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Boulevard built a marketplace for ambitious brewers. Now they're coming



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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."

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