“The pub is the great equalizer. Someone who makes seven dollars an hour can afford a pint next to a guy that makes a million dollars a year,” says Jake Hafner, owner and founder of The Civil Life Brewing Company. Outside of the brewery, he quickly introduces himself before rolling up his sleeves to help carry in suitcases and duffel bags full of video equipment, leading us into the main bar room. Clean-shaven, wearing jeans and a ballcap, his face lights up as he talks about the space, excitedly discussing its influences and the local carpenters who labored over the wood-paneled interior.
“I don’t think there’s anything out there that’s quite as welcoming as wood,” says Hafner, sweeping his palm across a shiny table top. He’s always been an optimistic guy, willing to take risks for the chance of success. That inextinguishable optimism can be traced all the way back to his formative years growing up in St. Louis: he mentions a bathroom decoration in his childhood home that said, ‘Stand for something, or fall for everything.’
“When you open a business, you’re really saying you stand for something,” he says. The brewery opens up into a formidable space, brightly-lit, and at least two stories high. Several giant silver fermenters loom ahead, surrounded by bags of barley, refrigerators with kegs of freshly dispensed brew, temperature controls, labels, buckets, hoses, and a variety of other contraptions. The air has a thick, sweet aroma. The combined effect of the gauges, tanks, and machinery make the whole room look like an enormous science lab, which I later discover is not terribly far off from the truth.
Dylan Mosley, Head Brewer at The Civil Life and Hafner’s thoroughly bearded counterpart, carries buckets of water across an expanse of gray cement. He is something of a mad scientist himself, with waterproof rubber boots, gloves, and an inexhaustible, highly articulate vocabulary about the extraordinary nuance of brewing. “It’s really all about subtlety. I think that when you’re drinking beers like the ones we hope to produce, that subtlety means a lot. Fermentation, temperature, a few more hops there, a little bit more grain there can increase all kinds of dynamics in the beer.”
“So, how do you know when you’ve struck gold?” I ask.
“There are angels, little singing trolls…” Hafner says, laughing.
Mosely gives Hafner a bemused look, and chuckles as well.
“You have to drink a lot of beer. You have to know what a lot of beer tastes like. It’s like anything in life: the more attuned you are to something, the better off you are within that field,” says Mosley. Between the two of them, they probably know everything human beings could possibly know about beer. This is no mere hobby for either of them. It is an all-consuming, demanding passion.
By contrast, their jovial disposition seems fitting for a couple of brewers who open the homepage of their website with: “Hey let’s face it. You probably waste a lot of time on the internet. Why not waste it here?”
The two joined forces when Hafner opened his first restaurant in St. Louis: a wine bar called 33. Hafner himself has been in the foodservice industry, in some iteration or another, for most of his life. After graduating from high school in St. Louis, he spent seven years traversing the restaurant scene in New York City, and several months exploring European restaurants and brew houses before opening The Civil Life. “I was a flight-risk for a long time. I really wanted to see what else was out there.” In New York City, he worked at Windows on the World, a swanky restaurant that was located in the top floors World Trade Center before 9/11. The restaurant had a strictly enforced blazer rule: men who came to dine with a reservation but without proper attire were seated at the bar. Compared to New York, St. Louis functions under an entirely different mentality. “In St. Louis, you can walk into so many business and see the owner of the business. And I think that’s unique not just to St. Louis, but to a lot of these smaller markets. In larger cities like New York, it’s too tough. There’s just a million other things to be doing. It’s a totally different game. You have to get so many more people through the system just to make it work.”
While the high rent costs and cutthroat competition of larger cities often stomp out swaths of fledgling restaurants, businesses, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, idealists, and more, St. Louis has a unique ability to nurture and cultivate the dreamer trampled by impossibly high expenses and expectations of larger cities. While it is still not easy to open and maintain a business here, it is possible, as Hafner can attest. “There’s a real accessibility here. The barriers to entry are less.” After seven years in New York City, he returned to St. Louis to be closer to his family, and opened 33. With only eight tables, the wine bar relied primarily upon a clientele of devoted regulars and word-of-mouth marketing. The space didn’t even have a sign on the outside.
The small, familiar atmosphere allowed Hafner to foster authentic relationships with his clientele, something he also missed while in New York. Working in restaurants has forced Hafner, the self-professed timid kid, to grow out of his shell. “I was actually very shy throughout high school; very reserved and quiet. And a business like this…and this is much more comfortable when people meet me here [at Civil Life], because this is my home field, and I am much more outgoing. I can talk to anybody here. I don’t always express all of those characteristics in other places, but in my place that’s part of what I try to do. You have to make people feel at home.”
While typical business models drive a wedge between restaurant owners and diners, as though they’re on opposing teams, Hafner has a different philosophy. “I’m not detached from my customers. I love the interaction with the people. It’s a constantly changing movie,” he says. “As you grow the business over time, you start realizing how all these people come in and go out of your life. It’s really fascinating to me.”
