After taking part in a craft brew renaissance, Urban Chestnut branches out
“It’s a refreshing beer, but there’s a lot going on,” Wolfe said of the leading beer at his Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. “It’s complex.”
At first taste, Zwickel is clearly smooth, a characteristic it shares with other mainstream American lagers.
Yet the beer’s complex essence comes from an entirely different place: ancient Germany.
Urban Chestnut co-founder and brewmaster Florian Kuplent found the inspiration for Zwickel in traditional German beer recipes that date to the Middle Ages.
In resurrecting Zwickel in St. Louis, Kuplent and Wolfe hoped to go to market with a familiar yet exotic beer. One that could convert the city’s mass-market drinkers into craft beer lovers.
“I always describe Zwickel as a great gateway beer,” Wolfe said. “For somebody that has never really tried non-big-brewer beer, it’s a gateway for them to move into more flavorful beers.”
The gateway strategy has been a major success. With Zwickel leading the way, Urban Chestnut has gone from selling 1,500 barrels of beer in its first year to selling more than 1,500 barrels per month today. The company has grown its workforce to roughly 120 employees.
While the brewing operation has expanded – today, Urban Chestnut offers more than 30 styles of beer – Zwickel has remained the biggest seller. It accounts for 40 percent of the brewery’s sales by volume.
“It’s always very cool to create something, and then when people like the product, it’s even more rewarding,” said Kuplent.
With annual production expected to top 20,000 barrels this year, Urban Chestnut has already grown out of microbrewery status and is now a considered a regional brewer.
Many of today’s small beer companies – which often originate from home brewing obsessions – have a hard time commercializing this quickly. Yet Urban Chestnut was different from the start.
As they set up their business, co-founders Wolfe and Kuplent drew from their decades of experience in the beer industry, including their time working together on a new-products team at Anheuser-Busch.
Wolfe had worked in a marketing and strategic planning role at Anheuser-Busch, exploring consumption trends and identifying opportunities. Kuplent was part of a brewing team that created new products to capitalize on those market opportunities.
During this time, the pair spotted an intriguing opportunity right under their noses: Market research showed that craft beer consumption in St. Louis was lagging way behind the rest of the country.
“When you looked at the St. Louis market, it was just screaming for somebody to come onto the scene,” Wolfe said.
It wasn’t long before Wolfe and Kuplent decided they were that somebody.
Wolfe left his job at Anheuser-Busch in February of 2010. That same day, he closed on the facility that would become Urban Chestnut’s original brewing location. Kuplent left Anheuser-Busch a few months later. Urban Chestnut opened in 2011.
From the outset, Kuplent worked to create an original selection of beers for Urban Chestnut that both paid homage to traditional European brewing styles and included innovative craft beers that were becoming popular in the United States.
“What made us unique was having Florian as our brewmaster and having the ability to delve into both of those realms,” said Wolfe.
The desire to go both directions led the brewery to establish two complementary series of beers: a “Reverence” series featuring traditional styles and a “Revolution” series of experimental brews.
“The market is so developed now that people are looking for more unusual flavors,” said Kuplent. “As long as you explain it and where it comes from, people are totally open to trying new things.”
That’s certainly been the case in Missouri. Urban Chestnut turned out to be on the leading edge of a craft brewing boom in the state. Since 2011, the number of craft breweries has grown from 43 to 71, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group.
The state now produces nearly 360,000 barrels of craft beer each year, and that number is growing.
Urban Chestnut has growth plans as well. Zwickel and other Urban Chestnut brews are now available in many parts of Missouri, Kansas and Illinois. In addition, the company continues to search for new markets in places both near and far – such as Germany.
In 2015, Urban Chestnut opened a small brewery and biergarten in Hallertau, Bavaria, near Munich. The location is close to where Kuplent grew up.
“It was definitely a fun thing to be able to do that,” Kuplent said. “I still have a lot of friends and family there, and being able to have them try the beer freshly without having to ship it across the pond is definitely a nice thing.”
But the German expansion is about much more than reaching Kuplent’s friends and family. Wolfe and Kuplent said there is a strong growth opportunity in Germany. The country – much like St. Louis five years ago – is just beginning to open up to trying new styles of beer.
“From an emerging-market standpoint, the German beer drinker evolution is probably 20 years behind where the U.S. is right now,” Wolfe said. “There’s going to be more opportunity for beers to enter the market, and we’re creating a platform to play a part in that.”