Kansas City’s brewery industry can trace its roots to one man with one wild idea. On vacation in Europe more than three decades ago, John McDonald was dazzled by the variety of beers on tap in Belgium—namely Duvel. Back home in the States, things were less flavorful. At the time, Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Heileman, Stroh, Coors and Pabst produced 92% of all beer. McDonald took it upon himself to change that, with the introduction of Boulevard Brewing Company in 1989, one of the first micro-breweries to produce craft beer.
McDonald was a pioneer in creating a craft beer culture in Kansas City and beyond, redefining American beer as Boulevard grew from a small-scale brewery to the largest in the Midwest. According to Pete Dulin, author of Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland and Kansas City Ale Trail, “Boulevard's two top-selling flagship beers, Pale Ale and Unfiltered Wheat, were instrumental in developing a market in Kansas City for craft beer.” The latter remains the best-selling craft beer in the region.
The Birth of a Beer Scene
Many of Kansas City’s beer businesses credit McDonald for laying the foundation for craft breweries to thrive. Several even sought advice from the Boulevard team before opening their doors, including KC Bier Company, which started serving German-style beer made with traditional ingredients and paired with authentic German sausages, pretzels and cheeses in 2014. KC Bier is now the largest locally-owned brewery in Kansas City. The relaxed outdoor Biergarten and Bierhalle at KC Bier are favorite watering holes among locals.
“We’ve always felt it’s our role to nurture the beer community in the area. That begins with making the very best beer we can, but also means providing assistance and advice to brewers who’ve come along after we started brewing,” McDonald said. “We know that not everyone will have their first craft beer experience with a Boulevard beer, so we hope that the beer they choose will be fantastic as it ultimately speaks for the entire community. This means that we’ve always done our best to offer troubleshooting help, loan raw materials, and host educational seminars at the brewery.”
One of those is Big Rip Brewing Company, which opened in 2013, the same year Boulevard was acquired by the Belgian Duvel Moortgat. Boulevard had been serving up craft beer 20 years before Josh Collins had even thought of opening a brewery dedicated to crafting unique brews. When he opened Big Rip, he leaned on Boulevard for support. Collins was given a private tour of the Boulevard facilities so that he could see the ins and outs of a brewery operation first hand. During the building of the Big Rip brewery and taproom, he continued to receive support from Boulevard—they sent over a technician to check out Big Rip’s equipment and discuss best practices for working with chemicals. “I’m sure if we asked them for something, they would be happy to help,” Collins said.
Bip Rip has been brewing small-batch production of beers for five years at their four-barrel brewery. Although the brewery is small-scale, Big Rip continuously delights Kansas City beer enthusiasts with an exciting rotation of creative beers on tap, such as the gluten-free Satine Raspberry, Groovy Pale Ale and Curse This Well Dry Stout. The laidback taproom is a favorite among those who want venture beyond beer, as Big Rip also produces wine and root beer.
Building Kansas City’s Beer Community
Cinder Block Brewery opened around the same time as Big Rip in 2013, both in Northern Kansas City. “Cinder Block has always been a good neighbor to us,” Collins said. The two breweries have supported each other over the years by sharing vendor contacts and helping each other troubleshoot problems. “Cinder Block helped us after we got going by bailing us out when our keg washer broke and let us use theirs as well as borrowing grain when we have run out,” Collins said. “This is generally how all the breweries are. When one is out of grains or hops we all pitch in. It’s give and take with all the breweries in town.”
There’s an everlasting sense of community among those involved in the Kansas City beer scene. Big Rip has been on hand to help newer breweries get started—as Boulevard did for them. “It’s a great community because everyone wants to help one another and see everyone do well,” Collins said. The Big Rip team provided assistance to Strange Days, Border Brew Co. and Colony. “We helped Call Sign owner Steve Sirois with process, licensing and equipment questions while he was building out,” Collins said. Kansas Citians simply love craft beer so the brewing community continues to thrive. Taprooms, bottle shops and other craft beer-based businesses continue to come onto the market and locals are always eager to taste the variety of beers on offer.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships
According to Boulevard Ambassador Jeremy Danner, these relationships are what makes Kansas City beer so special. “Everyone in Kansas City bands together to make sure we’re all brewing high quality, delicious beer,” Danner said. “Whether this is done in the form of collaborative projects or just making sure we’re available to help each other out with questions or ingredients, I truly believe we’re all in this together.”
When co-founder Chris Meyers was starting Crane Brewing, he was welcomed with open arms. He credits Boulevard for creating a knowledgeable craft beer market that allowed him to open his brewery, which serves in saisons to Berliner Weisses and lambics in its rustic taproom, in 2015. Myers also relied on Danner to answer any questions he had as he opened his brewery. Thanks to Danner, Crane found its first head brewer, Steve Hood. It too can trace its early success back to Boulevard. “That’s the culture I love,” Myers said. Crane and Boulevard went on to brew a collab beer together for the annual Boulevardia festival.
This year, Boulevard teamed up with 2nd Shift Brewing, Central Standard Brewing and Mikkeller Baghaven to create the Boulevardia Sour Grisette, the official beer of the 2018 Boulevardia Festival. It's a beer that shows how far the city's beer scene has come. From the lone brewery on the block, Boulevard has ushered Kansas City into the craft beer spotlight.