“What I think is really interesting about Kansas City is this is such a backyard culture,” says Tania Hewett-Mader, cofounder of Alma Mader Brewing. “People have more space, people have yards, people have basements. People like to spend more time at home.”
That culture fits with the city’s love of barbecue, and it works for all those locals who love to smoke meats and grill steaks (always insisting they can make it better at home). It also works for enjoying backyard beers—the quality and variety of which have been ticking upward in Kansas City in recent years.
Alma Mader opened there in April 2019. Later that year, we already were hearing good things from people we trust. Untappd scores (whatever they’re worth) were coming in high for their IPAs as well as their lagers. Then, one of the last events I attended in the pre-pandemic days was 2nd Shift’s Cask Fest in St. Louis. That’s where I met cofounder and brewer Nick Mader pouring New World Geography—a pilsner dry-hopped with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Saphir, and Tettnanger—on gravity from a spigoted barrel. Light, bitter, and floral, it was a fantastic beer that I would remember and return to rediscover.
Stronger validation came when Alma Mader began submitting beers to Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® for blind-panel review. In our lager issue earlier this year, the Czech-inspired dark lager Contextual scored a 95 out of 100, while the Premiant pilsner scored a 98. They followed that up the next issue with a 98 for the hazy double IPA Breezecatcher.
If there were any common threads running through all those beers, they were the balance of ample flavors, with hops dialed up yet beautifully integrated with the whole.
Alma Mader’s Alma Maters
For the record, it’s pronounced may-der, not mah-ter. Alma, meanwhile, means “soul” in Spanish, or “nourishing” in Latin. In an early blog post for its website, Nick wrote that their brewery’s soul is in creating beers with intention and attention to detail.
That approach doesn’t come out of thin air. While Tania studied administration and helped to coordinate nonprofit foundations, Nick was able to work at a few of the country’s finest small breweries, while devoting additional time to studying and learning anything he could about brewing.
The two first met while studying abroad in Spain; Tania was at UCLA, while Nick was at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Originally from Kansas City, Mader went to work at Boulevard right after college, tending bar and leading tours.
The pair had a long-distance relationship until Tania got into grad school at the University of Denver. They both moved there in 2012; the beer scene added an element of serendipity. “It was kind of this perfect place for us to go,” Nick says. He had to ride it out a while doing odd jobs, but “I literally just bothered the hell out of Chad [Yakobson] at Crooked Stave until he gave me a job.”
Crooked Stave was one of the few breweries at the time focusing primarily on Brettanomyces and mixed-fermentation—not things that Nick knew much about. “But I got in there, and I was able to learn a ton,” he says. “I really got taken under the wing of a lot of people who work there and exposed to these wonderful beers from all around the world. … I was really just absorbing everything.” He tended bar and later helped coordinate Crooked Stave’s former membership club. But it was a small crew—“all hands on deck”—so he gradually got to help out more with production. “That’s what I realized I really loved and wanted to do.”
He wanted to learn more. He knew that Yakobson had gotten his master’s degree from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt, one of the world’s best schools for brewing and distilling. Yakobson encouraged Nick to “go for it.” He enrolled in the school’s distance-learning program. He made slow but steady progress, taking more than three years to finish the degree on top of brewing jobs in Denver and, later, Seattle.
After grad school, Seattle was a good fit for Tania professionally—working with fundraising and nonprofits—while Nick successfully landed a brewing job at fast-growing Fremont. When he started there, Fremont was brewing about 20,000 barrels per year. When he left three years later, that production had doubled. “It was a fast-paced environment,” he says, “and it really gave me this confidence that if I can hang here, I can do a lot of things.”
While at Fremont, Mader became the R&D brewer—mostly doing half-batches on the brewery’s older 30-barrel system—while also running the mixed-culture fermentation program. He got to test ingredients and recipes while pumping out variety for Fremont’s popular beer garden.
“When we moved facilities to run all the flagships on an 80-barrel setup, I stayed back and really started creating a lot of the seasonal recipes, doing raw-material trialing, all that stuff,” he says. “I felt like I was a good production brewer, but that’s where I learned how to work with recipe formulation. It was that ultimate boost of confidence I needed.”
Between Boulevard, Crooked Stave, and Fremont, Nick says, “I’ve been fortunate to work at three of the top 100 breweries in the world. I think I just was able to really learn a lot from each place, and then all of it just funneled into this—into our brewery.”
Leaping and Evolving
While still brewing at Fremont and finishing his degree, Nick worked on a business plan. He and Tania were looking at Kansas City because he had family there—but also because the beer scene was under-developed. When a job in Kansas City opened, Tania went for it—why not?—and got it. Suddenly their whole timetable was on the fast track.
They were moving to Kansas City to open a brewery.
“There were some days where [I was] like, ‘Is this gonna work?’ I just left probably the best brewing job in Seattle,” he says.
Not everything went according to plan. An early focus on draft beer shifted, thanks to the pandemic, to selling cans to-go out of their tasting room. The combination of flavorful, backyard-friendly lagers and an ever-shifting variety of juicy IPAs—plus, a small but growing barrel-aging program—helped to put Alma Mader high in the esteem of local drinkers.
That audience is ready for the experiments as well as the mainstays that get careful tweaks. It’s an experience that parallels Mader’s time on that pilot kit at Fremont—except now he’s doing it on their own 10-barrel system.
“We’re a small brewery in 2021,” he says. “We don’t truly have these flagship beers. I would say the only one that’s really emerged for us has been Premiant—something that we can just keep brewing. And that’s really nice because every batch, it’s like, ‘All right, let’s try this. Let’s see where we like our hop additions on the hot side, blending our grain, fermentation temps, when we want to spund, when we want to do all these things.’
