Here come the cops.
The five people drinking in this North Kansas City bar — a place not yet open for business — see a telltale flash of red and blue flickering outside as a black SUV parks. They register the guilty looks of high-schoolers whose parents have just arrived to bust up a party.
Cinder Block owner Bryce Schaffter walks toward his business's open garage door to meet the police officer headed inside. The 30-year-old straightens his shoulders and evens his gait as he prepares to explain what exactly is going on in this former auto repair shop behind Neon Wild. But there's no need.
"This is so intriguing," the officer says. "I just had to see what was happening here."
Schaffter smiles. He has found a beer nerd in uniform. "Let me give you a tour," he says.
U.S. microbreweries are growing at a stunning rate. Last year, according to a Brewers Association estimate, the number of breweries nationwide increased by 18 percent, to 2,403. Yet none of those breweries were in Kansas City, where beer drinkers have practically had to call the authorities to track down products like Schaffter's. In 2012, the Brewers Association ranked Missouri 23rd among states for breweries per capita. (Kansas was 30th.)
But hops spring eternal, especially now that Missouri and Kansas legislators have begun to ease restrictions on brewers, and the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council has liberalized KC's liquor ordinances. In a move that made bottle shops possible in Kansas City, the council amended tavern licensure last summer to allow up to 40 percent of beer sold at a bar to be taken off-site. And last month, the council voted to permit alcohol producers, including microbreweries, to sell their beverages directly to the public at the point of manufacture.
The results are already showing. In January, Green Room Burgers & Beer began brewing its own beer. Big Rip Brewing Co. opened in North Kansas City in May. Another four operations — Cinder Block; the Kansas City Bier Co.; Martin City Brewing Co.; and the Rock & Run Brewery, in Liberty — should be online by year's end. (Day trippers, take note: Broadway St. Brewing Co. opened in May 2012 in Concordia, Kansas, and Defiance Brewing Co. expects a fall launch in Hays, Kansas. Also in the Sunflower State, Wakarusa Brewery is headed to Eudora next summer.)
More than $2 million will be invested in brewing operations around the metro this year. For those looking to leap from hobbyist to commercial manufacturer, this is shaping up to be their moment.
"I can't think of another large market that is so underserved by local brewers," Steve Holle says. "Boulevard is the only large-scale craft brewer, and they've created this beer culture here where people are open to trying craft beers."
With his new business, KC Bier Co., Holle means to change that.
On a recent Wednesday morning at Brookside's Roasterie Café, he explains his venture with the comfortable grin of a dad in a CW dramedy and the paperwork of a CPA. Holle, 55, has spent the past year lining up 25 investors and $1.7 million to transform the former Babyland & Kids' Room, at 310 West 79th Street (where that street meets Wornall, along the Trolley Track Trail), into a brewery, beer hall and beer garden.
"I want this to have an urban feel and be a place people could walk or bike," he says. "Prohibition created the image of a dark, smoky place where men go to get drunk. But when you go to Munich, a beer garden is part of a public park where people go to have a beer.
"I love German beer for its simple depth of flavor and approachability," he adds. "I think there's a niche in the middle between light and really extreme beers. It's simple beer, like eating fresh bread. If it's served fresh, it's always good."
Holle's name is well-known in the beer community. His A Handbook of Basic Brewing Calculations can be found in countless craft breweries around the country (Boulevard among them), and he's a regular judge at the Great American Beer Festival. He also has developed a Beer Steward Certificate Program for the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, a way to teach wholesalers and retailers how to talk about and serve beer
And he has seen this formula work. Urban Chestnut — the St. Louis brewery that counts Holle as an investor and a board member — is in the midst of a $10 million expansion after opening its doors only two years ago. So after a 20-year career in real-estate finance, the Hickman Mills graduate moved here in January from Plano, Texas, to open a German-style brewery in his hometown.
The day that KC Bier Co. opens, in November, it will already be tied with Mothers Brewing Co. as the fourth-largest brewery in Missouri, behind Anheuser-Busch InBev; Boulevard; and the Saint Louis Brewing Co., which makes Schlafly. Like Mothers, KC Bier is using a 30-barrel system. (A barrel is equivalent to approximately 31 gallons of beer; Boulevard, the 12th-largest U.S. craft brewer by sales volume, expects to produce about 188,000 barrels this year.) KC Bier's Munich-style lagers, dry German Pilsners and a hefeweizen (made, Holle says, with a strain of yeast from a monastery brewery in Bavaria) will be poured in-house and sent to taps around the city. Holle is considering adding bottling in the second year.
"Craft-beer drinkers aren't like my father," he says. "We don't just order the same beer. We're always looking for something new."
What's new may well come from a few ambitious craft-beer devotees, thanks to an unlikely beer ally: the Missouri General Assembly.
