Old Bakery Beer Co. Opens With a Flourish
All photos by Kevin Gibson.
When my girlfriend and I drove past Old Bakery Beer Co. in Alton, Ill., recently, I couldn’t resist making a lame joke.
“I bet that brewery used to be an old bakery,” I said.
The lack of laughter in the car was deafening. Nevertheless, I was intrigued, so I looked up the place online when we arrived at our destination just a few miles down the road in Grafton. As it turned out, Old Bakery, which is situated about 20 miles north of St. Louis, had only opened a couple of weeks before in – as one would rightly assume – the site of a former Colonial Bread bakery.
It makes total sense, when you think about it: In a way, beer is liquid bread, right? The place had been the home of yeast-driven goods for generations, so why not carry on a long-held European and American tradition of turning grains and yeast into something delicious and sustainable?
On our way back through town, we stopped in for a visit and found that, indeed, a former bakery is a perfect place to build a brewery. When you walk through the main doors, the first thing that hits you is a long hallway bordering a shiny new brewery, with kettles lined up all the way down the corridor (behind glass, of course).
The 15-barrel brewing operation, which also has two 30-barrel fermenters and two 30-barrel brite tanks (according to an employee), is a beautiful thing to behold as you make your way through to the tap room in back. It’s kind of like taking your car to one of those automated car washes wherein you walk along beside it and watch your vehicle get cleaned by huge, whirling brushes.
Hand-painted signs point the way back into the cavernous building toward the room where your thirst can be quenched (“Almost there!” one proclaims, flanked by a vintage porcelain Colonial Bakery sign), and when you arrive and turn right, you’re faced with a huge space filled with tables and a massive bar with what looked to be some 20 seats. It was like a German beer hall.
I counted nine house beers on draft, and what struck me immediately was that the place trumpeted proudly that it uses only organically grown malts and hops in its beers. In addition, the small-ish food menu is based around locally-sourced and organic foods as well, as much as is possible.
“We don’t have a freezer or a fryer,” our friendly bartender, Rory, told us.
The beers offered up an interesting approach as well – whereas more and more breweries seem to be pushing the limits as to how off-the-wall the flavor combinations and infusions can be, while also pushing the gravity limits to the one-and-done level, Old Bakery Beer’s list features mostly beers under 5.0 ABV. In other words, you can come in, sit down and enjoy two or three beers without getting blasted. That’s a good thing if, as in the case with this Sunday afternoon, you’re there to watch a St. Louis Blues hockey match over pints with friends.
Cynthia ordered a Maeva's Blend Coffee Brown, a medium-bodied brown ale made in collaboration with a local coffee house. At 4.2 percent ABV, it’s drinkable but with a big coffee aroma and flavor, as well as a surprising bite (40 IBU).
I made my way around the beer list, from Golden Oat, a light beer made with 15 percent flaked oats (organic, of course) that played out on the palate like a nice, crisp wheat beer, to the India Brown Ale, which to my taste buds resembled a lighter rendition of what many brewers now call a Black IPA. At 65 IBU, it’s got enough hop quality in the aroma and flavor to please hopheads, but with earthy, nut-brown undertones.
My two favorites were the single-hop Magnum Pale Ale and the Wheat IPA. The former was really a classic pale ale example, moderately hopped, crisp and drinkable at 4.5 percent ABV and with a moderately floral character with just enough bitterness and a hint of spice. The latter was sort of a cousin to Three Floyds Gumballhead – dry-hopped with Centennial and Cascade, it was plenty bitter and citrusy, but also remarkably crisp and light thanks 30 percent flaked wheat.
Also, the roast beef sandwich I had and the BLT Cynthia had were excellent as well, paired with locally made Billy Goat Chip Company chips and pickle spears. We started things off with an order of delicious pretzels with beer cheese and whole grain mustard dips. The menu is small, but doesn’t disappoint.
While sitting there, we chatted briefly with a local native named Carla Moore who was visiting the brewery for the first time. She recalled taking class field trips to the bakery as a child, and said that the space now housing the brewery operation was originally a huge bay where trucks pulled in to get their pickups for delivery. The area where the bar now is, she said, was the line where dough was formed.
And the Colonial Bakery was sort of the town of Alton’s first impression, as State Road 67 empties out into Alton via the Clark Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River.
“You’d come down off the bridge and you’d smell fresh bread,” Moore said. “It’s nice to see them take the old and turn it into something new.”