Breakout Brewer: Rockwell

Supremely laid-back and confidently different, the brewers at Rockwell Beer Co. in St. Louis have quickly built a strong following.

Joe Stange Mar 24 - 10 min read

Breakout Brewer: Rockwell Primary Image

Andy Hille had a clear vision of what his new brewery would be like. He and his partners had put a lot of thought into it during the two-year struggle to find a place, raise money, and get it open. There would be a taproom. It would be relaxed and family-friendly. There would be food, preferably made by somebody else. There would be a retail space for beer and swag.

And there would be another key element, one master stroke to hold the whole enterprise together.

“Foeders with googly eyes,” says Jonathan Moxey, Rockwell’s head brewer.

“That was the first thing.”

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And so it was written—on a whiteboard, at a meeting. And so it came to be.

The foeders with the googly eyes are hard to miss now. When brewing isn’t happening, the taproom opens into the production area, with tables on the brewery floor. Drinkers can goggle at the kit. The foeders goggle back.

Oh, and the beer is a hit—not only with St. Louisans, who have filled the taproom most days since it opened in fall 2018, but also with their peers. The brewery’s Stand By, unfiltered and noble-hopped, was the bronze-medal-winning kellerbier at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Other beers that get people talking include Passing Clouds, an Allagash-inspired witbier but juicier, with more peel than spice and zesty Michigan-grown Crystal hops; Polymath, a gently tart, dry, mixed- fermentation saison that matures in a foeder; and Monty, a unique foeder-aged lager whose subtle vanilla notes from the wood add a layer of comfort to its malt embrace.

They are beers that fit their place. Planet Earth is littered with hip, industrial-chic taprooms these days, but Rockwell’s has a unique vibe. Colorful shipping containers adorn the building, formerly a construction-equipment company. Inside it’s family-friendly and neighborhoody, with a steady hum of chatter; a few kids are invariably present, happy to munch on shoestring fries or beignets from Brasswell, the attached burger joint with its own (bright blue) shipping container. The whole place is striped with wood—staves and scrap wood from locally based Foeder Crafters of America.

That same company, naturally, made the foeders. (Not the googly eyes, though. They ordered those from Amazon.)

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Long-Form Nonfiction Brewing

There are no sure things, but Rockwell’s success shouldn’t have been hard to predict. Both Hille and Moxey brewed at highly regarded Perennial in south St. Louis, fertile ground for talented brewers. That brewery, led by Phil and Emily Wymore, also launched the careers of Cory King and Tommy Manning of Side Project and Shared Brewing.

“Phil and Emily do a lot to foster and encourage individuals’ talents,” Moxey says, “and I know I gained a lot from the opportunities they gave me there and through Perennial travel and collaborations.”

Moxey’s own career trajectory began, as all the great ones do, at the Missouri School of Journalism. [Editor’s note: the author went there.] In the introductory course, the professor invariably asks students in the lecture hall to raise their hands if they believe they will be in journalism in five years. Most of them do. Then he or she says, “You’re wrong!” (The point is that journalism is not a growth industry, and many grads take that skill set elsewhere.)

But Moxey was confident. He was going to write long-form narrative stuff such as that you read in The New Yorker. “I thought, hell no, that’s not me.”

After college, Moxey found himself in New York writing and editing for Standard and Poor’s financial services. “It was terrible,” he says. “But it paid well, and the hours were great. And it gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do.”

He thought he might enter the Foreign Service and started studying Arabic. Then, at a party—have you heard this one before?—a friend handed him a homebrew.

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It was an eye-opener. They ended up brewing together. Moxey says this was a great moment of clarity. “A month later, I got a bunch of homebrewing stuff for my birthday.” Soon his tiny Harlem apartment was crammed with bubbling carboys and other gear. (The same brewery-sticker-coated fridge he used there is currently on display and in use behind the bar in Rockwell’s taproom.)

He joined the New York City Homebrewers Guild, launching pad for many pro brewers (including its former president, Garrett Oliver). Moxey also participated in a cask festival that was open to homebrewers. He says it was an ideal way to get honest feedback. “I got to put my beer in front of a bunch of strangers who weren’t friends and family who thought they had to say nice things.”

Moxey also did some writing for the website and blog Serious Eats and met Phil Wymore of Perennial. When he moved back to the St. Louis area, he knew where he wanted to work. “At that time, they were the only brewery in St. Louis that was doing Belgian styles and mixed- fermentation all year round.” He ended up brewing there for five-and-a-half years. Hille was there, too, until he left in 2016 to start pursuing the Rockwell dream. Moxey left two years later. He had also been dreaming of doing his own thing—something small and simple.

“I just had a lot of gas in the tank,” Moxey says. “I had a lot of ideas for things I wanted to do that didn’t necessarily fit into Perennial’s profile.”

For starters, he wanted to brew more lagers.

Success to Launch

Moxey started talking more to Hille, who had ambitious plans: taproom, retail space, googly eyes, the works. “It seemed like something much larger than I wanted to do.”

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Hille built up the buzz, despite delays when financing fell through. Moxey says Hille turned out to be a wizard at creative stunts that got people talking—from punk rock shows to “Club Rockwell, the world’s smallest tasting-room experience.” They paired food with small-kit beer in a co-working space the size of two cubicles. There were original cocktails and a special glass.

Meanwhile they were “basically squatting” in a building next to the St. Louis Armory, brewing on a 10-gallon system. It was not air-conditioned. “We were just brewing our asses off. And sweating our asses off. It was not good, but we learned a lot. We experimented a lot with kveik yeast.”

Then came the Labor Day launch event. They finally had their own building, if not a new brewhouse yet. They put the word out: Doors open. They were going to serve their own beer. “We thought it’d be great if we had 200 or 300 people show up here,” Moxey says. “We had more like 900.”

The line wrapped all the way around the large building, a former construction-equipment company. They ran out of beer almost immediately, as well as a cocktail they had mixed for the occasion. Luckily someone from 4 Hands Brewing Co. (St. Louis) was there and agreed to sell them more beer, or there might have been a lot of unhappy people.

These days there are a lot of happy people, by the looks of them.

Rockwell Style

The beers are confidently different. They do make a few IPAs, and they sell well, but the other options are prominent and notable—lagers, saisons, and wheat beers of reasonable strength and high drinkability.

The foeder-aged lager, Monty, gets its name from Montgomery County, Missouri, home of the craft maltster Gateway Custom Malt. They supply Monty’s cush, Munich-helles-like Violetta malt.

Meanwhile Stand By and Passing Clouds were two of the first beers that Moxey wanted to brew. Stand By is packed with Hallertauer Hersbrucker and Tradition hops to the tune of 36 IBUs. “I drift a lot more toward classic European hops, with the beer that I brew and the beer that I drink.” The Passing Clouds witbier has surprising depth, with its fruity-earthy hops leading the waltz with the spices.

“They both kind of speak to the vibe we want to have here,” he says. “Sessionable, but a lot of flavor.”

Photo: Joe Stange

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