Augusta Brewing Company

From the Source by | Jan 2012 | Issue #60

American beer has history. The grain grown in the Midwest plains and the hops from the Pacific Northwest lend the character of the nation to the beers they’re a part of. But most importantly, the history of American beer is a history of the people.

Between convenient circumstances and a certain business prowess, the Busch family became the predominant name around the Missouri area. But Budweiser is not the only beer with deep historical roots, nor are the Busches the only family with a legacy.

At Augusta Brewing Company in Labadie, Mo., husband-and-wife duo Terry and Jeri Heisler are keeping a family history alive by moving the brewery’s production operations from its current location to a facility in Washington, Mo., which has been in Jeri’s family for over a century.

Around and Back
Like so many American stories, the history of Augusta Brewing involves a lot of blending 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 name there. (The pub, dubbed “the brew house” by its owners, will continue to operate in Augusta after brewing operations are moved to nearby Washington.)

Formerly called Heartland Brewing Company, its name changed in 2000 to Augusta Brewing under new owner Steve Neukomm, who also ran Square One Brewery and Distillery in St. Louis. He hired a 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 Augusta 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 says.

As for the Heislers, their 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 says. “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 homebrewing 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 got his first job at Trailhead Brewing Company in 2007. He later 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 says 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.”

Artisanal Science
Herrin’s portfolio at Augusta Brewing showcases his 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 says that the brewery is experimenting with souring beers in wine and whiskey barrels—all part of a broad approach that stands in stark contrast to the beer coming from the bigger brewery about 40 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 says. “I don’t want to say I shoot from 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.

Family Tradition
Jeri’s great-great-grandfather, John G. Droege, a German immigrant, opened Droege’s Mercantile in Washington, Mo., 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 was a part of a community that survived two world wars, the Great Depression and then 60 years of dramatic cultural changes.

“It’s a store where most people in this town worked there at some point,” says Terry.

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 140 years in operation, Droege’s closed its doors in April 2011.

Some might see this as a tragedy—but the Heislers 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 says. “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 are leasing and hope to open by April of 2012, will involve an upgrade from the current 10- to 12-bbl system that was 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 7,6000-square-foot space that will include a large hole in the floor so that patrons enjoying beer in the taproom can peer down into the brewery.

The taproom 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 expanding the food menu to make the new space a true destination brewpub.

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.

12-bbl “Frankenbrew” direct-fire system comprised of used dairy equipment from various suppliers
4 15- to 30-bbl horizontal fermentation vessels

What’s on tap
Tannhauser Pale Ale: A copper-colored American Pale Ale, and Augusta Brewing Company’s most popular beer
Augusta Hefeweizen: A hazy, unfiltered wheat beer
Augusta Blonde Ale: Augusta Brewing’s take on a Kölsch
Alpen Brau Pilsner: A German-style Pilsner with a crisp finish
Augustiner Maibock: A sweet, dark and malty spring beer
Hyde Park Stout: A GABF gold medal-winning beer
1856 IPA: A hoppy English IPA
Winter Ale: A Belgian Brown brewed with spices; strong toffee and caramel notes. Available as a winter seasonal.
Augusta Farmhouse Belgian-style Tripel IPA: A hoppy take on the traditional Belgian beer that weighs in at a healthy 9 percent ABV. One of four Belgian-style beers under Augusta’s “Farmhouse” label.
Dark Harvest: A wet-hopped India Brown Ale brewed with fresh Sorachi Ace hops that comes in at 6.5 percent ABV and 70 IBU.

What She Said
“I think that John G. [Droege], who was my great-great-grandfather, would have been happy with the fact that we’re continuing the legacy of entrepreneurship in the same building he built. Things change, circumstances change and the economy has changed, and this is morphing into a new identity.” -Augusta Brewing Company co-owner Jeri Heisler on moving brewing operations to and opening a taproom in a facility that housed her family’s grocery business for four generations.