Last month, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a law that allows home brewers to legally share their batches outside their immediate families. (In Kansas, a pair of similar bills have stalled.) Now, your beer-brewing neighbor can bring her suds to festivals, contests or dinner at your house (as long as money doesn't change hands for a taste).
The legislative shift could lead to a deluge of nanobreweries. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that there are 13,000 amateur brewers in Missouri. Each can now produce 200 gallons per calendar year, in a household with two adults of legal drinking age (100 gallons for those who live alone).
"This taps into our foodie culture, and people that just love making," says Clay Johnston, chief marketing officer for Brew Lab, a brew-on-premises business set to open in August in downtown Overland Park. "Now people that have been doing this for years don't have to worry about it being legal."
As Johnston offers this opinion, he is joined by Brew Lab CEO Kevin Combs, who has just finished cutting a hole in their shop's floor, making way for a hoist to lower beer into a basement fermenting room. The make-your-own operation acts as a commissary, giving home brewers access to commercial equipment, staff advice and recipes so they can leave with two cases of beer that they've brewed and bottled themselves.
Johnston and Combs and their two partners, CIO Matt Hornung and CFO Justin Waters, took over the former video-production space in April, tearing out tile and carpet to reveal a concrete floor, and removing a drop ceiling to expose wooden rafters. The aluminum-clad brick walls and concrete floor give the place a Chipotle feel. A pair of brewing stations can be seen through the front window. A matching set of stainless-steel sinks and prep tables toward the rear serve as the bottling area. Malt and barley, the building blocks of beer, line another wall, waiting in rows of plastic dispensers like those that contain nuts and cereal at Whole Foods.
Brew Lab is the first operation of its kind in the metro, and it's a different take on the traditional home-brew supply shop. Its founders mean to tap into the same demand that led a pair of beer hobby shops to open in KC over the past year: Cowtown Brew Supply, an online retailer, and Grain to Glass, a home-brew shop inside Market 3, where owner Jennifer Helber also leads workshops.
"A lot of people don't know somebody that home brews but want to learn," Combs says. "Skillwise, it's going to be an incubator. Breweries could start here."
During the Wednesday dinner hour, Bier Station is as packed as a Tokyo subway car. Tonight's crowd has gathered for the Boulevard Brewing Co.'s tap takeover, but owner John Couture's eight-month-old bottle shop and bar in Armour Hills has become an unofficial gathering place for wholesalers, distributors and brewers. The Brew Lab partners settled on their company name here, and the organizers of the Kansas City Nanobrew Festival are meeting with home brewers as they ready for this weekend's fest.
"People want the most unique thing you can get, and it's not going to get more unique than 60 beers that will never exist again," Frank Rydzewski says. He's the only one of the festival's five organizers who has managed to snag a seat at a communal table upstairs.
This is the fourth year for the home-brew celebration, which began as the Brookside Nanobrew Festival. Rydzewski, 36, expects to have 60 beers on tap, including a brew made with Tootsie Rolls, to the 400 people who gather in the parking lot outside Big Rip Brewing Co. Big Rip is among the event's alumni, suggesting that KC's beer future is about to be poured on the North Kansas City blacktop.
"Kansas City has this discerning palate," Rydzewski says. "There's this great cocktail culture. I feel like this town can sustain a lot of nanobreweries," he says. "It would be awesome if North Kansas City could turn into brew town."
"If you ask any home brewer, they'll tell you the same thing," Chad Moats, a fellow organizer, says. "The more breweries there are, the better."
Ask Cinder Block's Schaffter, for instance.
A year ago, he was one of the home brewers at the Kansas City Nanobrew Festival, when the event was held in Original Juan's parking lot. He'd been making his beer in his cinder-block basement (hence his beer's name), and he worked the festival that day with John Baikie, 36, husband of one of Schaffter's co-workers at Cerner.
Cinder Block drew a strong response from drinkers and fellow brewers at the fest, so last August, Baikie and Schaffter drove to the Great Nebraska Beer Fest with 60 gallons of beer in a pair of SUVs, the air-conditioning turned up full-blast.
It was a good idea. The night before the festival, Schaffter met Bryan "Bucky" Buckingham, a veteran brewer who got off a bus from Oregon 20 years ago and started working his way up from a dishwashing position at Lawrence's Free State Brewing Co.
"It was 1 a.m., and I remember he told me he was thinking about starting a brewery," says Buckingham, now Cinder Block's director of brewing operations. He pours himself a glass of beer from a black growler. "I hear that a lot. But this is going to be rad."
Buckingham's encouragement and the response of festivalgoers convinced Schaffter that his hobby might be a viable business.
"We talked to a lot of people from Kansas City and we realized that people were really looking for something new. It was really energizing," Schaffter says. "So I started doing research on construction, and then I was like, 'Wow, no, this is going to be crazy.' "
The numbers, at least, are crazy. Since April, Schaffter and Baikie have hauled more than 8,000 pounds of concrete out of the brewery space. Kansas City Power & Light had to install a new utility pole outside Cinder Block in order to meet the brewery's utility needs, which are almost four times greater than the auto body shop that preceded it.