“On the flip side, on the IPAs, we’re trialing so many hops, and we always have these new iterations of recipes,” he says. “And that’s really fun. So I feel like we’re an R&D brewery anyway, as a small brewery. Just look what the market is right now. … It’s kind of flavor-of-the-week. And you know, we’re okay with that.”
“Every Detail Matters”
Whereas nearby KC Bier (see Breakout Brewer: KC Bier) has a religious devotion to traditional German brewing methods, from decoction to spunding, Alma Mader’s approach is more mixed and pragmatic—but no less obsessive.
“I think the most important thing with lager is that every detail matters, literally from grain to glass, and you can’t underestimate anything,” Nick says. They limit themselves to a few different water profiles and a few yeast strains that they like. They stick mainly to German malts, especially Weyermann. Fermentations are cold and slow, making sure they have the right cell counts to get them through it cleanly. They also carbonate naturally via spunding, allowing CO2 from the final days of fermentation to go back into the beer. They use finings for a clearer product. Then, after primary fermentation and some initial cold time in the cylindroconicals, they finish each lager in a 10-barrel horizontal tank for about four weeks. “We max that thing out,” Nick says. “We really need a bigger one.”
One reason for using the horizontal is that Nick likes to see how the beer evolves once it’s off the yeast. Another is that it avoids tying up the cylindroconicals, so they can keep moving both ales and lagers through the brewery. “We’re able to make more lagers that way, honestly,” he says. “Instead of tying up the tank for six weeks, seven weeks, we’re only tying it up for three to four, which helps make lager viable for a really small brewery like us. We’re trying to release a new lager every three to four weeks, which is not an easy task.”
In the tasting room, they’re usually pouring that rotating lager with a side-pull faucet they imported from Lukr in the Czech Republic. “If that faucet alone just makes people ask, ‘What is that? I want whatever’s on that,’ then that’s great. It justifies whatever that faucet cost.”
Maybe the faucet mojo is working: Whenever the tasting room is open, whichever lager they’re pouring is usually the top-selling draft beer. “In terms of packaged to-go, IPA is what goes quicker,” says Tania, who manages the tasting room. “But our lagers do really well, too.”
For the Maders, that faucet is just another detail in serving the best lagers they can. “And because we don’t get to brew them as often, I think we put even more emphasis on that,” Nick says. If it takes seven weeks to brew and a couple more weeks to enjoy, that’s “a sixth of our year. Let’s make this the best that we can, and let’s make sure we’re dialed in.”
Three Lanes of IPA
“We have almost these two worlds of beers and of customers: people who come in here just for lager, and people who come here just for IPA,” Nick says. “We’ve got a great homebrew scene in Kansas City, and these longtime homebrewers come in, and they want to drink lagers. And then also this fun IPA scene, where people are just like every week—IPA, IPA, IPA.”
Alma Mader IPAs come in what Nick describes as three distinct “lanes.”
The first but least trafficked is West Coast style—bright and bitterish, “but with a little softer profile,” he says. “All pils malt, big hot-side [hop] additions, big dry hopping—but still taking notes from hazy IPA in terms of water profile and in terms of bitterness level. … I would say that’s not the busiest lane. It’s the lane we want to make busier, but we’re not going to sit there and pretend it’s what people are coming here for.”
What people are coming to Alma Mader for—besides the lagers—are hazy IPAs. There are two lanes of those.
“You’ve got the middle lane, the second lane, which is our own house-style IPA,” he says. “Soft—everything revolves around soft water profiles and not overwhelming bitterness. This middle lane is kind of in between New England and West Coast—still focused on finishing it dry, so it makes it really drinkable, and using a lot of these really expressive American hops. It still has haze in it, but it’s not sweet.” One example is Trichrome, a juicy and aromatic IPA that checks in at 50 IBUs.
“And then we have the New England style,” he says, in the third lane. “A little less attenuation. A little bit different usage of hops—really steering away from too many hot-side additions, and just these massive dry hops. And a little bit more of chloride-driven water profile.” That includes Breezecatcher.
Incidentally, there might be a fourth lane emerging, somewhere between West Coast and Lagerland. Alma Mader has been experimenting with “cold IPA,” i.e., crisp West Coast–style IPA fermented like lager—or lager hopped like IPA, depending on how you look at it. “The first one we did went really well,” Nick says. “But that was also our anniversary week, so everything did well that week. But I don’t know if it’s this new way of entry into West Coast IPA or not.”
All of those IPAs are driven by a stubbornness—informed by his time in Washington state—to get the finest hops possible. “I spend a lot of time badgering our hop suppliers,” Nick says. “For a small brewery, I’m probably really squeaky. I just want to get the best that we can get, and I think that’s worked out.”
He deals a lot with Hollingbery & Son, a supplier in Yakima. They’ve gotten to participate in hop selection with Hollingbery—distantly, because of the pandemic, but in the Maders’ view, that’s also been a positive thing for small breweries. They receive brewer’s cuts of freshly kilned hops at harvest time and share the selection process with the team—brewers Michael Reynolds and Riley Wetzel. (Wetzel also has extensive experience with lab testing and sensory evaluation, while also helping to run the tasting room—another “all hands on deck” experience.) That way the whole team learns from hop selection and participates, rather than it just being a one- or two-person trip to harvest.
Such trips are rare for Tania and Nick anyway. For now, long hours are the norm. Out behind the brewery is a gravel pile where the team likes to sit and relax with beers after work, when they get the chance. “It’s been our personal paradise the past three years,” Nick says. “A stinky gravel beach.”
Incidentally, the new lager they released in August is a Czech-style desítka light lager called Gravel Beach. It’s a tribute to their own version of backyard culture—and to moments enjoyed because they’ve earned them.