There may not be a commemorative plaque in the Denver International Airport. But at a table on the second floor of Concourse C in January 2010, two men sat down to write the next chapter in Kansas City's beer history.
They were supposed to have four hours to hash out a collaboration between Deschutes Brewery, the country's fifth-largest craft brewer by sales volume, and Boulevard Brewing Co., the 10th largest. Deschutes' brewmaster, Larry Sidor, and Boulevard's brewmaster, Steven Pauwels, had just five minutes.
This past May, Sidor and Pauwels were behind the Brewhouse Bar at Boulevard pouring a test batch of White I.P.A. slated to be released by both breweries in July and reminiscing about the snowstorm that all but obliterated their planned summit.
The beer is golden-yellow, with a spicy nose from lemongrass and coriander and a strong finish of sage. While the White I.P.A. stands for two regions — the wheat country of the Midwest and the hops nation of the Pacific Northwest — it's also a symbol of why Boulevard isn't just KC's hometown beer but is also making this city relevant to the larger beer community.
Boulevard and Deschutes have similar origins. In 1988, Boulevard founder John McDonald began construction on brewing facilities in a century-old brick building on Southwest Boulevard, the former site of his cabinetry shop. A little less than 1,700 miles away, Gary Fish was busy opening Deschutes Brewery & Public House in Bend, Oregon.
The Portland, Oregon, brewing scene has exploded over the past 23 years — the Oregon Brewers Guild lists 35 separate breweries in the metropolitan area — but Kansas City's scene has failed to get carbonated. In addition to Boulevard, only the 75th Street Brewery, McCoy's Public House, Doodle Brewing Co., Gordon Biersch, and Granite City Food & Brewery are producing their own beers for sale in the metro area.
Kansas City was supposed to look a lot more like Portland by now (or even like St. Louis, which boasts 13 breweries and brewpubs), a city where the beer at your local bar comes from a different neighborhood rather than a different state. But launching a brewery can prove as challenging as making the beer itself.
The craft-brew revolution seemed ready to ignite three years ago. Dead Canary Brewing Co. announced itself to the world on Blogger on October 19, 2008. On that Sunday, the two partners, Jen Hardin and Sarah Gumpert, fired their first shot: "Slap your existing megabrew [sic] in the nutsack and try a Dead Canary already!!"
Hardin, 27, and Gumpert, 24, tended bar together at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in the Power & Light District. Their first experiment with home-brewing is the stuff of Internet legend — or at least legend on the Dead Canary blog. In the summer of 2008, the duo had decided to brew a stout in a midtown kitchen. The air conditioner was broken, and as the water boiled on the stovetop, the indoor temperature rose to 102 degrees.
"Halfway through, that's when the windows started opening and our clothes came off, but we were like, we're not going to stop this now," Gumpert says. "We're butt-naked, and I'm wondering what we're doing."
They made it through the brewing cycle, and the story of two naked 20-something women making stout captured the imaginations of KC beer geeks, most of whom were (and are) older and male. Hardin and Gumpert found a name for their fledgling brewery after Gumpert mentioned that the boiling water "killed the canary." It wasn't long before the pair began to think about bottling outside that kitchen.
"I'm always trying to start a business out of something and make it bigger than it was," Gumpert says. Her childhood lemonade stand was about maximizing profits, and a high school scheme to steal clothes from stores and then sell them to her fellow students at half-price ended abruptly. "I did eventually get arrested for that," Gumpert says.
It was a chance meeting that legitimized Dead Canary. Adam Avery, the founder and brewmaster of Avery Brewing Co., was visiting Flying Saucer for a tasting event. Gumpert mentioned her idea for a mint-chocolate stout, and Avery was intrigued.
"I know, it was so girly," Gumpert says, laughing.
The women told Avery about their plans for a microbrewery, and he invited them to visit his company in Boulder, Colorado, for a weeklong boot camp. Avery opened his books and helped them write a business plan, in exchange for them helping out at his brewery.
