COLUMBIA — Chris Bruno sat at the bar Wednesday sipping a pint of dark beer with a citrusy aroma and a ring of thick foam.
"It's fairly hoppy and a tad bitter but manageable," said Bruno, a Columbia native who was getting his first taste of a new craft beer.
He was drinking the Cysquatch, one of three beers introduced by the new Rock Bridge Brewing Co. during its official launch Wednesday at Shakespeare's Pizza.
The company behind the beer is Columbia's first wholesale brewery. It is counting on the city's "craft beer culture" to embrace the Cysquatch, as well as two others — the Sif's Blonde and the Farmer's Daughter Peppered Rye Saison.
Rock Bridge Brewing produces its beer at a warehouse on Big Bear Boulevard and will distribute it to local bars, grocery stores and restaurants. In contrast, brewpubs such as Flat Branch Pub & Brewing and Broadway Brewery make and sell their own beer on the premises.
Eric Peterson, executive vice president of Rock Bridge Brewing, said Bengals Bar & Grill, Shiloh Bar & Grill, Bleu Restaurant & Wine Bar, 44 Stone Public House and 1839 Taphouse are among the local bars that have inquired about the new beers and say they will soon have them available. Shakespeare's Pizza already has the beer on tap.
"The beauty of our product is you can go to your favorite bar or restaurant and buy our beer," Peterson said. "That's our market niche."
All three of the Rock Bridge Brewery's beers were available at the Wednesday afternoon launch party. People were lined up behind a row of kegs to buy a cup or a pitcher. The Cysquatch looked to be the most popular.
Brewmaster Stu Burkemper said the Cysquatch is unfiltered, which results in an opaque quality. It is also dry-hopped, with a ninth round of hops added to the brew after boiling, giving the beer its citrus aroma and woodsy flavor.
David Brouder, president and founding partner of the brewery, predicts the Cysquatch will become the company's trademark beer.
"It's just got a really big, smooth balance and complex kind of taste," he said. "If you're a hoppier craft-beer drinker, you can really appreciate the taste and what goes into it."
Craft beer comes from small, independent, traditional breweries that produce fewer than 6 million barrels a year, according to the Brewers Association.
Of nearly 2,000 breweries in America at the end of 2011, craft breweries represented 5.68 percent of the total market, up from 4.97 percent in 2010.
The idea for Rock Bridge Brewing emerged about two years ago when three long-time friends — Peterson, Brouder and Dan Clay — decided to make a local business out of their shared passion for both beer and Columbia. They realized it was a college town without its own craft beer, and they wanted to give locals something to call their own.
"We decided, 'Let's look into it and see what it would take or why someone hasn't done it already,'" Brouder, 41, said. "We just started going down that path, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger."
"(Columbia) supports breweries from basically all over the country," he added. "We thought it was time Columbia had their own."
After months of planning, the owners decided to look for a place to install the brewing equipment and store the beer. Last year, they found a warehouse that could be converted into a brewery to meet federal requirements so they could obtain the proper licenses.
Peterson, 59, owns a construction management company and used his knowledge to make a facility Rock Bridge Brewing needed to brew on a large scale.
"I basically converted a warehouse space into a brewery," Peterson said of the company's facility at 612 Big Bear Blvd.
The process initially involved installing fermenting tanks, brewing kettles and a glycol chiller system to keep the tanks at precise temperatures.
The owners started with two four-barrel tanks, Peterson said. After talking to local bars and getting enthusiastic reviews of beer samples, they realized they needed more equipment to meet the interest. In early March, they purchased three larger tanks to ramp up production.
The warehouse-turned-brewery soon became the birthplace of the Cysquatch, an India Pale Ale that was also popular at the 2012 Missouri Beer Festival on Saturday.
The beer — whose name combines Cyclops and Sasquatch — is the brainchild of head brewer Burkemper, 27, who worked at O'Fallon Brewery for five years before he was laid off in 2011.
He attended the Siebel Institute of Technology, a brewing school in Chicago. His education included a five-week stint in Munich, Germany, where he received "hands-on" training in the process of brewing, packaging and recipe development.
He began working for Rock Bridge Brewing in January and soon cooked up the Cysquatch.
"It is like cooking," he said. "Tweak something, and it changes everything."
The Cysquatch has four pounds of hops per barrel and six types of malts.
"It is a very bold beer," Peterson said. "We were all just jamming with what the name should be and we came up with (Cysquatch) because it's big, it's wild, it's hairy — however you want to describe it. We say we tamed it with the sweetness of the malts."
Clay, CEO and founding partner of the brewery, said the Cysquatch "doesn't bite your tongue like many hoppy beers do." He said the beer has the potential to win a national competition one day.
"For me, the flavor is full from the minute it hits your mouth until the minute you get to the hop finish," Clay said. "A lot of IPA's you’ll drink, the flavor profile is exclusively at the end of the beer experience. Ours has a full taste experience the minute it hits your mouth."
He credits the achievement to the brewmaster: "It is truly a work of his art."
If the brewery finds success in Columbia, the company plans to take business across Missouri — Jefferson City, St. Louis, Kansas City and Lake of the Ozarks — all places that have already expressed interest in the beers.
"We want to put Columbia on the map," Peterson said, adding that the company has limited its products to 12 local restaurants and bars until the owners purchase more equipment and find more space.
"It's been challenging, but at the same time its been extremely rewarding," Brouder said. "We're just excited for what the future is going to bring."
Kurt Mirtsching, the general manager of Shakespeare's, said he was excited about the new beers.
"Our managers got together, and some of them are beer guys, and they said it tasted great, so we're gonna give it a shot," Mirtsching said.
By the summer, Brouder said the company will try to introduce two additional beers.
"My philosophy with our beer is it doesn't have to be really edgy," he said. "It just has to be something that's really good quality, maybe a little different than what's out there."