The first batch of beer Jared Cowley ever made was, he admits, horrible.
Crafted from a tiny brewing kit his now-wife, Brianna, gifted him when they were first dating in college, Jared remembers the frustration of not being able to make the kind of beer he liked drinking.
“I couldn’t do anything. It tasted …’’ he cut himself off with a laugh. “It just wasn’t very good.”
Not one to give up, Brianna tried again.
When they moved back to Jefferson City in 2014 after time in Kansas City, Brianna gifted Jared another kit, one that was more “involved.”
It began in various parts of their home.
Jared would work on brewing in the basement. Other times, he was in the garage.
“And that,” he said, “was kind of where the itch started.”
Today, what was once just a hobby has flourished into a career that has catapulted the Cowleys into the world of specially-crafted beverages, boisterous taprooms and the warmth of the community that comes with it.
On the outside of the modest cream-colored building and printed on the glass cups found inside is an owl, its wings extended in flight and moving forward with wide, intriguing eyes. If you look close enough, you’ll realize the wings are barley and the body of the owl is a hop — a cone-shaped flower used to add bitterness to beer in the brewing process. Brianna calls it their “little brewery owl.”
But the owl, and the accompanying name “Last Flight Brewing Company,” is much more than a clever logo.
In 2020, when the Cowleys’ previous family business, Cowley Distributing Inc., sold and cut a number of employees, cousins Jared and Mark Cowley found themselves in limbo. With no space at the company and an empty warehouse just a door down from the now-closed distributing location, they knew it was time to forge a new path forward.
“(Brewing) was always kind of a hobby, and then (Jared) got really serious about it and really enjoyed doing it,” Brianna said. “It was always kind of that pipe dream to open a brewery.”
It was a turning point for everyone involved and a chance no one was truly quite sure would work.
“We’re the people who would already (go to taprooms), but maybe we’d go to Columbia before,” Brianna said. “We decided that that was something we could bring to Jefferson City because we don’t have that here.”
Jared agreed. He wanted to offer something fresh and different, something people could stay within their city to experience. It’s one of the primary reasons he believes the business will be a successful endeavor.
So the Cowleys took the chance.
“Now,” Brianna said, “we’re just bringing it home.”
It took about nine months of work to complete, cutting windows, creating the patio, adding walls, seating, signage, plumbing and more to what had essentially been an empty shell.
COVID-19 certainly complicated the process. What had previously hoped to be a fall opening stretched to mid-December then extended once more to March. Construction and licensing took longer than expected, Jared recalled.
The chance, thus far, has paid off; it’s been a “wild, albeit enjoyable, ride,” Brianna said.
And thankfully so, because opening the brewery was intended to be the cousins’ final business venture together — their last flight.
“The phrase ‘Last Flight’ is somewhat symbolic of Jared and Mark leaving the family business they had worked for and grown up around,” Brianna said. “Taking this chance of opening a brewery was sort of their last opportunity to work together and keep a new family business going or go their separate ways and find paths.”
Much like the building, Jared and Mark needed time for preparation. The two cousins set out to “brew school” in Colorado, spending a week immersed in the process of brewing, learning the ins and outs and creating the foundation of a working business model.
“It’s a mentorship program, really,” Jared said. “Going out there and actually seeing the process done on a large scale as compared to the tiny scale we were doing before was invaluable.”
It’s not like the Cowleys were new to brewing. They had already participated in Battle of the Brews’ home brewing category and received a great deal of praise on their version of Schwarzbier, a German dark lager with coffee, caramel and chocolate notes. (Jared and Brianna recalled it was “overwhelmingly popular” and “kinda boosted our egos a little bit.”)
But brewing on such a large scale? That was new territory.
“Some people come in thinking we’re going to have Budweiser products behind the bar — and some places do that, but that’s not something that we really want to do,” Jared said. “We want to showcase what we can make.”
The idea of showcasing what they make isn’t just on the menu. You can see it when you walk through the front door, the large silver fermenters sitting in the brewing chamber just three steps left of the wooden bar.
Some people really aren’t that interested in where their beer comes from, Jared said, but the windows into the back area have piqued others’ interest on a number of occasions.
“It was kind of by design that we wanted to make sure people could see (the process),” he said. “I’ve been to a number of breweries where … they have the brewery off to the side, and I really wanted it to be not the focal point, but sort of, so that people can see this is where we make it.
“The people that run this place, we make the beer for you.”
Stepping past the small gate in the back, you might notice the place is impeccably clean. This, the Cowleys pointed out, serves a purpose.