"We got up at 4:30 a.m., which is usually when I was going to bed as a bartender," Gumpert says. "But I would have worked for 24 hours if they let me."
When they returned home, they began to think about transforming the second-floor space at 1324 West 12th Street (above the Laptop Squad, in the West Bottoms) into a microbrewery. They envisioned, Gumpert says, an "adult fun zone that wasn't so Dave and Buster-y." They played dodgeball with a pink ball purchased from Walgreens and served pints of home-brew.
"When you're a girl that knows about beer, guys would absolutely go nuts over that," Gumpert says.
But as they began considering the adjacent building, the former Kansas City Bolt, Nut and Screw Co. at 1326 West 12th Street, their only investor was forced to withdraw from the deal for personal reasons, and the prospects for Dead Canary dried up. Hardin enrolled in law school in New Orleans, and Gumpert began studying criminal justice at Kansas City, Kansas, Community College.
But today, as Gumpert surveys the local tapscape, she hasn't ruled out the possibility of starting a microbrewery. "It's a dream that will never die," she says.
There must be something in the beer, because Dave Shuck uses almost the exact same words to describe his continued belief in the Belton Brewing Co. Shuck was an IT-downsizing casualty when his wife, Christine, suggested, in the fall of 2008, that he follow his passion and open a brewery.
He'd been home-brewing since 1992, after developing his palate at the Toronado Pub, in San Francisco, which is often mentioned as one of the best beer bars in the country. Shuck also worked 10 months for Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, California, after calling the business to say he planned to show up for work the following Monday, even though he'd never been interviewed or been offered a job.
He was still brewing beer when he moved from the West Coast to Overland Park in 2003. Five years later, Shuck developed a business plan for a canned-beer operation with a capacity for 2,500 barrels a year, featuring his pale ale and what he calls "a nice strong, hoppy India Pale Ale." As he began to investigate label art and canning lines, Shuck got a call from the bank. Perhaps, said the voice on the line, he ought to hold off a few months and wait to see what 2009 would bring.
It wasn't a great time to be in the microbrewery business. The Power Plant Restaurant & Brewery in Parkville had closed 11 days before Dead Canary made its manifesto public. And the Flying Monkey Brewery, despite surviving several ownership changes and a 1999 flood that left 5 feet of standing water inside its original Merriam bottling plant, succumbed to the economic conditions of 2008. While the Power Plant's lights stayed off, the Weston Brewing Co. picked up the Flying Monkey line as a contract brewer that December. The brand is still recovering from the move; its Amber Ale didn't return to stores in six-packs until earlier this month.
If 2008 left a number of brewers feeling empty, however, the following year laid the foundation for a beer renaissance in Kansas City. Yet 2009 didn't get off to a promising start. In February of that year, the River Market Brewery, at Fifth Street and Walnut, closed after 14 years of operation. Its owners had billed the place as "downtown's first brewery since Prohibition." The building remains vacant today. And the Belton Brewing Co. never got a chance to open its doors. Shuck's bankers offered about half of the $500,000 seed capital that he'd applied for, and they cautioned that the market probably couldn't support his business.
"I'm still looking for that pot of gold somewhere, but I'm no longer holding my breath," Shuck says.
While unproven local breweries lost their footing or failed to find it, Boulevard saw an opportunity to take its brews in a new direction. A year after a 2006 expansion that raised the company's annual capacity to 600,000 barrels, Boulevard rolled out its Smokestack Series: limited releases of boutique brews in 750 ml bottles. Production jumped from 116,982 to 129,333 barrels. This year, Boulevard projects a run of 160,000 barrels. The brewer says KC's portion of that total volume will account for 8.5 percent of local beer sales.
"We simply didn't have time to do all the things we wanted to do because we were trying to keep up with demand," McDonald says. "We had a lot of pent-up creativity that we've been able to unleash in the past five years."
