Jennifer Helber taps into the art and science of brewing at Grain to Glass
A microbiologist, a woman, and a beer expert walk into a bar. No. It’s not a joke. It’s an accurate, albeit partial description of Jennifer Helber, owner of Grain to Glass, a supply and bottle shop for aspiring and knowledgeable homebrewers.
Once a white-coated lab researcher, studying botany, molecular genetics, and intent on creating new plants, Helber was completing her graduate degree in microbiology when she overheard Boulevard founder John McDonald quizzing her professor about the cultivation of yeast. Helber propagated the first yeast for what has grown to be the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest.
A decade later, armed with a Master of Science degree in microbiology and a desire to move out of research, Helber responded to a newspaper ad seeking someone to help develop Boulevard’s quality-assurance lab. McDonald remembered her and hired her. She spent nine years conducting the sensory tasting of Boulevard’s production beers daily, to ensure that each style had the desired flavor characteristics. Helber quickly established herself in one of the most male-dominated industries in the country.
“After I established and equipped the Quality Assurance Lab in 1999, I became the Sensory Specialist. It was my job to train others to teach others to recognize ‘off’ flavors in the beers to assure the quality.” Helber explains, “I would spike the beers with different flavors the testers should be able to recognize in their beers as being of poor quality, such as butterscotch, vinegar and baby puke.”
Helber’s love of working with beer, and sometimes drinking it, partially centers on the fact there are so many variations. “You’re never bored with beer,” she explains. “I’ve never been as much a wine drinker as I am a beer drinker. Of course, I started acquiring a professional taste for beer when I started working at Boulevard.
“What some don’t realize is beer goes with virtually everything. You can have beer pairings just like wine pairings. Not only that, but the carbonation in beer helps cleanse the palate. And, versatile? We even made stout floats at Grain to Glass last month!”
When did Helber’s interest in home brewing begin? “I started home brewing when I was working at Boulevard,” she explains. “I became president of a local homebrew club, ZZ Hops, and began sharing information on bottling and brewing, in general. I love beer and wanted to help others have successful brewing experiences. Also, I had visited Portland and Asheville, both craft brew meccas, and realized we didn’t have any home brew equipment and supply stores that compared. I could see the craft beer trend taking off; I decided the timing was right.”
In 2012, Helber opened Grain to Glass in the River Market area, moving the business to its current location at 1611 Swift Avenue in North KC, in March of 2014. She taught brewing classes on site to help others get started off on a good foot so they wouldn’t get frustrated and quit.
While purchasing their home brewing supplies at Grain to Glass, beer geeks can enjoy a handpicked selection of craft beer by the bottle and hang out at the bar to discuss beer and brewing. Local cheeses from Green Dirt Farm in Weston, and Askinosie direct trade chocolates from Springfield, Mo., round out the perfect triad of beer, cheese and chocolate. It’s a great place to just “be”.
Based on the eclectic mix of ingredients in the store, alongside the brewing recipe books, chocolate, local honey, real maple syrup and local coffees, it’s easy to liken home brewing to cooking. “Just as in cooking, you can add your own personal touch to most beer recipes and trade out ingredients as long as it’s not a key ingredient needed for fermentation,” Helber says. “Each batch can have its own unique flavor.”
For those who wish to take a simpler route and not bring in their own recipe or measure out the ingredients, Helber provides pre-made kits such as Addicted Coffee Stout, in which she incorporates coffee from Kansas City’s own Oddly Correct. It’s but one of many of the creative brew mix kits available.
As the interest in homebrewing grows, so does the popularity of craft beers and brewing among women. The increased participation reflects in the membership mix of local brew clubs such as the Kansas City Bier Meisters. Uniquely female in its membership, the Helles Angels, a local women-only craft beer club, has been around since 2011.
Grain to Glass welcomes about as many female brewers as males. “More and more women are getting into craft brewing, both professionally and personally. I’ve seen the numbers grow,” observes Helber. “In some of the classes I teach, it’s not unusual for women to comprise 50 percent or more of the attendees.”
In addition to hosting classes on the fine art of homebrewing, Grain to Glass hosts an annual homebrew competition, the Picnique Belgique. Held in August each year, the competition features all Belgian categories and concludes with a special awards dinner featuring special guest speakers such as Stan Heironymous, (Author of Brew Like a Monk) and Florian Kuplent (Brewer of Urban Chestnut). The competition is part of the Kansas City Homebrewer of the Year Award. For beer geeks, it’s but one of many opportunities in the area to put their brewing skills to the test.
Brewing is hardly all work and no play for Helber. Her in-depth knowledge of brewing is not without its rewards. A record of her involvement in the brewing industry includes: former membership in the American Society of Brewing Chemists, former president of ZZ Hops, an original member of the Pink Boots Society (an international organization consisting of the female movers and shakers in the beer industry), former Chair of Malt Sieve Analysis Technical Subcommittee, convener of workshops at the World Brewing Congress, author of brewing publications, and writer of scientific articles for multiple research publications. All of this and more made Helber a natural for selection as a judge at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver, the largest collection of U.S. beer ever served, in a public tasting event and private competition. (Exhale here.)
Awash in ale, Helber claims to have no single favorite, but if she were stuck on a desert island and could have only one beer, she would choose Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “It satisfies my craving for hops and relieves my thirst. Still,” she protests, “There are so many good beers out there, I wouldn’t want to just have one.”
Spoken like a true beer lover.