On a recent shivery but sunny Saturday afternoon, they came in twos — three couples, two sisters and two longtime friends — for a new four-hour bus tour in the heart of Kansas City.
They shared a common passion — craft beers — and they were about to get a behind-the-scenes look at and samples from three local breweries and one distillery.
The Barley Bus Brewery Tours started rolling in late December. Owners Jake Morgan, with 15 years’ experience in the bar and restaurant business, and Todd Abrams, with a background in the service industry and sales, originally wanted to open a restaurant featuring craft beers. But that idea has recently been embraced by many area restauranteurs. A brewery bus tour, however, offered little competition and put them closer to the brewing process.
“We wanted to be part of the scene, if you will. To be part of all these different businesses that we find so interesting,” Morgan said. “We were pretty confident that people would like what we are doing and want to be a part of it, to feel like they know the breweries a little bit better when they’re done.”
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It also feels a little like a bar on wheels.
As the bus made its way down the Paseo, Morgan pointed out sites like the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. But the group was chatting away in back, already finding common interests besides craft beer — from the best restaurants for the out-of-towners to try to their alma maters to identity theft — until the bus rolled to a stop in front of Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City.
‘A killer concept’
To start Barley Bus, Morgan earned a chauffeur’s license, then spent several months building relationships with area breweries and distilleries. The partners started a website, and only then did they shell out $15,000 for a bus, outfitting it with a custom rack for coolers so their customers could store their growler purchases. The partners also removed the forward-facing seats and put in perimeter seating to make it more casual and friendly.
Barley Bus offers three tours, and Saturday’s tour is the Crossroads Quartet. The pickup stop was at Waldo Pizza, but this day all the customers were waiting at the new Ollie’s Local bar and restaurant at 3044 Gillham Road.
At Cinder Block, the first stop, the 2 1/2 -year-old brewery’s taproom was nearly packed with a lunch crowd and the Barley Bus tour filled the last two tables. Morgan recommended two brews, ones he feels best represent the brewery: Weathered Wit (a Belgian wit) and Cinder Noel (a Belgian winter warmer). Some of his customers also tried the Rivet Rye (a hoppy rye wheat) in 4-ounce glasses.
Cinder Block’s founder, Bryce Schaffter, started as a homebrewer and now has a 15-barrel commercial brewery at 110 E. 18th Ave. He was in full production mode when the tour arrived, with his director of brewery operations, Bryan Buckingham, making Oyster Stout for Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar west of the Country Club Plaza.
When Schaffter learned there was another homebrewer on the tour with the same first name, Bryce Gatrell of Manhattan, Kan., he was taken aback. “I have to meet him,” he said, quickly putting down his equipment and slipping off his safety glasses.
Minutes later Gatrell and a few others on the tour were staring up at the brewing tanks in back of the taproom, taking in the process as the employees climbed ladders to pull out the bags of steaming oysters.
“It’s fun to give people a look, especially visitors to Kansas City who don’t have any idea of the beer scene,” said Buckingham. “They don’t have to worry about trying to find a brewery, driving when they’ve had a few drinks. They just hop on. It’s a killer concept.”
Meeting the ‘Vader’ tank
Next stop: The Big Rip Brewing Co., just about a mile away from Cinder Block at 216 E. Ninth Ave. in North Kansas City.
The Big Rip, which will celebrate its third anniversary with the Get Ripped Brew Fest in June, offered the group samples of its Hefe the Killer (a German wheat beer), followed by an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale. But when the group didn’t seem that into hops, the brewery offered a pitcher of its Sweet Brown Ale.
The Barley Bus tourists were by then clinking glasses with each new sample.
The Folz sisters, Kelly of Lee’s Summit and Stacy of Leawood, also tried the Chai Milk Stout.
“It tastes like Christmas,” Stacy Folz said.
The sisters liked the cozy taproom and began planning a return trip.
Big Rip co-founder Josh Collins then invited the group into the brewery, saying it pretty much had the same process as home-based breweries, just on a bigger scale. Big Rip produced about 275 barrels in 2015.
“But we’re still very manual, we still stir up the mash by hand and scoop out the grain by hand when we are done to give to the farmer to give to his or her pigs,” he said.
To Collins, the process of making a good beer recipe is harder than when he tried making his own wine.
“The challenges of making wine is growing the grapes,” he said. “But you can make anything you want when you make 35 different beers. That’s a lot of recipe development.”
Big Rip is in talks with distributors about putting its beers in local retail outlets in June — 22-ounce bottles featuring seasonal beers like its Oatmeal Raisin Cookie along with some regular favorites such as The Kurgan Scotch Ale and Aisle 12 West Coast IPA. When the tour asked why the company didn’t just distribute its own beers, Collins talked about Missouri regulations.