The turning point here came in June 2009, when Boulevard introduced an inexpensive pilsner. The company had become the largest independent brewer in Missouri eight months earlier, when Anheuser-Busch merged with InBev, the Belgian beverage company that acquired all outstanding shares of the St. Louis staple for $52 billion.
Boulevard's growth — that year it was the eighth-largest craft brewer in the country by sales volume — demonstrated to out-of-state craft beers that Kansas Citians had the taste and the wallet for specialty beer.
"Boulevard, and the Smokestack Series in particular, showed breweries that the city really has the group of people they're trying to reach," says Sean O'Malley, Weston Brewing Co.'s sales director.
Vermont-based Magic Hat Brewing Co. decided to launch in the Kansas City market in December 2009. "I haven't been to Kansas City yet, but my sense is that it's a solid craft-beer market," Magic Hat Brewing Co. co-founder Alan Newman told The Pitch that month.
His sentiments echoed the rest of the beerverse: We hear you're thirsty, Kansas Citians. In 2010, Tallgrass Brewing Co., in Manhattan, Kansas, brought its canned craft beer to the city, as did Ska Brewing Co. of Durango, Colorado. Missouri breweries began to distribute here as well, with Cathedral Square shipped in from St. Louis and Tin Mill from Hermann.
So far, 2011 has seen the arrival of several more well-respected craft brewers, including a trio of California independents, Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co. and Green Flash Brewing Co. They'll all be served at Hop Fest 2011 on Saturday, June 18. (See below.)
"You start to see these dominoes fall," Matt Gardner, general manager of Flying Saucer, says. "And when a brewery with the street cred of Stone comes in, suddenly Kansas City is a legit beer market."
Contrast Magic Hat's low-key entry with that of Stone, which blew in with a weeklong series of events in April. In town for the launch, CEO Greg Koch found crowds of enthusiastic drinkers eager to try the brewery's Arrogant Bastard Ale.
"One thing I know about KC craft-beer fans: You stage-dive from the bar, and they'll catch you. In my book, that kind of support goes a long way," Koch says.
The development of the craft-beer scene here by way of other cities' signature brews is now likely to fuel the next great phase for Kansas City lagerheads: an influx of hometown brews that are as representative of the City of Fountains as Boulevard, made by a cadre of home-brewers that have been exposed to the country's largest and most-respected craft breweries. Boulevard's McDonald believes that the market is ready for a slight correction that will favor local producers.
"There has been a shift among consumers to the idea of choosing local first, then regional," McDonald says. "Beer is heavy and perishable, which makes it less than ideal to ship long distances. People now have the option to enjoy a fresh, well-made product from a local brewery."
The shift is most likely happening in the space between hobbyists and big bottlers: at nanobreweries, which the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines as "very small" operations. There's no consensus on a more specific definition because the concept is still being defined. Some use the legal home-brewing limit of 200 gallons annually as a benchmark. Others aren't ready to compare themselves with even the early days of Boulevard.
"We took nano from ninth-grade biology because micro is just too big to describe what we do," says Micah Trotti, who co-founded Stuck Truck Brews with his Cerner co-worker, Chad Cummings. Trotti, 30, and Cummings, 31, are working on perfecting a hoppy pale ale. (They're also experimenting with a honey-vanilla porter, having found an oversized bottle of vanilla extract for $5 at Costco.)
The friends have spent the better part of a week constructing a wooden cabinet that's the approximate size and shape of a baby-grand piano. On its front sit 20 taps. A carbon-dioxide tank and some careful wiring inside the cabinet allowed Stuck Truck to showcase the work of 13 home-brewers at the second annual Brookside Nanobrew Festival this past Saturday.
The same creativity drives Fountainhead Brewing Co.'s Michael Ojo — the name is a play on the city of fountains, not the Ayn Rand title — to make Pineapple Blond Ale, the latest in what he calls his Summer Infatuation Series.
