Kansas City is well-known for its legendary barbecue and, unbeknownst to me, fountains, but not so much its beer, except for Boulevard Brewing Company. Go ahead, think “midwest” and “beer city,” and I suspect that Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and maybe even Madison come to mind before the “Heart of America” sitting on the Missouri River. However, a recent trip out to attend Boulevard’s first annual beer and music festival, Boulevardia, proved that KCMO’s beer scene is alive, well, and growing quickly.
Let’s get one thing clear: square one for Kansas City’s craft beer scene is Boulevard. It’s everywhere. You walk into a bar, nearly any bar, as far as we saw, and order a “pale ale,” and you will get handed a Boulevard Pale Ale. Same with “a Pils.” You’ll get Boulevard’s KC Pils, 10 percent of the revenue of which goes to local charities. From gas stations to fine dining restaurants, you will see Boulevard’s influence from giant signs to tap handles. How’d they become so ubiquitous? Well, longevity for one. John McDonald opened Boulevard in 1989 in a brick building where he was making furniture before he discovered the joys of Belgian beers. Fast forward 25 years and Boulevard is the 12th largest craft brewer in the country and the second largest in the Midwest (after Bell’s). A major expansion in 2006 brought a huge expansion into a 150 BBL brewhouse that raised the brewery’s barrelage to over 600,000 barrels annually. When I heard someone joke on the brewery tour that Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat outsells Bud Light in Kansas City, I could actually believe it.
Boulevardia was the draw for our little sojourn out to KCMO. It was an effort by Boulevard to build its own little country right in the middle of the city for three days. Two stages with a full slate of live music, a bunch of tap tents (including some with special tappings), food vendors, performers galore, local artisans, and even a bacon eating competition. They got the word out, and people listened (or read the yard signs placed along the roads). For a first time event of this size, the event was pretty well organized. Good signage, clear and wide pathways, plenty to see and do, lots of room in front of the stages. In other words, a success. Especially notable was the app designed specifically for Boulevardia that included a schedule, map, breaking news alerts, and a brewery passport, among other features. Slickly put together and useful, this should be the model for other breweries’ festivals.
But wait, what is a “brewery passport,” and what’s it for? Well, the crown jewel of Boulevardia wa the “Taps and Tastes” experience. Sort of like an outdoor mini-SAVOR with local and national breweries and a number of local restaurants pushing out small, beer-friendly bites. See the picture below, it was set up on an underpass overlooking the festival in general. Pretty cool venue! The problem with underpasses is that they’re more or less bridges, and bridges are, by their nature, choke points. So while the underpass provided a great view, it did get pretty crowded pretty quickly. The crowd was justified given the beer selection. Fans of sours were more or less in heaven. Local breweries (more on that in a minute) brought all kinds of Berliners, Flanders red and browns, goses, and other American wild ales. It wasn’t just local breweries bringing the goods either. Breweries renowned on the national stage like Allagash, Crooked Stave, Funkwerks, Odell, and Russian River, to name a few, were in attendance and pouring rarities and fan favorites. I don’t geek out about too much anymore, but I had a list of “want-to-try” beers three dozen deep in the Boulevardia app (PS, it had a cool filtering feature where you could make a list you wanted and then move it to a different folder once you had it, along with a rating). With the mass of folks trying to get all these beers, it was tough to get everything I wanted, but I have to say I was incredibly pleasantly surprised. For a day in June, a makeshift city-in-a-city in the American heartland was Craft Beer, USA.
Outside of Boulevard and Boulevardia, there were plenty of other great sights and tastes in Kansas City. Here are just a few:
- The barbecue in Kansas City lived up to the hype. Although we missed the famous Arthur Bryant’s, we did enjoy thoroughly Jack’s Stack BBQ and Oklahoma Joes. Burnt ends? Check. Delicious smoked sausage with fat running out of it? Check. Ribs where the merest hint of a bite pulls a whole hunk of meat off the bone? Check check check.
- One of the cooler beer spots we checked out was called Bier Station, a stone’s throw from the Missouri-Kansas border and just north of KC’s Waldo neighborhood. “The Midwest’s first beer bar/bottle shop” makes great use of a draft system display service called Digital Pour. The beer menu, on two large TVs over the bar, shows the approximate amount of beer remaining in the keg along with key info like beer style, ABV, price, color, and even the type of glass it will be served in. Not interested in the 28 drafts? Grab something from the entire wall of coolers. Nearly every beer has a price for drinking there or a slightly lower price for taking out. Mixed six-packs are fine too. On the food front they’ve got pretzels and brats. Just a really cool place to spend an afternoon and watch a soccer match, as we did. If only every bar was employing something like Digital Pour!
- The Boulevard Brewery is one of the more aesthetically pleasing ones I’ve visited. Be sure to check out the photos (especially those from the rooftop!) in the slideshow below. Lots of emphasis on the history of the company, with original concept art for beer labels, awards, and newspaper clippings abundant on the walls. Plenty of space for entertaining and having events pairs with lots of opportunities to look in on brewing operations. Oh, and the solar panels on the roof let you know that the brewery has a commitment to being green as well. This commitment makes sense since the brewery started the Ripple Glass company, which is dedicated to glass recyling in the Kansas City area.
- Two beer bars that should be on any craft beer fan’s list for a Kansas City visit are Beer Kitchen and The Belfry. Both feature very thoughtfully curated draft and bottle menus, tasty food, and knowledgeable staff who are happy to chat about beer. Looking for healthy mixes of rare bottles and delicious local beer? Neither of these places will disappoint.
- You’ll see a lot of shots from a place called Voltaire in the slideshow below. We stumbled on Voltaire, which was next door to a hole in the wall called Grandma’s Bar and Grill, where, by the way, a Bud Heavy and a shot of Wild Turkey will run you just $6. Anyway, at Voltaire I had one of the best meals of my life. It wasn’t on any of our radars or lists of places to hit before going to KC. Important lesson that going with the flow in a strange city can dig up some real gems. What made it so great? Very creative, well-executed dishes. A large and food-friendly beer list. An extensive (and very affordable) whiskey list. Hello, $9 Four Roses Single Barrel.
- Finally, if you’ve indulged a little bit too much the night before and have to recuperate the morning after before flying home, check out the Pork and Pickle at the Kansas City International Airport. Surprisingly good food, and even large format bottles (e.g., Saison Dupont) for an airport restaurant. In particular, their brisket hash with tater tots, fried eggs, barbecue sauce, and cheese was restorative for yours truly.
A special thanks to the team from Boulevard, Ommegang, and Duvel Moortgat for being hospitable hosts to us and providing a place for us to stay. Between seeing the festival, checking out the brewery, and learning more about the Kansas City craft beer scene, this was truly a worthwhile trip. Be sure to check out some of our photos below in the slideshow and ask any questions you have in the comments!
Created with flickr slideshow.