Dan Kopman: This Jew’s brews get rave reviews

Dan Kopman. All photos by Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Stroll down the beer aisle at Schnucks and you’ll see dozens of foreign and domestic labels. Bars and restaurants likewise offer a wide variety of beers, ales and stouts. Some have odd names and unusual flavors, like pumpkin and grapefruit.

That wasn’t always the case.

For decades, Anheuser-Busch had a commanding grasp on the St. Louis beer market. Some might say it was a stranglehold. Then one upstart decided to offer an alternative.

The man who brought the St. Louis craft beer movement to life looks a bit like a courtly British gentleman, sporting a scruffy beard and tweed jacket. His voice offers a clue—he pronounces the first syllable of “Scotland” as SCAUGHT, like a Scot would. But Dan Kopman was born and raised in Clayton, and confirmed at Temple Emanuel.

Kopman, 54, is the co-founder and co-chairman of Schlafly Brewery, and is its first brewmaster. He learned the craft of brewing in the United Kingdom in the early 80s, a nifty bit of timing since it was around the time that Tom Schlafly began considering what then would seem like a crazy idea: Create a small, independent brewery in the backyard of the behemoth A-B.

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But in December 1991, they pulled it off, opening Schlafly Tap Room, the first new brewpub to open in Missouri since Prohibition. Some industry observers doubted Schlafly would survive. They were wrong. This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the brewery. Since its fledgling introduction, Schlafly has grown to become Missouri’s largest locally owned independent brewery. In 2014, Schlafly (now known as The Saint Louis Brewery) produced 60,000 barrels of beer.

Craft brewers and microbreweries are no longer curiosities. There are now 4,000 breweries in the United States, double the number that existed in 2008. In the past five years, the number of breweries in St. Louis has shot up from two to 40.

What led Dan Kopman to a career fermenting hops, grain and malt?

It may well have started when his grade school class took factory tours. There was a memorable visit to the Boeing plant, and a facility that made pretzels. Kopman loved watching the machinery and seeing products formed. His grandmother in Connecticut took him to a candy factory to see Mounds and Almond Joy created. That may have sealed the deal.

“I love making things,” Kopman said.

After high school, he headed east to Kenyon College in Ohio to study economics. Students were encouraged to study abroad in their junior year, and Kopman headed to 

Edinburgh University. He instantly felt at home in Scotland, and was fascinated by the pale ales and heartier beers on tap there. The British beers were decidedly not the light lagers he was used to seeing in St. Louis.

Kopman interned at two breweries, Young’s in London and Scottish Brewers in Edinburgh, learning the ropes. 

“Then, on a trip back to St. Louis in 1987, my father (Charles) introduced me to Tom Schlafly. They had previously worked together at the same law firm,” he said. “Tom started toying with the idea of opening a brewery. He joined me on a few trips to visit cities like Portland, where small breweries were opening up.

“We told ourselves that this might actually work. St. Louis didn’t have an actual ‘small’ brewery, and other cities did. We started to really think about it. We had ideas on paper but not a formal business plan. We didn’t even write a formal business plan until we bought the building for the Tap Room.”

Nothing about the origins of the Tap Room screamed success. The neighborhood was sketchy. That building, at Locust and 21st Street downtown, was a fixer-upper. After a fire, the structure was essentially a shell, albeit with good bones, listed on the National Historic Register. The post-apocalyptic movie “Escape From New York” had been filmed inside it, with little need for production designers to add much distressing.

When Schlafly and Kopman arrived at a business plan, it was fairly straightforward: brew great beer. The bread and butter, then as now, was a brew Kopman knew well from his experiences abroad. That is British-style pale ale, distinguished by an earthy balance between malt and hops. It’s a heartier and more flavorful beer than the light lagers St. Louis has produced by the gazillions since Adolphus Busch III wore short pants.

In the summer of 1991, Kopman and his wife Sheena moved to St. Louis to prepare for a December opening of the Schlafly Tap Room, then they moved back to Edinburgh the following year, where he completed his master of science degree in policy studies. They remained there and raised their children Lewis and Rosie in Scotland. They returned to St. Louis and a growing Schlafly brewery in 1998.

From the outset, Schlafly had one other altruistic goal that had little to do with beer. 

“We wanted to revitalize neighborhoods,” Kopman said. “If you look at the two neighborhoods we went into, it was real important to Tom and my dad that we revitalize the urban core of St. Louis.”

If the Tap Room was an experiment in adaptive re-use of a turn-of-the-century urban building, Schlafly’s encore offered the brewer an equally daunting task: convert a dilapidated former Shop ’n’ Save in Maplewood into a shiny, modern production brewery. The result, in April 2003, was the opening of the Schlafly Bottleworks. The facility allowed the brewer to expand its retail capabilities, which now reach a 300-mile radius with St. Louis at the center.

Along the path to its growth and success, Kopman grew from brewmaster into business leader, albeit reluctantly.

“I would not say I’m an expert at running a business,” he said. “I don’t read management books. I live it but I don’t read the books.”

He also became intimately acquainted with the legislative process, a messy business often compared to making sausage.

“On three separate occasions we had to go back to the state legislature to get the law changed to allow us to exist in the form we’re in,” he said. “People think that’s normal now but they forget that in 1991 you couldn’t actually brew the beer and sell it over the bar and sell it to wholesalers. Until we got the law changed for the second time, there was a limit to how much we could sell.

“The laws in those days didn’t get changed in the legislature, they got changed at Anheuser-Busch. That was just the way it was, and we just dealt with it.”

Kopman and Tom Schlafly (who was no stranger to the courtroom) nimbly negotiated the process, and Kopman has received honors from the Brewers Association for his efforts to reform federal excise tax for small brewers.

The growth of microbreweries has been good news for beer lovers, but it also means competition is greater. Schlafly beers are no longer the new kid on the block, and they now have a respectable presence in both retail stores and restaurants. A third brewery for Schlafly could be a possibility down the road, but for now, they’re maximizing production at both facilities.

Kopman transitioned from CEO to co-chairman in 2015. That gives him more time to travel and source obscure hops and ingredients. It will likely mean more frequent trips to Scotland. Kopman’s wife Sheena is Scottish and their children have dual citizenship. The couple first met in Skye, an island in the Inner Hebrides.

Scotland is where Kopman learned about British pale ale, where he learned how to brew beer, and where he was married. Sheena and Dan Kopman’s marriage was memorable for a couple of reasons. There were dual officiants (a priest and a rabbi). And, the two gentlemen imbibed a bit before heading to the alter to perform their duties. Ironically, it was not beer they enjoyed, but rather French wine.