November 14, 2018
River Bluff Brewing
DEFINITION: Pleasantly new, different, or interesting.
There’s a new view — and a new brew – in St. Joseph.
What started 160 years ago has returned in a new way. Ask hundreds of customers and visitors, and they’ll say it’s right on time. River Bluff Brewing, which opened officially in September 2018, is more than a brewery. It’s a story of its own. The brewery is bringing life, people and a renewed sense of community into a historic section of Frederick Avenue, alongside several other locally-owned businesses. It’s also shining a golden light on St. Joe’s hometown beer scene.
Originally built in 1912, the building at 1224 Frederick has a history as one of St. Joseph’s original entrepreneurial ventures. The multi-layer brick structure stood for many years as Lawler Motor Co. and was a Model-T dealer, says brewery co-founder Edison Derr. It was the Midland Empire Appliance Store for many years after that. Perhaps its most interesting history remains in the basement. Down below, the building holds cellars dating back to the 1800s (pre-prohibition, and likely post-prohibition) that were used for brewing across a few early St. Joseph brewery names.
Fast forward to 2013, when Derr and friend Chris Lanman, along with mutual friend Isaac Unruh, began their brewery journey. While the building had been vacant for more than two decades, their idea for a St. Joe brewery had been very much alive for a number of years. Lanman had already started a successful brewery in Virginia, and was ready to bring his knowledge and experience back to his hometown.
“We weren’t just looking for a building and a business, but a way to encourage fellow entrepreneurs and inspire them,” says Derr. “We want people to see that things can be within your reach, and that at the right time, the right opportunity will come along.”
A chance meeting led to a connection with the building’s owner and a quick plan to move forward. Lanman had been delivering mail in the area, and found a crew doing roof repair on the building. He asked what was happening with the space, and soon after, conversations started with owner Kelly Crawford.
“We looked at several other historic spaces, and even considered building something new,” says Derr. “But something kept stopping us. As they say, ‘one thing led to another,’ and when we found this building on Frederick, we knew it was the right one to bring a hometown brewery back into St. Joseph. It’s not just a building. It’s a story.”
The irony of bringing a new view to local beer in St. Joseph is that the building didn’t even have windows or a roof when the founders first stepped foot inside. Today, artistic and colorful beer “portraits” are all over social media, with beer carefully placed to capture natural light, falling leaves and the streetscape — leading area beer fans to get a little poetic themselves.
Even the entrance says there’s a story inside; inquire within. The doorway is framed by St. Joseph’s original Pioneer Building sign and columns, an architectural gem whose “pioneer” double meaning isn’t lost on the founders or the patrons. The Pioneer Building (an early opera house, home to performances by Orson Wells and Buffalo Bill, for starters) was lost to a fire in 2016. This was the pivotal moment for Derr and Lanman in their journey to “bring something back” to St. Joseph.
For months after purchasing the building, the team worked to restore it, striving to save the original atmosphere and feel. Part of the work includes a recreation of large wooden doors and replica windows, giving a similar interior to the original space. High ceilings, large windows and plenty of exposed brick lend a “been here forever” feeling. Nostalgic signs tie the space to the city’s history in a warm and inviting way. These include favorites like the large neon bowling pin and neon Olympia Lanes sign; the oversized yellow Y Hotel sign; and framed photos from historic buildings and homes in the downtown area. These efforts have already gained nods from historic groups, with River Bluff Brewery receiving a 2018 “Back from the Brink” St. Joseph Landmark Commission award for the project.
Local menus are stacked up and ready for patrons to order their favorites, and many orders can come straight to the brewery in a delivery relationship. (The food truck parked often in the lower lot is another tempting choice). Vintage pinball machines, corn hole games and the occasional yoga mat are a visual testament to the laid-back and creative atmosphere the founders keep creating. (As a side note: The team hopes to “bring back the pinball movement” in St. Joseph.)
But enough about the building. About the beer…
“When it comes to the beer, our team is about education and passion for a quality product,” says Derr. “We keep people here who share our values.” Patrons say this isn’t just about drinking a beer. It’s a full-on beer journey. The 12 varieties are brewed, served and enjoyed all under one roof – and it’s the first time this has happened since the heyday of the brewery industry in St. Joseph. Online customer reviews encourage friends and neighbors to try a “beer made right there where you’re standing.”
Even the brew names have been crafted to help tie together history and community. Have an “1826,” and that’s a nod to the year St. Joseph was first founded as an early trading post. A Union brew honors all the workers form several trades, many of them union members, who helped bring the building and the project to life. The Speedliner IPA is, of course, a connection to boating on the river – and there is, in fact, a vintage boat in the brewery.
It’s hard to keep a good thing bottled up. The team has plans for distribution – local at first, and then, the sky’s the limit. River Bluff Brewery head brewer Joel Cummings learned the craft of brewing in Colorado, then spent several years at Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing.
“River Bluff Brewing is unique because people can just ‘be’ here. You can just be St. Joe, across all generations. It’s a community, and more than just a business,” says Derr. “We’re here to help St. Joseph hold on to its history and to offer a family-friendly place to celebrate that. We also hope to spur tourism and development in the area, with River Bluff as just the launching point.”
River Bluff Brewing is a nod to St. Joseph’s entrepreneurial past and its future. We’ll drink to that.
Games of chance and dining establishments have been a part of St. Joseph, Missouri’s uncommon character since the earliest settlers gathered to let off some steam and gamble on optimistic odds.
Walking into Café Belle Epoque takes you back in time. The copper tin ceiling, marble table tops, hardwood floors, wood-burning stove and jazz music seem to transport you to a period of economic glamour in historic St. Joseph.
As an art professor with nearly 30 years of experience, he is more often the student himself as he observes everyday moments and encourages students to express themselves through these artistic mediums.
Following formal distribution of the locally-filmed movie “Christmas at the Chateau” in 2019, it’s likely that many watching from home will say “Where did they film this? This place is amazing.”
Sarah DeGarmo’s story is one of life echoing art. And vice versa.