Case Study: Narrow Gauge Brewing Co. | Brewing Industry Guide

Case Study: Narrow Gauge Brewing Co.

There’s something serendipitous when two groups who want to do a similar thing find each other and realize that working together they can achieve a dream. Narrow Gauge Brewing is a St. Louis brewery continuing a proud tradition, one batch at a time.

John Holl 5 months ago

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Jeff Hardesty wanted to run a farmhouse brewery in the heartland of rural Missouri. These days, though, he’s making hazy IPAs on a 3-barrel system in the basement of a St. Louis suburb bar and restaurant and couldn’t be happier.

Hardesty is the brewer and partner of Narrow Gauge Brewing, the 1,700-square-foot space that was once a banquet hall under the bar area of Cugino’s Italian Bar and Grill. Don’t let the name of the restaurant fool you. It’s a serious craft-beer bar, a mainstay of the area’s beer scene, regularly hosting dinners, brewers, and releases of some rare and in-demand beers.

The partners of the restaurant—Dave Beckham, Dave Beckham Jr. and Ben Goldkamp—had long ago realized the draw of craft beer and how it could regularly bring existing customers back while attracting new ones with each new keg tapped. A few years ago, they decided that adding their own brewery operation could only benefit the business. Through a series of happenstance meetings with Hardesty at area beer events, they began conversations about the possibility of starting something. That became a reality in 2016.

Despite so many breweries operating in the country, this is still very much an era where a business can take longer than expected to get off the ground, so Hardesty says that during the initial start-up and paperwork phase, the brewery being in a building where rent wasn’t going to be a factor helped them greatly. Once brewing commenced, it was great to have an already built-in taproom, where kegged beer could be directly run off a 6-foot line upstairs to taps.

However, Hardesty says that while he can have up to eight of his beers on tap at any time, it usually rotates between two and six because most of the beer he makes goes out the door in cans.

“I’m brewing about fifteen barrels per week,” Hardesty says, brewing double batches at a time for his 6-barrel fermentors. “We’re moving roughly 120 to 130 cases per week out the door. We release cans on Thursday and Saturday, and we’re usually out the same week.”

Hazy, his New England–style pale ale makes up 90 to 95 percent of his output. It’s what customers demand these days, and the brewery that produced 790 barrels of beer last year, hopes to reach 900 this year, and could hit 1,500 after a new 6-barrel system is installed, is happy to oblige.

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“We chose quicker beers because with my system, it makes sense,” he says. “Maybe in the rural location, I could have done something where you wait six months to a year to put out your first beer, but you’re going to be financially strapped during that time.”

That’s not to say he isn’t experimenting outside of the haze. The brewery has put out specialty porters and stouts; he’s made lagers; and he even has two dozen wine barrels in the brewery filled with a variety of beers and some foeders on order. Given his size, in terms of both location and equipment, it’s in the brewery’s best interest to keep things moving, and IPAs, which can be ready to drink in weeks, make sense for their business model.

“When we do have [porters or stouts] on offer, they go over well, but with the extra time they take, it’s hard to justify them more than once a quarter.”

And while the hazy IPA style is certainly the hottest trend in beer right now, Hardesty has taken careful time to create a recipe that not only looks the part, but also hits all the specs that he finds important. This means he spent time working on the right water chemistry, hopping ratios, and yeast profiles.

Hard work and attention to detail have paid off because his IPAs are high on local drinker’s lists, as well as in online trading forums. Most notable are Fallen Flag, a 7 percent IPA with Citra and Mosaic or any of the variations, including the 7.6 percent Queen Fallen Flag (brewed with honey) or King Fallen Flag, an 8.6 percent ABV imperial IPA, or his OJ Run—another Imperial IPA with Citra, Galaxy, and Amarillo. And while Hardesty wishes he could make more, it’s again a space issue coupled with hops contracts and yeast management.

“I can’t make an 8.6 percent IPA three times per week. I can do three 7 percent pale ales,” he says.

With the addition of the brewery, the restaurant above has gone through some changes. Long known for its Italian cuisine, the menu has morphed, Hardesty says, into something that is more modern American high-end bar fare, focused on specialty sandwiches and appetizers, including a long-time staple—stuffed meatballs.

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“People still talk about those meatballs as much as they do the beer,” Hardesty says. In addition to the menu, the brewery also spurred some cosmetic and layout changes to the restaurant. Notably, the area that was previously the dining room is now, effectively, the Narrow Gauge taproom. “It was converted into a second bar, directly above the brewery, and it’s set up as a tasting room.”

The other side of the property is still a bar, with twenty frequently rotating taps of “mostly local craft beer.”

“We like to support the other local breweries as much as possible, and we always thought that we’d complement their beers with the ones we are making and the ones we are not,” Hardesty says.

This is important for several reasons. The first, of course, is that serving a variety of beers from well-known and respected breweries is what helped grow the restaurant, and it’d be foolish to mess up a good thing. Second, with Narrow Gauge’s business model and size, it’d be difficult, if not almost impossible, to maintain variety to meet all needs. And finally, the brewery still wants to be a good neighbor and industry citizen to others in the area.

It’s a balance that many existing restaurants, accustomed to serving a variety of different beers in the traditional three-tier system, now have to face and manage after adding a brewery. With many restaurants seeing the benefit as well as the consumer demand for adding a small brewery to their business, it’s an area that will likely lead to trial and error that will vary from market to market.

One benefit of being small and being associated with what was already a successful business is that Hardesty has a bit of a buffer should he need to change anything. Right now, he plans to continue the model that has made the brewery successful. He says that he doesn’t see the desire for hazy IPAs fading anytime soon, and the beer’s popularity is allowing them to grow, debt-free, as a company.

“We basically put everything back into the business to set up for our future. If it comes to the point where we’re not pushing as much hazy IPA, that’ll be okay. We’ve paid off the equipment, and we have the ability to make other beer that right now we’re choosing not to make because of time.”

With the addition of the new brewhouse, Hardesty will be able to introduce some new styles with a little more frequency, and that will also help keep customers interested even while they walk out with their fresh cans of IPA.

One thing Hardeesty thinks is unlikely for the brewery is distribution outside of the taproom.

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“I don’t think distribution is a sustainable market, and I don’t want a giant loan hanging over my head that would come with a large expansion to meet those demands. I’m a conservative person, and it’s hard to take on that risk. When things are going as well as they are, I don’t see the benefit of jumping to the next level.”

Time will tell whether the brewer who once wanted his own farmhouse brewery will scale up, but for now, he’s living the dream within his means, giving the people what they want with no regrets, and that alone puts him in a position that many of his peers envy.

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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