There's a showpiece wall in the front taproom with barrels of wine and spirits. Cinder Block will open with a barrel-aging program, an uncommon investment for startup breweries because it means an even longer delay in revenue coming in the door. Because the brewery is opening between hop seasons, Buckingham, Baikie and Schaffter are each storing 100 pounds of the key beer ingredient in his basement.
Schaffter, a former shop hand at his family's John Deere dealership in Iowa who holds a degree in agricultural systems technology, has made the brewery feasible by acting as his own general contractor and forklift operator. The back half of the building has been converted into a production brewery with a mill room, a cooling room and a brewhouse. He has installed a 15-barrel system that will be run by Buckingham, who left the 23rd Street Brewery last month.
For its launch, Cinder Block is putting five year-round beers in its tap room: Weathered Wit, Pavers Porter, Prime Extra Pale Ale, Northtown Native Steam Beer and Block IPA. Schaffter expects to begin brewing in early August, to open in September, and to send kegs out by the end of the year.
"I've watched Bryce during this whole process," Buckingham says. "And I can tell that, for him, this is a lifetime commitment."
"You see people talking about the beer and loving it," Schaffter says. "That's what it's all about."
That and being a good neighbor. On this day, Schaffter is preparing to lend a cooling unit to Big Rip. The young two-barrel brewery's homemade cooler, a retrofitted window air conditioner, has conked out while battling the July heat. The two breweries, which are less than 10 blocks apart, off Swift Avenue, are part of the new face of a manufacturing neighborhood that until recently was more likely to confuse a GPS than be your car's destination.
"You look at Fort Collins [in Colorado], and this is how it happens," Schaffter says. "People know Odell and New Belgium now. Big Rip started something. North Kansas City is prime for the picking. There's cheap rent in an industrial area, and yet you have this neighborhood thing, a small-town vibe."
He pauses, brushes a hand over the smooth top of the wood bar that he built himself. "And here we are."
Michael Ptacek knew that he'd have to start small, but he didn't imagine making beer in a space measuring less than 100 square feet. Kansas City's smallest brewing operation is visible from the dining room of Green Room Burgers & Beer in Westport.
"The contractor said we'd want more room for the kitchen when we were putting up the drywall," he says. "The restaurant gets in the way all the time. I set out to make beer, and the fryer breaks. But I have about two days a week to go into the brewery."
With 12 batches under his belt, Ptacek has begun to focus on English and Belgian brews. He recently purchased a beer engine, a stainless-steel cask that holds 10.8 gallons (he preps two casks at a time) and sits on the bar.
Cask-conditioned beer is carbonated by active yeast, which allows a brew to develop complex flavors and become smoother as it ages in the barrel. Ptacek can infuse his beer with hops added directly to the cask; he's also experimenting with creating his own fruit extracts.
"I feel like I need to make a bold step so I don't get lost amid these other big guys," he says. "That's the hard part. You have to start off and be as good as Boulevard. Ultimately, it comes out to how good your beer is."
Matt Moore, one of the owners of Martin City Brewing Co., feels the same pressure. The restaurant, having already assembled a very respectable array of other companies' brews, is about to start making its own beer. "That's the thing that scares me: We have the restaurant right next door with the best beers you can buy in the city," he says. "It's going to have to be great beer."
Martin City's 15-barrel system is being built at Newlands Systems in British Columbia, and Moore hopes to begin brewing in September. He has spent the past seven months working with Nick Vaughn, formerly of Doodle Brewing (the Liberty company that shut down in December 2011), to set up the brewery space, just east of the restaurant at 410 East 135th Street.
Back in March, Moore took a research trip to the Odell Brewing Co., in Fort Collins, Colorado. He returned with five kegs of a cinnamon-vanilla black saison, the last of which was tapped for the restaurant's first anniversary, in June.
"Hopefully, in a year or two, Martin City is synonymous with the best beer in Kansas City," Moore says.
If all goes according to plan, the new brewery will be kegging beer by the end of 2014. But there are variables; over the past three years, Martin City's head brewer has seen how hard it is to gain a footing in the Kansas City beer market. Vaughn was at the vanguard of a 2011 crop of breweries that never made it to market. The beer worked, he says, but the challenge of securing distribution was tricky in a competitive market dominated by Boulevard and other large craft brewers.
Vaughn, who held on to Doodle's equipment and its rights, is focused on getting Martin City off the ground. He wants it to experience that moment coveted by home brewers and head brewers alike.
"The first beer you pour is always a big celebration," he says. "That first beer that comes out is pretty big."
The Kansas City Nanobrew Festival, 4–8 p.m. Saturday, July 27, in the parking lot of Big Rip Brewing Co. At press time, it was sold out (kcnanobrews.com).