Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 60 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
American beer has history. Through the grain grown in the Midwest plains and the hops from the Pacific Northwest lend the character of the nation to the beers they create. But most importantly, the history of American beer is a history of people.
Circumstances, fate and a certain business prowess have made the Busch family a predominant name around the St. Louis area, but Budweiser is not the only beer with deep historical roots, nor is Busch the only family with a legacy.
At Augusta Brewing Company, Terry and Jeri Heisler are keeping a family history alive by moving the brewery’s production operations from its current location in Labadie, Missouri to a facility that has been in Jeri Heisler’s family for over a century.
Jeri’s Great Great Grandfather John G. Droege opened Droege’s Mercantile in Washington in 1867. It was a small community grocery store, but a successful one and he eventually moved to a bigger building in 1896. Over the next century the store and building were a part of a community that survived the Great Depression, two world wars and a host of changes documented in the annals of history.
“It’s a store where most people everybody in this town worked there at some point,” said Terry Heisler.
One thing that Droege’s could not withstand however, was the intrusion of much larger retailers like Wal-Mart and Target as well as a handful of regional brands that could offer cheaper products. And so, after more than 120 years in operation, Droege’s shut its doors in April, 2011.
And while some might see this as a tragedy, the Heisler’s saw an opportunity to start a new family tradition.
“My family seems to be happy with it and the downtown community in Washington is very happy with it,” Jeri Heisler said. “As with most small towns, you’re always trying to keep your heart and core of your community alive. This is an opportunity to do so by offering increased tourism and another activity for people to come to.”
The transition to the Washington facility, which the Heislers hope to open by the spring of 2012, will involve an upgrade from the current 10-12-bbl system that has cobbled together with used dairy equipment to a full-fledged brewing system with cylindro-conical fermentation vessels and a larger kettle to fill them. Brewing operations will take place in the basement below the main floor – a 76,000-square foot space that will include a large hole in the floor so that patrons enjoying beer in the tap room can peer down into the brewery.
The tap room will likely open before the brewhouse equipment is installed, with kegs coming over from the production facility in Labadie. That is phase one. Phase two involves adding more seating and more food to make the new space a full-fledged brewery and pub.
Around and Back
Like so many American stories, the history of Augusta Brewing involves a lot of blending and mixing of cultures and more than a little bit of improvisation. Although none of its beers are actually brewed in Augusta, the brewery does operate a pub of the same namesake there. The location dubbed “the brew house” by its owners will continue to operate in Augusta after brewing operations are moved to nearby Washington.
Formerly called Heartland Brewery, its name changed in 2000 to Augusta Brewing under new owner Steve Newcomb, who also ran Square One in St. Louis. He hired a fresh young brewer named Shawn Herrin, who had been working at Square One, to run the brewing in Labadie. He knew the Heislers as retailers (they own and operate John G’s Bierhouse in Washington), and when the stresses of owning and operating two separate breweries became too much, he sold to them in April of 2010.
“We bought the business in April of last year, and ever since we have been growing business and accounts,” Terry said.
As for the Heislers themselves, the love of beer did not start with the Bierhouse. It was fostered in the land of their ancestors when Terry, who served for 31 years in the Army, was stationed in Germany in 1985.
“Every time we went on vacation we always sought out craft breweries or the local brews,” Jeri said. “Most towns in Germany have their own little brewery and that’s what you get used to drinking.”
It was a roundabout road to Augusta Brewing for Herrin as well. His affinity for beer began with home brewing sessions with his father in Seattle, grew during college as he studied for a degree in Biology at the University of Missouri, and fully blossomed when he decided to make a career out of brewing when he got his first job at Trailhead Brewing Company in 2007 and went on to get a formal brewing education at Siebel. When the Heislers bought the brewery in 2010, they kept the young brewmaster at the helm.
“They’ve been great,” Herrin said of the new owners. “They took the chains off me and let my creative imagination run free. There’s a new energy to the brewery… Steve was getting a little exhausted running both businesses and running from St. Louis out to wine country and he didn’t have a passion for it anymore. It was nice to have a fresh look.”
Herrin’s portfolio at Augusta Brewing Company shows off Herrin’s creative freedom with a range of brews from their flagship Tannhauser Pale Ale to a variety of German-style lagers and wheat beers as well as a series of Belgian-style beers under Augusta’s “Farmhouse” label.
Herrin also said that the brewery is experimenting with souring beers in wine and whiskey barrels. It is all part of a broad approach that stands in stark contrast to the beer coming from the bigger brewery a few miles away in St. Louis.
“It is a science and you try to control as many variables as you can, but being a small artisanal brewery you have to kind of go with it,” Herrin said. “I don’t want to say I shoot for the hip or anything because you spend a lot of time in formulation and doing what you can to make a quality product, but really what it comes down to is catching lightning in a bottle and trying to manage that lightning in the bottle. I try not to stress out about the finest details – just keep things clean and try to have fun as much as I can.”
So far, Herrin’s approach has worked out well for him and Augusta. The brewery’s Hyde Park Stout won a gold medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, and is a fine representation of the simple and traditional style.
In all, Augusta Brewing Company represents a long journey for its owners and brewmaster – with winding roots that travel back to a German immigrant who built his version of the American Dream over a century ago. With each pint, Augusta’s patrons become a part of that history.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist and is currently writing his first book, tentatively titled Malt, Hops and Heart for a major publisher.