A pipe running along the top of the wall, known as the flex auger, leads back to where the Cowleys mill their grain, and “when you mill the grain, it’s awfully dusty,” Jared said. That dust, if it enters the brewing chamber, can ruin the beer. With the flex auger, the milled grain is transported directly into the respective machinery. Roughly 300-575 pounds of grain can go into each batch, depending on the beer.
Once the grain is mixed with hot water, the process of creating wort begins as enzymes within the grain and water mixture convert starches to sugars to produce 220-260 gallons of hot, sticky liquid. The next step is where brewers can get more creative, adding in various flavors as the wort is boiled. This is where Last Flight’s Golden Strong, a golden Belgian beer, is finished with orange peel and coriander before it’s chilled down to go into fermentation.
Then comes the “wonderful process of fermentation,” as Jared called it.
“Brewers make wort,” he said, “and yeast makes beer.”
From there, it’s a waiting game. Once the yeast is added in for fermentation, and subsequently the cooling process, it can take weeks before the beer is ready to serve on tap.
When brewing first began, Last Flight had three fermenters and were brewing one to two times a week, with more than 600 gallons of beer fermenting in early February. By early May, the Cowleys had purchased two more fermenters and upped their fermentation to three, and sometimes four, times a week.
“Turns out you all really love beer, so we had to get more fermenters just to keep up!” they announced on social media.
Back in the cold room, set at a chilled 36 degrees, a carbonation stone diffuses carbon dioxide into the beer, giving the drink its signature layer of fizz.
Standing in the cold room, Jared and Brianna looked around and chuckled. Turns out, they said, they needed to get additional kegs, too — all of them were full.
To keep six to a dozen beers on tap, or at times more, it will certainly be necessary. The Cowleys know they need to keep “what the people want” on tap, but they’re constantly trying out and presenting new beers to keep people on their toes, from their Imperial Cream Ale to the Viking IPA.
“One of the things that I liked the most about brewing, originally, and one of the things that I’ve instilled in Mark and everybody that’s involved in this, is that if we aren’t having fun and at least occasionally making things that are kind of wacky and fun and kind of off the wall, then we have lost kind of the reason we went into this,” Jared said.
On the door of the cold room is a quote, adapted from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who was known for his award-winning series, “Parts Unknown.”
“Everything important I ever learned, I learned as a dishwasher,” it starts.
Following Bourdain’s death in 2018, former President Barack Obama tweeted in his memory: “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together.”
That’s the way the brewery works, Brianna believes. Its purpose, as a business model and as a taproom, is meant to bring people together.
An about statement on Last Flight’s website reads: “We offer a cozy indoor space with an atmosphere that acts as a place for friends, wanderers, and adventurers to share a drink together as equals.”
For Brianna, the metaphorical role of the dishwasher translates into everything they do.
“It’s about building a work ethic that can be scaled up into everything you do in life,” Brianna said. “It becomes part of who you are. How you treat people is a big part of that, and we respect each other as a team here. No one’s job is more important than any other, every job is meaningful and we have to function as a unit. We all have to show up and just do our best, and ultimately that’s what we want to show our kids.”
Last Flight’s success thus far has, at least in part, been influenced by their ability to cultivate or act as a catalyst for a sense of community. Tuesday trivia nights are accompanied by the Rebel Tacos food truck. Wednesday nights you’ll see La Chica Loca and, if you’re there at the right time, hear whichever local artist the Cowleys have selected to serenade the crowd.
“It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship, really,” Brianna said.
Then there’s the part-time bartenders who cycle in and out as an addition to the three full-time staff at Last Flight. Most of them are professionals who just want to get out and spend time with friends in a comfortable atmosphere. Julia, Mark’s wife, runs the taproom from time to time. Some days, you might even see Deanne Fisher, principal at Lewis and Clark Middle School, behind the bar.
Just four months since opening their doors in March 2021, the Cowleys have big dreams. Right now, their main priority is filling their own demand, but once the taps at Last Flight are filled, they hope to distribute around Jefferson City while keeping the location at 738 Heisinger Road as their flagship.
Though the process of building and opening has taken long hours, dedication and, above all, patience, the Cowleys can easily highlight the positives.
“It’s something that we have that I’m not really beholden to anyone,” Jared said. “We can do whatever we need to do all together.”
“Here, we can bring everyone with us,” Brianna added. “We give our kids little jobs to do. They’ll fold brewery towels, and I’ll give them a couple of bucks. It’s family business right down to them.
“It feels like everyone has their hands in it, and I love that.”
And it appears Jared’s brewing skills have come a long way since college.