The 27-year-old Ojo, who lives in downtown Overland Park and has been brewing since 2009, has a five-year plan to get his nanobrewery off the ground in either the Crossroads District or the River Market.
"It's tough to go to Germany to try a new beer," he says. "You can't just buy a plane ticket and go. But the good news here is that local places are making the effort to get great beers in front of their customers."
Ojo is confident that Kansas City will see an "explosion of nanobreweries and microbreweries in the next five years." He might be right, though Boulevard's Steven Pauwels has another thought as to what could be driving the beer movement in Kansas City.
"You know what has changed since I moved here in 1999?" Pauwels says. "I found really good bread and sausages and locally made cheese and chocolates. It's only natural that beer follows."
The connection between food and beer went supernova this past February, when Boulevard's Chocolate Ale collaboration with Christopher Elbow arrived for Valentine's Day. Chocolate Ale sightings were like Wonka Golden Tickets, with tales of missed chances and victories going viral on the Internet. When demand far outpaced availability, Boulevard issued an apology letter, explaining that it had been caught off-guard by the feverish response. What was intended to be a one-off collaboration is slated to return next year, in part as a mea culpa.
That same passion may help finance a new microbrewery in the city. Wilderness Brewing Co. launched a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign. (The micro-lending site has a good track record for local projects; it helped fund an expansion of Fresher Than Fresh Snowcones last May.)
"I think California and Kansas City have very different people," Wilderness co-founder Mike Reinhardt says. "People love beer [in California] but have no connectivity. That's very L.A., but in Kansas City there's connectivity, just not a large variety to choose from."
Reinhardt is moving to Kansas City from Pasadena, California, on July 6 to begin setting up the microbrewery with his partner, Nate Watson, who lives in Blue Springs. The pair have been brewing together since meeting at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, three years ago. They've launched a popular beer blog called Thank Heaven for Beer.
The support of the local beer community — particularly a group of craft-beer enthusiasts nicknamed the Gents, who meet monthly at the Foundry to sample new beers — helped the pair raise more than $8,600 in the first week of the campaign.
"I think Kansas City is absolutely ripe," Watson says. And one of the reasons could very well be Nick Vaughn, owner and brewmaster of Doodle. During a recent lunch break, he hustles from his day job at nearby SCD Probiotics to talk about his beer.
"I ferment bacteria during the day and ferment yeast at night," he says.
The story of Doodle dates back to 2009, when Vaughn began planning the launch of Doodle Dubbel.
"Doodling is an art that nobody realizes is an art, and that's kind of the way craft beer is," Vaughn explains. Vaughn is a doodler, but he brings his product to market with a meticulous plan, something ingrained in him as an engineering student at the University of Missouri. It was in Columbia that he began to home-brew.
He turned his degree into a job filling kegs at Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Over three and a half years, he rose to the rank of brewer, the same position he secured at 75th Street Brewery when his family moved back to Kansas City in 2006.
Three years later, he was ready to venture forth on his own with a bank loan and warehouse space in Liberty. He secured a microbrewer's license, only to discover that no distributor would pick up his beer. Undeterred, Vaughn applied for both a 22-percent wholesale-solicitor license, which enabled him to produce any kind of liquor with up to 22 percent alcohol content, and a companion distributor's license.
"I love making beer, but it's a business," he says. "If your beer doesn't sell, you don't have a business."
With the motivation of his young son's college savings fully invested in his brewery, Vaughn's brews made it from Liberty to KC this past February in the back of his pickup. Those first few 22-ounce bottles on store shelves were the result of Vaughn walking in with a bottle and a cup and introducing himself. In April, he secured a distributor, a move that he hopes will help him realize his goal of turning Doodle into a full-time job by 2013. His beers are now in 15 area stores.
"I just want to make beer and do what I know how to do and send my son to college," he says.
"It's not the breweries that make the beer," Vaughn says, before climbing into the cab of his pickup on the hottest day of 2011 so far. "It's the brewers." And right now, this hometown brewer has to get back to his day job.