“Distributing would help us thrive, it is key for really small breweries and as you grow the need for distributors becomes more and more,” he said. “But the laws are very strong in this state, and I don’t see that really changing. The state requires you to go through distributors. And we don’t have our own trucks and we don’t have the personnel to do that.”
It’s also not part of of the company’s short-term strategy to sell its products to bars and restaurants.
“We don’t make enough beer to distribute in kegs,” he said.
The group also asked about competition, especially with so many local craft breweries within a few miles of each other.
“We are all very friendly. We collaborate when we need something — hops or I’ll go over to Cinder Block if we need a wrench,” Collins said.
The tour group asked about the tank names based on horror and science fiction movies, like Ash from the “Evil Dead” franchise and Vader from “Star Wars,” the brewery’s newest and largest tank.
Collins also plugged the company’s new limited edition “Twins Cherry Cheesecake,” a dessert beer for Valentine’s Day named after the spooky twin girls in “The Shining,” and touted the brewery’s awards, including a bronze for its Huthors Sweet Brown (an American sweet brown) in the 2015 Denver International Beer Competition.
The brewery tours offer more than standard tourist attractions.
“Five years ago everyone did the barbecue restaurants, the World War I exhibit. The tour gets them to parts of town they never would have seen,” Collins said.
Torn Label ‘beer-iversary’
The Barley Bus rolled on, and it was hard to tell the friendly group only met a few hours before.
Next stop was Torn Label Brewing Co., which was celebrating its first “beer-iversary” at 1708 Campbell St. Torn Label produced more than 800 barrels in 2015.
“They were a distributor before they opened a taproom,” Morgan told his tour group. “And they collaborate with Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop that we will be driving by.”
Torn Label uses local honey for its Monk & Honey, a Belgian-inspired ale.
“I think it is top-notch. It’s one that helps define them,” Morgan said.
Torn Label customers filled the taproom for a Chiefs game, chowing down on Aussie meat pies from Kansas City food truck Pie Hole. But most the Barley Bus tour riders were happily huddled together over their samples, including the House Brew, a coffee wheat stout brewed with Sumatran Toddy from Thou Mayest.
Back on the bus for a turn onto 18th Street, Morgan pointed out Thou Mayest to his left before stopping at Double Shift Brewing Co., just across the street from the coffee shop at 412 E. 18th St.
‘Totally worth the price’
Double Shift opened in mid-2015 and founder Aaron Ogilvie still works as a firefighter, sometimes putting in double shifts — thus reference in the name, Morgan said.
As the sun started to set, the group tried its Run Around Rye (based on a German-style Roggenbier), River Pirate Oatmeal Stout (brewed with a hefty amount of rolled oats and notes of chocolate and coffee) and its Abbey Dubbel (described as having a complex malt body complemented by fruity esters and lightly hopped).
About half of the group popped in the back for a quick tour, one woman went out for a smoke and a few others began checking their cellphones, making dinner plans.
Jeff and Angela Campbell, who have seven children, chose the tour for their once-a-month date night. Gatrell and his wife, Stephanie, were at the end of a five-day visit to Kansas City from their home in Manhattan, time enough to get beyond the typical tourist stops, they said. They wanted recommendations for the best Kansas City pizza.
“Spin, you have to go to Spin. Real Neapolitan pizza,” said Dillon Dunn of Lenexa.
Dunn and his longtime friend, Jared Augustine of Overland Park, got the tour as Christmas presents from their wives. Augustine started talking about doing the Barley Bus as a corporate team-building event, even buying the tickets for his team.
Most of the group jumped off where they started at Ollie’s Local. But Dunn, Augustine and the Folz sisters decided to stay on and have pizza at the last stop, Waldo Pizza. On the way, they passed around a bottle Dunn had purchased at Torn Label. And they couldn’t stop praising their tour guide.
“Jake, this was totally worth the price. What other tours do you have? ” Augustine said.
Barley Bus tours
The Barley Bus offers these tours as well as custom tours. It also plans to offer date night tours.
The Uncorked Tour on Friday afternoons gives the group a variety with visits to a winery, distillery and brewery — Amigoni Urban Winery in the West Bottoms, J. Rieger & Co. distillery in the East Bottoms, and Boulevard Brewing Co. on the West Side.
Crossroads Quartet on Saturdays is a little more laid back, emphasizing smaller breweries and is more taproom-oriented than brewery-oriented. The lineup: Cinder Block Brewing and The Big Rip in North Kansas City, Torn Label and Double Shift.
The Tapped Tour on Sundays is a more in-depth, a look at the brewing process from small breweries to large — Double Shift, Torn Label and Boulevard.
The tours run from 1 to 5 p.m., approximately. Standard ticket price is $65 per person. The tour offers special rates for private parties.