds and bugs. This is just one example of how the folks behind the Bottleworks are admirably aiming for something worthwhile, something mutually beneficial to them, their patrons and the community at large. They serve Heinz's organic ketchup (which I didn't even know existed). The bison, pecans, field greens, black beans and many other provisions are likewise organic. They offer beer-pairing suggestions alongside many menu items (and, as most St. Louisan suds lovers will attest, Schlafly brews marvelous beer) and proudly list on the back the names and locations of their local purveyors. They host a farmer's market in the parking lot on Wednesday and movie screenings inside one or two nights a month, and they've recently inaugurated an on-site community garden from which they pull chard, kale, basil and chives.
Like modern Rome -- or, for that matter, the downtown Maplewood renaissance -- the Bottleworks needn't be built in a day. With a bit of kitchen-tweaking, the one less than applause-worthy facet of Schlafly's beer-brewing mini-empire ought to catch up to the rest.