St. Louis is a beer town. From the moment a person crosses the Mississippi you see signs of the beer empires that helped build our community; Cardinal’s Busch Stadium, a 32-foot-tall Anheuser-Busch eagle logo, and grain bins that dot our city skyline. What is unseen is the very thing that made this a lager town: the chilly underground caves that made our special beer possible.
Missouri is nicknamed “the Cave State,” because it hosts over 6,400 caves. St. Louis has nearly 40 of those caves, carved from naturally acidic spring water that eroded the limestone underneath the city over millions of years, leaving behind our expansive complex of caves.
There are two basic varieties of beer: ale and lager. Two core brewing elements separate them: the strain of yeast (a microscopic fungus that produces alcohol and carbonation) and the temperature they are kept at while fermenting. The word lager comes from the German word lagern which means to store.
Before the advent of electricity and refrigeration, one could not make a crisp lager without the ability to store the brew in a cool dark place and there are only a handful of American cities with the natural resources required to keep a lager around 55°. Luckily, St. Louis is one of them.
In 1838, when Adam Lemp arrived in St. Louis, beer in America was exclusively English style ale- nearly unrecognizable as beer to the German immigrant. Lagers were made in Germany, where Lemp learned to brew. In St. Louis Lemp opened a grocery store where he sold his homemade beer. The sales quickly made Lemp realize he had something special, so he made brewing a full-time operation.
At the same time, another German immigrant brewer, John Wagner, started brewing a lager in Pennsylvania. It’s known that Wagner brought lager yeast from a well-known brewer in Germany. With this specialized yeast, he is credited with brewing America’s first lager in 1840. However, Lemp was brewing at almost the exact time, so the title of “first” is up for dispute in St. Louis.
Whether first or second, Lemp’s brewery was massively influential on the American beer market and a pioneer in modern brewing. By 1845 Lemp had built a storage warehouse into the Cherokee Caves that was more than 100 yards long and could store more than 3,000 barrels of beer at a time, which is nearly half a million 12 oz beers.
Other brewers made use of the underground caves, but when Lemp’s son took over the operation years after his father’s death, he built a modern brewery and bottling plant directly above the caves and took full advantage of the cave system to become the largest brewer in St. Louis. By 1877, artificial refrigeration was invented, and its use dramatically increased the efficiency of the brewing process but also diminished the need for cave storage.
Our location along the river and the train lines built in the 1850s allowed us to produce and sell beer in massive quantities. By 1860, more than 40 breweries were producing a combined total of 212,400 barrels of beer a year (nearly 70 million bottles) and the William J. Lemp Brewery was the first to distribute coast to coast. But other factors like prohibition caused many of our breweries to be driven out of business.
The caves today have been intentionally blocked off for safety reasons, but you can see the Lemp Brewery caves during Halloween when the adventurous visit the site that has been turned into a fun attraction. You can also book a tour with Earthbound Beer on Cherokee Street, where what once was Cherokee Brewery’s stock house was cleaned up and restored for a new life of brewery operations.
Although the Lemp business did not survive prohibition, its influence did. Anheuser-Busch produces and sells the most beer in the United States, including America’s favorite beer, Bud Light, which is a lager.
Like so many things in life, what made St. Louis great, lies beneath the surface. And while the caves are largely unavailable to the average person, there is something awe-inspiring about standing on Cherokee Street, Lemp Avenue, and parts of South Broadway knowing that what lies beneath are caves that once cooled the beer that made us famous.