Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jennifer Helber opens Grain to Glass in the River Market

Jennifer Helber opens Grain to Glass in the River Market.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Its beer central at Grain to Glass.
  • It's beer central at Grain to Glass.
Chef Boyardee mini ravioli, soy milk, Cascade hops: Market 3 (114 West Third Street) has everything a bachelor, a downtown lunch-break shopper — or a homebrewer — could want. Tucked in a back corner of the River Market grocery is Grain to Glass, Jennifer Helber’s month-old supply shop for home beer makers.

“I’m focusing on new brewers,” Helber says. “I think there are a lot of beer geeks out there that might to learn how to make their own beers.”

Aspiring homebrewers would be wise to study under Helber — a beer judge and president of area homebrew association ZZ Hops. Helber was pursuing a graduate degree in microbiology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1989 when Boulevard founder John McDonald approached her teacher about culturing yeast. A decade later, she was answering a newspaper advertisement to help develop Boulevard’s quality-assurance lab. She spent the next nine years tasting Boulevard’s beer daily to ensure that each style had the desired flavor characteristics.

“I’ve got the science knowledge and the beer knowledge,” Helber says. “I’m just looking to incorporate both of those into the business.”

The shop is small, which is part of Helber’s plan. She’s still refining her concept, which she devised three years ago and developed while attending the Kauffman FastTrac program. The store has two part-time employees, Jonathan Matthews (a member of the local homebrewing club KC Bier Meisters) and Bobby Woolsey (a ZZ Hops member). Woolsey, who has bartended at Joe’s Crab Shack and Night Shades in Blue Springs, sits behind the folding table that doubles as the desk and counter for Grain to Glass, an open copy of Draft Magazine next to a class sign-up sheet, loose grains in a paper soup cup from the market, and a bag of chocolate malt. A poster with a guide to yeast hangs where another shop might have a pastoral nature view.

“The first time you brew inside,” Woolsey says, “I almost guarantee your spouse will kick you out of your house. You’ll be finishing in the driveway. It’s smelly. You smell grain and hops, and that smell sticks around your house for a day or two.”

New grains are regularly being stocked.
  • New grains are regularly being stocked.
At Grain to Glass, the hops are kept in a white refrigerator, alongside liquid yeast (including Brettanomyces, the strain that’s active during the bottle-conditioning of Boulevard’s Saison-Brett) stored in plastic containers that resemble oversized test tubes. The grains are in sealed plastic bags on metal shelves above keg dispensers such as the jockey box, a retrofitted Coleman cooler that has a tap handle and a coil that cools beer as it runs through the ice stored inside. An adjacent shelf has the homebrewing kits, packaged malts and a range of cleaning products.

“Ninety percent of homebrewing is cleaning,” Woolsey says. “If you’re not buying fragrance-free cleaner, then that flavor can end up in your beer.”

Next to the fridge, Grain to Glass stocks kits from Brewer’s Best, which has recipes for the major styles, from porter to pale ale. Helber has also developed her own ingredient kits, such as the White House Honey Porter, which uses chocolate malt and Oak Grove Honey from Oak Grove, Missouri. For about $100, an aspiring homebrewer could leave with the ingredients and equipment for a 5-gallon batch.

“If somebody comes in and asks for something and we don’t have it, it’s on the next truck here,” Woolsey says as he leads a quick tour of the store.

This chocolate malt goes in the White House Honey Porter.
  • This chocolate malt goes in the White House Honey Porter.
Helber initially imagined the downtown location as a draw for Northland customers, but she has found that most of the would-be brewers arriving at the shop work downtown or have stopped in after a City Market event.

“I’m hoping I can grow the business into something bigger: my own space that would have homebrewing supplies and a bottle shop,” Helber says. “We’d sell commercial beers and teach people how to make their own.”

The latter happens this fall, as a class through UMKC’s Communiversity extension program. Helber’s Homebrewing for Beginners meets at Market 3 from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 14, and Sunday, October 28. There’s a second set of classes over two Sundays in November. Both cover the basics of brewing, fermenting and bottling, and cost $34.

“People might have equipment, but they are intimidated about getting stared because they haven’t seen it done,” Helber says. “This is the way to overcome that little blockage to getting started.”

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