Boulevard, which John McDonald opened in 1988, was my first stop on day 2 of my Kansas City craft beer tour. The iconic Boulevard smokestack, and namesake for it special release series is visible from the freeway. The brewery is big and continues to expand. In fact, on our tour, they said that they are adding more tanks and that was the reason for all the crazy construction. Things for me started off in the tasting room.
I had about 45 minutes to kill before my 11:45 tour of the facility and I thought that I would get going on some tasters. The taproom had about 12 beers on tap, 2 of which are experimental ones not even in production yet. Since we get a lot of Boulevard in the Twin Cities, I thought I would start with some of the ones I haven’t seen. The Scotch Ale and the Gose were in the aforementioned experimental category, but were probably two of my favorites. Since it was 100+ degrees out, the Gose was refreshing and crisp. In addition to the experimental beers on tap, I had their Blonde Ale, KC Pils, 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer and Red IPA.
Before I knew it, it was time for the tour and I had to get in line. Within two minutes I started to have a bit of a panic attack. There was a family that had 4 children under the age of what looked to be six years old. As the tour was starting and the tour guide was going over the safety rules, three of the children were entangled in a human pretzel on the ground that seemed to be some type of Wrestlemania performance art. I love avant garde live theatre performances as much as the next guy, but I was getting worried that I would be learning more about the nuances of antagonizing one’s siblings than the rich history of Boulevard. Thankfully, the parents, whom by the looks of it could have really used a few beers, made the right call and took the kids home, and it was smooth sailing for the rest of the tour. Boulevard is a very large brewery and being able to see all the different rooms and spaces that the public tour covered was incredible. Boulevard was acquired by Duvel Moortgat in 2013 and is now becoming an emerging brand in Europe. I strongly recommend this tour, it was not too long, and before I knew it, I was back in the tasting room for more delicious beer!
After Boulevard, I went to Char Bar, a restaurant in the Westport neighborhood. Westport is a very hip and fun area of town with phenomenal craft beer bars and brewpubs seemingly on every street. On the advice of Josh Collins from Big Rip Brewing Co., I had to try this place to see how their barbeque measured up to Joe’s. I decided to go with the ribs, brisket and burnt ends combo. I have to say that the ribs were good, but not better than Joe’s. However, I did have an almost spiritual experience when I bit into a burnt end. A burnt end is the tip of the beef brisket that is seasoned and smoked for 21 hours. Perhaps now you see why I needed an extra napkin to wipe the tears of joy from my eyes. The intensity of seasoning on these tender and smoky tidbits from heaven made me so happy that I was there. I also enjoyed a Schlafly’s Heffeweizen and a KC Bier Co. Dunkel and they washed down the incredibly food masterfully.
From there, I was on to meet Nate Sellergren, the Stone Distribution Representative in town. We grabbed a beer at the Local Pig, an artisanal foodie’s dream. They craft amazing foods using all sorts of meat along with a well-curated beer and drink menu to go along with their delectable eats. Unfortunately, I was still basking in the glory of Char Bar so I was only able to enjoy a beverage. As I sipped my KC Bier Co. Der Bauer, a farmhouse saison, Nate gave me the lowdown on Kansas City’s craft beer culture. He explained to me that KC has always had a vibrant beer bar scene. Lots of places around town with lots of thought put into what they have on tap. Nate also told me about a phenomenon that I really hope catches on in the Twin Cities called “tapcades,” or places that have old school video games and craft beers on tap. I am not just talking about Chatterbox, I am talking about a place that has a ton of different gaming options. For some odd reason, there is a very small swath of geography where these tapcades are popular and I think that it would be something that would really catch on fast back in MN. I thought it was awesome that Nate took the time to sit down with me to share the story of the craft beer scene in Kansas City. Were it not for Hanzie Lofgren for setting up the meeting, I wouldn’t have had the great conversation with Nate, and that was tremendously generous of Hans to facilitate.
