This is not America’s prettiest pub crawl.
In many spots the sidewalk crumbles as lumps of weeds poke up, working on their own sort of urban renewal. The scenery includes empty parking lots, used cars for sale, gas stations, warehouses, a factory or two and a strip mall that would be desolate if not anchored by a defiant big-box K-Mart.
Yet this stretch also includes a few of country’s more interesting breweries, and more of the sort of long-running workaday bars that would have been the domain of Anheuser-Busch a few years ago. These days, even the dives can’t seem to resist dabbling in an increasing number of novelty taps.
This is St. Louis, along Manchester Avenue, which stretches more than three miles eastward from the resurgent inner suburb of Maplewood into the lagging industrial shell of the city proper. It’s unremarkable in that most American cities have unlovely, unloved stretches like this; it’s remarkable in that beer can be a lure for those who have disposable income and want to play.
I did the Manchester March with my wife, Kelly, and fellow writers, Lew Bryson and Stan Hieronymous who first proposed it. On a Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the temp reached 88 degrees but often felt like 95 (35 C). We drank plenty of water and took comfort in the fact that cold beer and a blast of A/C were never too far down the road. (And if you hear sometime in the next few years that shuttles are carrying people to breweries and bars along Manchester Avenue, possibly continuing to the ballpark on game days, remember that you heard it here first.)
First we lay a firm brunch foundation at nearby Southwest Diner, which carries a few local beers if you want to start early. A more convenient option on Manchester would be 24-hour Tiffany’s Diner, whose Toby⏤two-eggs, meat and hash browns, all slathered in sausage gravy⏤was a late-night post-drinking staple of my young reporter days.
Our brewery trek begins at Schlafly Bottleworks. This is a solid pub-grubby lunch option, too, but having eaten, we enjoy lighter beers in a shady corner on the wide terrace. Saint Louis Brewery⏤the brewery’s official name⏤opened in 1991 as a downtown brewpub, and has grown into a regional mainstay. Weekend tours and tastings are free and hourly from noon to 5 p.m. Most of the Schlafly beer is made here at the Bottleworks, which opened in 2003 as the city’s first new production brewery since Prohibition.
Geographically speaking, Side Project Cellar is a more logical first stop as it’s a block west, but it opens an hour later, so we backtrack a bit. This wood-lined tasting room is occupied chiefly by a zig-zag bar and early arrivals who are sipping and sniffing from stemmed glassware. Much hyped these days among the geekdom⏤with good reason, in my view⏤Side Project is the family business of Cory and Karen King. It began as an offshoot of Perennial, seven miles south of here, and well worth a visit in its own right. Cory King, head brewer at Perennial, began by dabbling in barrel-aging and blending and has shown an increasingly confident hand. The beers, which get a half-wild yeast cocktail and show varying levels of lambic-like acidity, have grown more balanced and refined. Beers here are not cheap⏤most were between $7 to $10 for a wine glass on our visit—but enthusiasts of mixed fermentation are unlikely to regret the splurge. The Cellar also serves beers from local friends like Perennial and foreign guests such as Brasserie de la Senne.
From there, the serious walking begins. Our next destination is Manchester Public House, one mile northeast in the district known as Dogtown, next to an auto body shop and across from that strip mall with the K-Mart. Its 20 taps feature several local independents but after the hot walk, we order draft Busch, partly just to say that we did. The decor reveals pub aspirations⏤upholstery, board games, a piano, candles⏤while the multiple televisions, digital jukebox and wafting scent of smoked pork remind you that you’re in the U.S.
Our next stop, only five minutes walk, is where things begin to get real. Colombo’s is a dive, and I use that word with great fondness. It has been here 65 years as the sort of place whose variety would typically include Bud, Bud Lite, Bud Select and Busch⏤except, not now. Its 36 taps include a cross-sampling of local independents, including several from 4 Hands and the rustic barrel-aged brett beer Katy from 2nd Shift. So we drink from a variety while a half-dozen regulars drink Busch in longnecks. How do you know this is still a real blue-collar bar? One clue: It only closes from 3 to 8 a.m. and on Sundays. Its happy “hour” stretches from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
It’s time to move on. There are options for detours at this point, one mile north to the Heavy Riff brewpub or Pat’s Irish bar. But we stay on the path down Manchester, reluctantly passing Nick’s⏤another divey Dogtown institution, this one with shuffleboard, a smoking area and more than 100 taps⏤because we have a vague schedule to keep.
Next on the crawl would be 2nd Shift, just south of the railroad tracks and a scrap metal plant⏤except it’s not open yet. The brewery soon will move from rural New Haven, Missouri, to this industrial space in the city that has been its best customer. (Here an awkward disclosure is in order: My wife’s family is from New Haven, and 2nd Shift owner-brewer Steve Crider is a family friend; we belonged to the same local homebrew club even before he went pro. So I’m biased and you need not believe my assertions that he is a wizard with hops or agree that the brett beer Katy is a Missouri state treasure.) Once it gets going, there will be a tasting room and no pretensions.
This makes Modern Brewery the next stop, another half-mile down the road, its place marked by a black, beautifully restored ’50s Chevy pickup. In a garage-like industrial space in the back of the lot, the tasting room opened in 2015, a year after the brewery launched. Its beers are easy to spot around town with their distinctive lit-light-bulb tap handles. This was my first experience with Modern; I enjoyed a seasonal Ms. Sally pils, assertively hopped in the North German mold⏤just enough malt to balance 34 IBUs and useful at 4.8% strength. The juicier single-hopped IPAs Citrapolis (Citra) and Odinson (Mosaic) are regular offerings.
The last 15-minute stretch of walking passes the finish line at the Grove neighborhood’s hip neon sign hanging over Manchester. Just beyond it is Urban Chestnut’s Grove Brewery and Bierhall, and the latter word is not a misnomer: The space is large enough, the ceilings high enough and the crowd lively enough to justify it. The food is popular too, hearty riffs on traditional German dishes for the tweet-what-I-eat set. Expect a wide range of draft beers; I tend to prefer the solidly built lagers here, like Zwickel and Stammtisch, over the various well-hopped ale experiments, particularly after a long, hot urban hike.
You could go much farther, if you’re efficient and ambitious or a Beer Runner. An additional four-mile route would take you past Square One and on to 4 Hands, and then⏤what the hell?⏤might as well cross Soulard to take the Anheuser-Busch tour.
Please don’t mistake me: I am not suggesting that the world drop what it’s doing and come to experience the Manchester March. I’m only pointing to one piece of map to suggest what is happening, and what could be possible elsewhere. Politicians and civic activists look at areas like this and ponder how to revitalize it, only rarely stumbling into solutions that stick. And now and then, more organic opportunities appear⏤like weeds from beneath the concrete.