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The malt shop 

Black-owned brewery whips up the suds in LR.

click to enlarge WINDELL GRAY: Preserving beer in Little Rock.
  • WINDELL GRAY: Preserving beer in Little Rock.

Let's talk about beer.

For your average lover of Liquid Bread, there's something magic about it, something beautiful. It's fitting that the spectrum of beer — red, deep brown, honey yellow, rich copper, near-black — looks a lot like the spectrum of humanity, given how much joy it can give to our species. This is the truth that men like Windell Gray know.

By the time you read this, Gray will be bottling ales and malt liquor at his new business, Refined Ale Brewery of Little Rock, at 2221 Cedar St. From his small shop there — a space so small, in fact, that he had to get all his equipment custom-fabricated in Cabot so it would fit — he's making history as well as suds, as the proprietor of the first black-owned brewery in Arkansas.

Refined Ale of Little Rock officially opened April 16, but Gray has been making libations since the early 1990s. Back then, he owned a bar-becue restaurant called Mr. G's on 12th Street. His homemade wine was a component of the sauce there, and he gave away whatever didn't go on the ribs. He then got into the trucking business, but he didn't abandon the winemaking. He also started home-brewing beer, though strictly as a diversion until last year.

“About a year ago, when trucking started getting slow, I stopped trucking,” Gray said. “I said, I'm going to take one of my hobbies and go mainstream.”

After securing a small space next door to his mother's restaurant, Wayne's Fish and Burgers, Gray started working his way through the laborious process of securing the permits to make beer commercially. “It's kind of difficult to get cranked up, because there's so many different requirements you have to meet,” he said. “You really spend a lot of time and money doing the waiting game.” (As an example, he points out that if he hired an employee today, it would take about three and a half months to get him certified to work in the brewery before he could start. Understandably, Gray works alone for now. While he was wading through red tape, he educated himself by studying the art and science of brewing — including long days spent observing the process at Little Rock's Diamond Bear Brewery in Little Rock. “I spent a lot of time over at Diamond Bear,” he said. “I should've been on the clock.” He came to respect Diamond Bear, he said, for its care and absolute dedication to cleanliness, traits he said he has tried to emulate at his own shop.

Refined Ale runs three barrel batches of 35 gallons each, and Gray said he should be able to run 12 barrels a week. He said that his ale and malt liquor will be made in essentially the same way — though malt liquor recipes have fewer hops, which gives the drink a sweeter and less bitter flavor. Gray said that Refined Malt Liquor, however, will be lacking a few things you might get from a big-name brew like Colt 45.

“If you go to the store and buy the typical on-the-shelf malt liquor, it has everything in it but the kitchen sink. Malt liquors tend to be made from leftovers that are left after you make the beer,” Gray said. “Craft brewers, we don't brew with any kind of preservatives or anything. We don't put any junk in the beer. There's no corn, no nothing. Nothing to stretch it out.”

Gray said he's working on a deal with distributors now, and it will probably be sometime in mid-May before you can sample the sweet fruits of his labors. For now, he's just concentrating on making the best product he can. It's a process that's strangely familiar for a man who has long known his way around a stove.

“I've been cooking a long time,” Gray said. “They call it brewing, but I really call it cooking. When you make beer, all you're doing is making a soup. You can call it brewing, but you're really just making a soup with all kinds of ingredients in it.”
For more about Refined Ale Brewery of Little Rock, visit the website at www.refinedale.com.

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