My next craft beer stop was back to North Kansas City and Cinder Block Brewing Co. It was around 4 on Thursday afternoon and the place was bustling. I grabbed a spot at the bar and met Sarah, the taproom manager. She was apologetic that they were out of a couple beers, but I guess that means the beer is good and locals are thirsty, not exactly a bad problem to have. I started out with a tasting flight of the Weathered Wit, Prime EPA, Paver’s Porter, Rivet Rye, Cider Block(French), Cider Block(English Cherry) and a Peach Sour. Cinder Block’s portfolio has something for everyone. The Weathered Wit was perfect for the heat, the Cider Block with English Cherry had a pleasing cherry tartness and the Peach Sour had so much depth and complexity that it pretty much blew my mind. As things went from busy to busier, Sarah kept pouring pints like a boss.
I was seated at the far end of the bar and before I knew it, I was surrounded by people who either worked there or made it almost a daily stop after work. I got talking to Shane, a local who loves their beer and the type of laid back patrons that come to Cinder Block. He likes that they are constantly rotating really tasty beer options, he leans more towards the Weathered Wit, but said that the other things are good too and he will try them from time to time. As I was talking with Shane, Dave and Danny came in. They both work at the brewery and today, Danny was cleaning kegs in the brewhouse. Dave was just in for a drinking and busting the chops of anyone he could. Dave used to be a chef at the Martin City Brewpub. We got to talking about the interesting brewpub culture that Kansas City has. Dave is old school and has been around to a lot of different places. He bemoans the fact that a lot of the art and tradition of brewpub fare is no longer being passed down the right way from the old guard to the new. As a result, he thinks that some of the quality has suffered. Dave really understands what makes a brewery tick. He could not say enough wonderful things about Cinder Block and how they treat their beer and people with care. He is a passionate craft beer guy and likes to help out at Cinder Block with anything they need. He, along with Danny, are regularly doing whatever needs to be done around Cinder Block. Andrew Hicks, a Pilot Brewer who also is in charge of Marketing and Public Relations showed up around 5 and jumped right in behind the bar. What impressed me the most about this place (other than the beer of course) was the fact that Andrew and Sarah seemed to know about 80% of the people by name. As a craft beer drinker, that goes a long way in making me feel welcome and also wanting to make that place a regular destination to grab a good craft beer. In between keg washing trips to the back, Danny was seated next to Dave at the bar enjoying the beer.
When things settled down a bit, Andrew brought me back for a tour of the brewhouse and we had a great beer conversation. They are really amping up their production, their barrel aging program and will hope to double the 420 bbls they did this year in the next year. All this happens in a 15 BBL brewhouse which started way back when the owner, Bryce Schaffter started homebrewing in his cinder block basement. The name of the brewery started there and the passion for quality continues with Bryan Buckingham, or “Buck” as the other people call him. Bryan is the head brewer and does some incredible work.
Between the great beer and wonderful camaraderie of the taproom, I stayed for 4 hours. A gentleman named Paul came in and was telling me about the craft beer scene in Alaska where he lived for a time. He was also effusive with his praise of Cinder Block, both the people and the beer, and was so happy that I had stopped there. Paul told me that I had to hit Blind Tiger Brewing Co. in Topeka and wished me well on the rest of my beer trip. All in all, the Cinder Block experience is something that stands out to me as the epitome of why craft beer is important for our society. Like Dave said about passing things down from one generation to the next, taprooms are where people can gather and share their personal histories. Whether it was talking about beer or life in general, Dave had a lot of great nuggets of wisdom. Danny was soaking up the suds and the stories from Dave. Andrew and Sarah made me feel so at home and their hospitality was far more than I deserved.
My time in Kansas City will be special to me and the crew at Cinder Block is a big reason for that. The time did come for me to say goodbye. It was off to Gates Barbeque for more burnt ends and then back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. For the lure of the open road and undiscovered taplines was calling me. Stay tuned for my next article when I discover that there is great beer to be had in Kansas! Prost!