Here’s an experience you may recognize:
You’ve made dinner plans with a friend. They want to take you to their favorite local spot, or the new cool restaurant in a neighborhood you’ve never heard of. They have promised, promised, a good beer list. Your friend knows and loves you. You have no reason to doubt them.
The two of you arrive at the restaurant. You ask for the draft list. You flip past wine and cocktails and have to squint to find the beer. The list is… brief. You’ve drank everything on it, and don’t particularly care to drink them again. You start to tell your friend, “I’m never having dinner with you ever again,” but the last beer on the list stops you. It’s the Civil Life American Brown Ale.
The American Brown has become a staple of St. Louis beer. It’s the beer that’s always there for you, that could never let you down. Of course it’s delicious – rich but not heavy, nutty, and balanced by citrous hops. Almost as good, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous but never pedestrian. It’s the perfect beer to pour for your friends who don’t “get” craft beer.
With a beer that’s so significant in St. Louis, it can be easy to miss out on Civil Life’s many other beers. After all, they sell more of the American Brown than any of their other beers combined. But if you think the American Brown is all Civil Life has to offer, you’d be mistaken.
For the new year, Civil Life has released three new beers. Each new addition has a higher ABV than the pub’s typical offerings, and allows the brewers (and drinkers) to push the limits of Civil Life’s traditional personality. Last Monday, I had the opportunity to sample all three – plus a lineup of their other beers that was more varied than I could have imagined.
The Oatmeal Brown is a play on the American Brown, with an addition of oatmeal that adds body, an incomparably smooth mouthfeel, and impressive, pillowy head retention. I drank on one of the coldest days of the year, and found that it makes a perfect snow day beer. It is as comforting as the American Brown, and I plan to make several trips back to the brewery before it leaves the rotation (for brewer Troy Bedik’s “What makes a brown, Brown.” workshop, for starters).
The Dry Hop Red Ale is bitter and refreshing, with the complexity of Amarillo hops supporting the subtle malt. In a market currently overwhelmed by “juicy” IPAs and pale ales, this beer reminded me why I fell in love with hops in the first place – the bitterness, the drying effect on the palate that seems to wake up taste buds and prepare you for the next sip, the lip-smack effect.
The Extra Stout, based on a historical Guinness recipe, is the darkest beer I have ever seen. Held up to the bar window, no light passes through. It tastes just like it looks – deeply roasted flavors are balanced by herby notes of black licorice, all topped by a fluffy, impenetrable hazelnut-colored head.
Civil Life debuts new beers every year, but 2018 signals something new for the brewery. When the weather thaws, the team will break ground on a new expansion, which includes a canning line that will allow for further distribution.
Have I been sleeping on Civil Life? Am I the only one who hasn’t spent much time with their beers, because I thought they were “traditional” (and I thought “traditional” was a dirty word)? It’s possible. I like to think I know what’s going on in St. Louis’ beer world, but I was blown away by my trip to Civil Life – by the knowledge and hospitality of its brewers, by the quality and variety of its beers, by the careful planning of its tasting room, and by the inspiration behind the events it hosts.
In short, what Civil Life does better than anyone is create new and exciting beers within their chosen format. They don’t resist change or snub trends, they’re not luddites – they choose, instead, to adopt the methods they find useful and leave the rest.
I will be spending more time at Civil Life in 2018. I will be tracking its expansion, drinking its beers (more Vienna Lager, any day), and attending its events, particularly the book club meetings. Check back here and at the Civil Blog for updates.