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How to Drink Your Way Through Kansas City

February 27, 2020

By Jonathan Bender, February 27, 2020

“Welcome to gravel beach,” Nick Mader says, as he props open the back door of the year-old Alma Mader Brewing Co. He gestures at the rock parking lot, a stone’s throw from the smokestacks of Boulevard Brewing Co.   

This is the Kansas City beer scene right now. You never know what’s waiting on the other side of a door. 

In 1989, Boulevard opened in KC. The first keg of pale ale was delivered via pick-up truck to Ponak’s, a Mexican restaurant down the street. Pale ale and Boulevard Wheat would define the local craft beer market for two generations of drinkers. 

 But the unabashed adoption of Boulevard as the hometown beer stunted the craft beer boom locally. A few brewpubs dotted the landscape. A few homebrewers tried to make the leap and failed. 

Then Duvel purchased Boulevard in 2013. While that kick-started a massive expansion and raised Boulevard’s national profile, it also made room for locally owned breweries to find traction and their own niche. The neighborhood brewery was suddenly in vogue. 

Nick Mader at Alma Mader Brewing Co. Photo by Hannah McEldowney.

“[Our] beer scene can evolve faster than most because it is a small and nimble beer scene,” Mader explains, sitting at one of the seven tables inside Alma Mader. “We don’t have an old guard. We don’t have a lot of things holding us back.”  

Mader is part of a new guard, a year into running the nanobrewery he founded after stints at Fremont Brewing and Crooked Stave. Brewers have been pulled back to Kansas City by opportunity, resulting in more than 20 breweries opening in the past three years within 45 minutes of the metro area.  

Boulevard still looms figuratively over the beer scene. Even with an explosion of breweries, the collective number of barrels by breweries not named Boulevard is still far below that of the 166,000 produced by Boulevard in 2019.  

“There’s no comparison in scale,” Mader says. “But Boulevard has embraced us. Their bartenders tell people to come by and they drink here, too.” 

Alma launched with a focus on IPAs and fresh hops. Mader’s knowledge of hops makes for bright beers you can take with you in crowlers. Although it’s technically not a flagship, Alma Mader’s pilsner is a full-bodied standout, getting bite from Bohemian malt. 

“You can’t hide the flaws,” Mader says. “I love that the small changes in formulation and calculation can really impact the beer. I see it changing batch to batch. I’ll probably never stop tinkering with it.” 

The pilsner comes out of a side pour faucet imported from the Czech Republic. Heads turn in the tasting room as people gape at the straw-colored brew with an ice cream swirl head. 

“It’s salivating to watch,” Mader says. “You’ve got to stop and just enjoy the wait.” 

Mader’s take on the local beer scene is that “Kansas City is a great weekend town because there’s so much to eat and do. People are willing to travel for beer.”  

Take his advice and get after the weekend plans below. 

Alma Mader's pilsner. Photo courtesy of Alma Mader.

Friday 

Brewery Emperial  

Keith Thompson, a veteran brewer from the recently-shuttered McCoy’s Public House, and Ted Habiger, the executive chef and restaurateur at Room 39, set out to update the classic brewpub with a live fire kitchen and beer that was meant to be enjoyed alongside food. Nail down a half chicken (it comes with tortillas and fixings of lime, salsa, roasted jalapeños, and crema) and a Biscuit, a golden pale ale with a bready chew. 

Torn Label 

In Mader’s words, Torn Label “laid the groundwork” for the six breweries and two distilleries that have sprung up since Torn Label opened in 2015 in the East Crossroads neighborhood.

Torn Label’s brewers are artists with hops, helping to drive the adoption of dank IPAs in Kansas City. Quirkier options include House Brew (a coffee-spiked wheat) and Monk & Honey (a Belgian farmhouse-style ale with a pleasing undercurrent of Missouri honey). If you’re hungry, walk two minutes and snag a charcuterie board and RAD AF, a juicy, hazy IPA, at the year-old City Barrel Brewing Co. 

