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KC Bier Creates a New Heim Lager for J. Reiger Co.

KC Bier’s Karlton Graham looks on as Elizabeth Belden pulls a liter of its new Heim lager, brewed exclusively for the J. Rieger Co. distillery complex. (photo by Steve Paul)

The first time I watched Elizabeth Belden brew a batch of beer, her quiet morning among the tanks at KC Bier Co. was shattered just moments after I arrived. A news alert on her phone reported the death of Yordano Ventura, the young Kansas City Royals pitching ace and World Series veteran, whose vehicle had crashed on a mountain road in the Dominican Republic.

Belden’s love for baseball and the Royals is a long-term family affair and runs at least as deep as her love of beer. So she was emotionally shaken as she went about her business, punching at the soggy, spent grain in one vat and fiddling with gauges and hoses amid the brew house’s armada of stainless steel vessels.

We couldn’t manage to say much over the next couple of hours. But as we walked around, she told me about the sacks of imported German malts and other aspects of KC Bier’s production that have earned the brewery its reputation for authenticity. A friend of mine, who visits occasionally from New England, says KC Bier’s Helles lager is the best beer he’s had since he lived in Munich.

With the explosion of craft-beer culture, Kansas City has become a brew-centric town again. Along with baseball, beer has a rightful claim to join those other defining B’s of Kansas City’s heritage: BBQ and bebop.

And Belden — just an alphabetical coincidence — has found herself in the middle of that heritage, specifically because of a custom KC Bier product that she helped produce this year. It’s a beer made exclusively for the new J. Rieger Co. distillery complex in Kansas City’s industrial East Bottoms.

To make a long story short, J. Rieger Co. recently expanded its liquor-making capacity and built an attractive visitor’s center, including a local history exhibit and two bars. Like its corporate sibling, the Rieger restaurant in the Crossroads, the distillery’s history goes back to pre-Prohibition roots. But now Rieger also has incorporated the former bottling plant of the onetime Heim Brewery, a company also founded in the 19th century by German-speaking innovators.

With that Heim heritage in mind, Rieger’s team began discussions with KC Bier about adding a beer to its bar program, which, of course, generally would feature its own spirits.

The Rieger’s Monogram bar pours only one beer, a lager branded with the revived Heim label. (photo by Steve Paul)

The initial idea, according to Andy Rieger, the distillery president and great-great-great-grandson of founder Jacob Rieger, was simply to serve KC Bier’s Helles under the revived Heim brand. Helles is a traditional German lager, and all involved thought it might well represent a modern equivalent to the Heim thirst quencher of yore.

Yet Karlton Graham, director of brewery operations at KC Bier, wanted to push the historical connection even more. He proposed using Bohemian yeasts and hops, perhaps catching some terroir from the Heim family’s Bavarian roots. Belden went to work in KC Bier’s lab, and she and her fellow brewers created a batch.
The result was something like the clear and crisp Helles, but with a bit more complexity.

The day I dropped in to visit again with Belden and Graham, they gave me the details along with side-by-side samples of the Helles and the new Heim beer, many barrels of which were “lagering,” or cold fermenting, in the towering chiller tank No. 13.

When Belden and Graham took a sample to the distillery, Andy Rieger’s response was telling: “This tastes like beer.” In other words, it wasn’t overthought and overwrought like so many hazy and crazy boutique brews of today. It also put him in touch with a childhood sense memory — the parentally enabled first sip of beer.

Since it would be the only beer in the joint, Rieger wanted a product to satisfy the Bud Light palate and those who prefer Boulevard’s Tank 7.

So far, it’s a hit — dare we say, in baseball-speak, a home run — and KC Bier has had to ramp up production to keep up with demand.

For Belden and her bosses, their Heim story is an affirmation of their passions not only for brewing but for Kansas City history as well.

And says Rieger, who is riding high on that history at the moment: “This will be our forever beer.”

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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