I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, St. Louis is still a beer town. This month, we bring you the story of Tom Schlafly, the man once touted as the beer ‘baronet’ of St. Louis. It was 22 years ago that Schlafly had the audacity to think that he could start a microbrewery in the hometown of the King of Beers.
No doubt St. Louis still loves its Bud, but since the InBev takeover of Anheuser-Busch, Schlafly has become the largest American-owned brewery in St. Louis. “In the 1980s, there were a lot of microbreweries opening in other cities, and I figured someone was going to be doing it successfully in St. Louis—and I thought if I didn’t try, I’d be kicking myself,” Schlafly remembers. “If I tried and failed, so be it. But I didn’t want to be looking back 20 years later and wishing that I would have had the gumption to start a brewery.”
Schlafly got the very first microbrewery license in the state of Missouri. And in 1991, along with co-founder Dan Kopman, he opened the first new brewery in St. Louis since prohibition in a formerly abandoned building downtown, in an area that was used to film the movie Escape from New York starring Kurt Russell. (You’ve got to rent this movie to see how bad downtown was back then.) It didn’t take much to make that part of the city look like post-apocalyptic Manhattan. What is now The Schlafly Tap Room is easy to pick out in the film: If Russell’s Snake Plissken would have walked past the front gate 10 years later, he could have stopped in for a Schlafly Pale Ale.
The transformation of that part of downtown and the area in Maplewood where Schlafly Bottleworks now stands is something Schlafly is especially proud of. “It’s not only gratifying to see that craft beer is accepted in St Louis, but I’m also a huge booster of the city and those communities are much better now than when we first moved into them.”
So, 20-plus years later, Schlafly’s official title with the brewery is still chairman; however, he has very little to do with the day-to-day operations. He’s the company’s largest shareholder, owning 20 percent; but a few years back, he sold the major part of the company to local investors with the intent of keeping the business in St. Louis.
Schlafly has made enough money that he could retire and live anywhere in the world he wants. But as he approaches his 65th birthday, he still goes to his office at Thompson Coburn, where he’s an attorney and partner, and he still serves on the board of a major mutual fund. He remains adamant that he has no intention of leaving St. Louis. “We don’t have the culture of Paris, the beaches of San Diego or the mountains of Denver, but I just feel a sense of ownership and pride when I go through St Louis,” he says with that Where did you go to high school? glow, “I love to go to Chicago and see people with Cardinals hats; and now, to be out of town and see someone with a Schlafly hat or T-shirt—that’s a rush in itself.”
He’s gushing like a tour guide about his love for all things St. Louis, rattling off the names of cultural institutions and Forest Park, where he says he likes to bring guests from out of town just to see their “jaws drop.” But his civic heart belongs to the St. Louis Public Library: Schlafly has served on its board under four mayors and has helped champion the dramatic restoration of the historic main library building downtown.
Because of the success of his beer, Schlafly realizes he’s been able to do a lot of other good things in the community. “I feel a connection with the community. It’s small enough that someone like me can make a difference—if I lived in New York or L.A., I’d just get lost.”
In spite of his work with the library and his other community involvement, Schlafly’s lasting legacy in St. Louis will undoubtedly be the emergence of the city’s craft brewing industry. “Beer helped put St. Louis on the map, and even though A-B is no longer headquartered here, the beer culture is very much alive,” he notes. “We are coming out of the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. A-B helped build the tradition of beer in St. Louis, but there are a lot craft brewers thriving—and I’m flattered we were the first one.”
Thanks in part to Schlafly, maybe St. Louis is even more of a beer town than it’s ever been.
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.