Cinder Block Brewing Co. 

Cinder Block is the anchor of another brewery district with four breweries inside of a mile, located north of the river. The industrial space is softened by friendly bartenders and impromptu tours of the brewery behind the bar. Black Squirrel, a Russian imperial stout named for an actual black squirrel family that appears each year like the groundhog, and a tart English cherry cider should be your first round. 

Grab a nightcap around the corner at Screenland Armour, a mash-up of a craft beer bar and indie movie house. Here’s a chance to try beers from the neighboring state of Kansas, such as an Ad Astra from Free State Brewing Co. or a Gutch (a fun English mild) from Defiance Brewing Co. 

A hazy IPA at City Barrel Brewing Co. Photo by the author.

Saturday 

KC Bier Co. 

At this family-friendly German beer hall in the Waldo neighborhood, beer drinkers can relax at picnic tables with half-liter glasses of Dunkel, KC’s toasty caramel dark lager flagship (Mader calls it “genius”) while kids pretend to pour pitchers in an outdoor playhouse. 

Grab a brioche cinnamon roll at Heirloom Bakery (or the egg sandwich on a house biscuit if you’re feeling savory) before walking to neighboring BKS Artisan Ales. 

BKS Artisan Ales 

Kansas City’s first nanobrewery produces immaculate beer. A frequent collaborator with Alma Mader, it features a mild English ale that finds depth with espresso (Holstein) and a New England-style IPA as bright as a city of gold (Counterculture). But it’s the Vacation Island series that will open your eyes, as guava, passionfruit, and tropical flavors are reborn as inventive takes on boat drinks. The neighborhood brewery vibe means pups lounge on the concrete deck in good weather and there’s a chance of meeting an actual captain in a captain’s hat. 

Snag a mid-afternoon snack or early dinner at the Brookside Poultry Co., where the fried chicken drummies are oversized and generously slathered in house hot sauce. Pair with a selection from their small but solid canned beer list. 

Crane Brewing Co. 

This Raytown brewery—just 15 minutes east on the same street as BKS—has a deft hand with sours. The brewery’s Beet Weiss (a shockingly pink beer with deep earth notes and a rounded sweetness) and Orange Gose (a little pop of salt to go with the brightness of orange zest) are singular. 

If the Royals are in town, you’re a 12-minute drive from Kauffman Stadium; consider catching a baseball game at a stadium where craft beer is plentiful

BKS Artisan Ales' Fleur de Levure. Photo by Chris Mullins.

Sunday

Fox and Pearl

A farm-to-table-restaurant-meets-butcher-shop less than a half-mile from Alma Mader and Boulevard, Fox and Pearl is a solid brunch choice. Try the pastrami (smoked on-site) or toast topped with ricotta cheese, eggs, honey. and salsa verde. 

Boulevard Brewing Co. 

Boulevard’s beer-hall-style Tours & Recreation Center (beer hall) has been a game changer for the brewery since opening four years ago. Noteworthy are the test beers, which often trickle out six months later in mixed 12-packs, and a robust food menu (get the pretzel stuffed with sausage). Take a tour. Play some shuffleboard. Then sit at long communal tables in the smartly appointed space and work your way through Boulevard’s several dozen beers a flight at a time. 

Servaes Brewing Co. 

If you’re willing to go a little further (i.e. a 15-minute ride into Shawnee, Kansas), you’ll find Servaes, the area’s first woman-owned-and-operated brewery, one of four breweries that have opened on Johnson Drive in the past two years. 

The beers and craft sodas (made by brewer-owner Courtney Servaes’ son Aaron) aren’t afraid of being playful or fruit-forward as evidenced by the ever-rotating taps that have featured everything from daiquiri-inspired sours to a banana, coconut, and marshmallow imperial stout. 


Top photo by Chris Mullins.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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