For the longest time, beer in St. Louis meant Anheuser-Busch. Recently, however, St. Louis has seen an explosion of breweries. Schlafly, Perennial Artisan Ales, 4 Hands, 2nd Shift, Civil Life, Urban Chestnut, and countless others have begun brewing interesting, experimental, and flavorful creations. Amongst the leaders of this renaissance is Side Project Brewing, the brainchild of Cory King, head brewer of Perennial. But there was a problem.
“People would always ask me to see Side Project Brewing,” King said during the opening. “I would tell them, ‘I could show you some barrels when I’m free,” but that was about it. This gives Side Project an identity.”
“This” is the newly opened Side Project Cellar in Maplewood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Located just off the main road through the city on a relatively quiet street, the Side Project Cellar fit a need King saw lacking in St. Louis.
“My wife (Karen, co-owner of Side Project Cellar) and I would go out and have a few drinks. Sometimes she wanted wine and I wanted beer, or she wanted beer and I wanted whiskey, and I realized there was no place in St. Louis that really did all three exceptionally.”
To meet that need, King has meticulously chosen his tap, whiskey and wine selections. At opening, there were 24 beers on tap, more than 40 bottled beers available (including 4 Side Project offerings), 20-plus whiskey options, and six different wine vintages. Most of the time was spent on the draft lines, which serve the beer at three distinct temperatures – 52, 46, or 40 degrees depending on style. All kegs are stored at the same temperature and the lines get the beer to the required serving temperature. There are also two available casks, but they were not serving anything while I was there.
Although Side Project “began” in September 2013 (the beer had been in barrels for some time before that, of course), King didn’t start looking for potential spaces until early 2014. What he settled on is a modest, unassuming building with a capacity of about 50. The location, however, is immaculate and one of the best located bars I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking in. Whereas a majority of tap rooms or breweries are located in warehouses, industrial lots, or far away from population centers (see Perennial, Solemn Oath, Hill Farmstead, One Trick Pony), Side Project is in the heart of Maplewood. One could easily make a day of it around the Side Project Cellar, with places like Strange Donuts (85 feet), White Castle (0.3 miles), Jimmy John’s (348 feet), Shop ‘n Save (0.2 miles), and Pie Oh My! (16 feet) within stumbling distance. There are also other diversions available in the immediate area, such as bowling (Saratoga Lanes) and the Orbit Pinball Lounge. For those worried about parking, there is a giant lot right next door. Unfortunately, as of the opening, the Side Project Cellar does not allow outside food, but that will hopefully change in the near future.
The space itself is meant to evoke a simple, bucolic feeling. The two bars (one by the taps and the other in front of the whiskey ), a 10-foot community table, two window benches, and five tables were all handcrafted by Mwanzi and lend a certain old world charm to the environs. The low hanging lights suggest a romantic ambiance with their warm, bathing light. Reinforcing this whole milieu was King, who actually had the music lowered while I was there, a welcome change from blaring heavy metal all too common at a majority of bars and breweries. At no point did I feel the need to shout to have a conversation with the people sitting next to me, although it did get a bit loud due to the sheer number of people there. I also never felt cramped or squished, even though the Cellar was at capacity. Beware, however, of the step in the middle of the space, as I stumbled entering and flat out tripped exiting. King marked it with lights on the floor, but your eye moves to the bar in the back upon ingress (much like in a painting) and you fail to look down, not expecting a step. But now you know.
The artwork and décor serves to amplify this feeling. From prints of Tim Bottchen pictures of Side Project bottles to the bottles lining the merchandise wall featuring all the beers Side Project has released to date, everything screams simplicity and Side Project. This is best represented by the painting by the back bar of the Side Project logo, done on what appeared to be treated leather (but it wasn’t).
But you’re really reading this for the beer. While I definitely can’t speak for the wine, I can say their whiskey selection is top notch and the beer choices are outstanding. First and foremost, most people coming here are coming for some Side Project goodness, as I was, and I did not leave disappointed.
Due to the barrel aged nature of all his beers, it is impossible for King to have a majority of the taps filled with Side Project. The opening had (and, as of this writing, still has) Saison du Ble and Grisette on tap. Saison du Ble is a tart, funky refreshing saison while Grisette has a more hoppy presence and less tartness than King’s standard offerings, but is an outstanding 4% ABV option. King said that he intends to have at least one Side Project beer on at all times, usually the Grissette or the Biere du Pays.
The bottles are where you will most likely be able to try the most Side Project, and that was definitely the case on opening day. Saison du Fermier, Pulling Nails Blend #1, Blueberry Flanders and Le Saissonier were all available for on-site consumption and I took full advantage. I had made friends with some of the people in the line, so we each bought a bottle and proceeded to share them, getting to soak in a wide spectrum of King’s Side Project. From a refreshing saison (Le Saissonier), to an ambitious blend (Pulling Nails, which was tasting superior to the one on the podcast), to a very sour and acidic flanders (Blueberry Flanders), to finishing with a perfectly balanced, tart and dry saison (Saison du Fermier), there was something available for everyone.
Due to the fact I had to drive back right after, I stuck solely to the Side Project beers, but a few of the taps – specifically the De Molen Hemel & Aarde and De Struise Pannepot 2012 – caught my eye. The cellared bottle list is filled with mostly Belgian options, so it was hard to pass on some, especially the lambics (which are poured properly from a lambic basket).
Not that you need me to tell you, but the Side Project Cellar should be on your “must hit” list of beer places in St. Louis (along with Perennial, 4 Hands, Wine and Cheese Place, Craft Beer Cellar, and Civil Life in my eyes). It is the only place to try some of Cory King’s most sought after Side Project beers, but it goes further in offering you a relaxing environment focused on personal interactions rather than noise. A home run.