Hafner sold 33 in 2009 and opened The Civil Life two years later in 2011, which happened, in part, by way of an existential crisis. “There was one night in particular where I was doing this soul searching, trying to figure out what to do next with my life, this grand scheme, and it just hit me. We should open a brewery.” Within an hour, Hafner and Mosley had purchased a pro-consumer brewing system, and quickly began running test batches. While Hafner had always dreamed of owning a business, the process has been risky. He had to max out three credit cards and wound up with $40,000 of debt just to open, and the costs kept pouring in. Even so, he went all in. The stakes were, and still are, high.
“There’s no way to know all of the unknowns. This pad we’re sitting on [motions to the lifted concrete platform] was $25,000 that we didn’t know we had to put in at the beginning. And there’s certain things like that come up at the end, and you have to find a way to get through it.” By the looks of it, you’d never know about the financial challenges. The elegant bar top frames the entire space, with long tables flanked by benches that pay their respects to German beer halls and European-style dining. Shiny liquor glasses of almost every conceivable shape and size line the back wall behind the bar, meticulously layered atop wooden shelves.
The more Hafner saw what a well-crafted public space could mean to people, the more he began to believe that The Civil Life had the potential to be much more than a facility that produced and distributed beer. To him, a restaurant is not about the sterility of profit margins and table-turning every hour, or conjuring up the quickest way to extract the most amount of money from a customer with the least amount of effort. As an observer, a facilitator, and a contributor, his business is based on a genuine desire to positively give to his community, rather than simply take. “You’ll see people in here playing games. We’ve got a ton of games, we’ve got books. Patrick, who’s the full-time bartender, has a doctorate in English, so he put a great library together and we’re starting a book club. We’ve got families who come down on Saturdays and bring their kids.” He saw that The Civil Life could become the epicenter of a community, a sanctuary, and a symbol of pride, and in some larger, philosophical sense, an indicator that he was here, that he was present, that he did something with his time. “Leaving your mark is greater than the struggles you may go through,” says Hafner. While capitalism doesn’t always reward the honest work ethic of entrepreneurs like him, sometimes the good guys win for a change. The Civil Life is built on the foundation of hope, honesty, and passion, something the libation world has traded in for manipulative, flashy marketing ploys and spaces that herd customers in and out like cattle.
“That’s one of the things that has always bugged me about beer,” says Mosley, voicing a much-needed criticism of the commercialization that has embedded itself in the industry. “The companies that have had the money to inform people about beer have spent their money not informing people about what beer is. Lately, maybe Sam Adams has picked some of that up–at least in their commercials, you see grain and hops and you see guys around a boil kettle. It’s somehow a little but more lived-in than what anyone else is putting a commercial out for.”
“Yeah, supermodels and talking dogs…”
“…we can afford neither of those…”
“…it’s disappointing that we’ve come so far with beer, and there’s such a resounding ignorance about it. It’s really mind boggling. There’s part of me that’s kind of fascinated with it and part of me that’s disgusted with it,” says Mosley.
Yet even with the intense pressure to turn a profit, the St. Louis craft beer market has somehow managed to develop an infrastructure that supports camaraderie between individual breweries, rather than pitting them against one another in competition. “Schlafly has been the greatest big brother you could hope for. There’s not a person on that staff who hasn’t come down here and said ‘Hello,’ and offered advice. They’ve set the tone for everybody, and it’s created this really great community of brewers,” he says. “It’s kind of counterintuitive to what we’re structured to believe.” A complete paradigm shift from how we’re taught to think of business, this is uniquely characteristic of smaller markets, with a fresh, new type of entrepreneurial relationships. “In a case like this it’s a very unique market where the craft consumption is growing. And if each one of us produce great beer, we don’t affect the other person, in a sense. If we’re each producing great craft beer, we bring more people into the fold which helps grow the pie bigger. So the pie grows bigger, then more people can come in.”
While it may be lofty to think the craft beer industry in St. Louis can restructure how businesses interact with one another, it would be untruthful to say it can’t: it already is. As Hafner suspected, The Civil Life has become much more than just a brewery. It signifies a case study of the American Dream-esque attitude that still exists here, where sweat and elbow grease make a difference, where optimism with a dash of naiveté is a good thing, and where building effective relationships is just as important as turning a profit.
“I think it’s good to be a little naïve when you open a business, in a sense. If you really sit down and think about your chances of success, and the amount of hours you’re going to put in and the strain it can put on your family and your life, you probably wouldn’t do it.” While naiveté typically connotes a lack of experience, the latter is clearly not the case with Hafner. Rather, he has a kind of naivete that willingness to tap into the possibility of success. “I think everybody wants to look back on life and show something that you did. Whether it’s a family…or, there’s so many different ways to create a life, and to show that your partook in this time here.”