“This is the place with the caves, right?”
“Well, yeah, but all of these kinds of places usually have caves. Well, at least when they’re this old.”
“How old is it?”
“Between 150 and 200 years, but these buildings look a bit newer.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Smile, ask, and flash the camera with the zoom out and lens hood on.”
It is commonly accepted that the bigger one’s camera and lens are, the more likely one is to be taken as a serious photographer. I rarely shoot telephoto, but if I have time to switch to it before I ask someone for permission, I do.
A half hour later, I was making up a self-guided tour that started in the Bottle Works, proceeded into one of the storage buildings and then down into the basement where the old fire insurance maps showed as the most likely cave entrance.
Drinking In Saint Louis
Seven years after his arrival in America, in 1842 Johann Adam Lemp founded the Western Brewery, an institution that would later carry his name. Before the brewery, Lemp worked at a grocery store where he sold his homebrew vinegar and, later, his beer.
As you might expect, the beer was more popular.
Some historians suspect that when Johann traveled here from Germany he carried with him special yeast to make Lager beer, as Western was on one of the first in the country to brew that style.
Expanding the Caves and Business
Lager is a style of beer that requires cool temperatures for optimal fermentation, something that was accomplished at the time by digging out caves for the kegs to be stored in. One of the reasons Lemp Brewery is at its current location is the large natural cave that is under the site, an underground space the early brewers enlarged until 1845. The cellars would remain in use through at least the 1880s, when refrigeration was installed at the plant.
After Johann died in 1862, his son William took over. At that time there were only 6 employees who produced a respectable 4,000 barrels yearly. By the 1870s, however, the brewery was the biggest in a town of breweries—St. Louis had 30 at the time—and by the 1890s about 700 men and women collected paychecks there.
Prohibition and Shutdown
As the plant continued to modernize it became the first to ship nationally, facilitated by Western Cable Railway’s 500 refrigerated rail cars. To this day the circa-1890 Western Cable locomotive shop stands near the 1905 Elevator. Prohibition brought an end to the good business, though, when Lemp officials began selling a non-alcoholic malted drink called ‘Cerva’. It was apparently, and unfortunately, awful.
Cerva did not sell well enough to keep the huge factory open, and one day the workers were locked out of the brew house, malt house, bottling house and the rest. That was how they found out the plant was finally closed, and they were unemployed.
International Shoe, a company that bought a part of the complex in 1922, used parts of the property until 1992, but the other buildings remained—and remain—dark. Today some parts of the big complex are rented out as artist lofts and others are used by small businesses.
Most of the empty space, however, is as closed as the caves, which I never got into that late summer day. Next to the Lemp safe was a Lemp steel plate, sealing the Lemp caves from my footsteps and camera, but unleashing my imagination. Next time I hope to explore these caves and the rest of the complex.
Until then, I am left dreaming about the darker places of old Western.