After leaving the hospitality of Carolina and Robert on a full stomach and a happy soul, I set my course for El Dorado and the Walnut River Brewing Company. El Dorado is about a half hour drive from Wichita and it came recommended from a few people at Hopping Gnome. I got in the car and dialed in the GPS and I was off on the road. The sun was shining bright and the Game of Thrones Podcast: Cast of Thrones was on the iPad and I was heading to a new brewery. I pulled up in El Dorado and the place was very non-descript. I was not exactly sure if they were open by looking at the building. There were studs exposed and it looked like a construction site. However, as I looked closer, I could see that there were people inside drinking beer and I thought that I would see what they were drinking. I was greeted warmly by Rick Goerhing, the Head Brewer, who was pouring beer for several other folks that were gathered in what looked like a garage. I learned that they are in the midst of a brewery expansion and the construction of a proper taproom. That explained all the rough edges. I was also pleasantly surprised that due to construction and a weird law, that I would not be able to pay for samples, but that they were on the house. I am never opposed to some good free craft beer, so I began to run down the line of their 4 beers they had on tap. They had a Kolsch, Red Ale, American Wheat and a Coffee Porter. My favorites were the Red Ale and the Coffee Porter, but the other two were not far behind. As Rick showed me around, I noticed to people who were sitting in chairs and would intermittently get up and go into the area where the brewing was happening. This piqued my curiosity and I asked Rick what the deal was with these guys. What I learned was that these people had won the chance to come to the Walnut River Brewing Company to brew for a day. What is even better for the brewery is that these guys are paying to do this. A win-win for both sides. Rick and I chatted for a while and you could tell that he was itching to get all the new equipment and begin operating on a new and more functional area. I enjoyed my brief stay there and then got back on the road.
My next stop was the Wichita Brewing Company East, a second location of the Wichita Brewing Company. It was a brewpub and the place was packed. I was there during the dinner hour and wound up grabbing one of the last spots at the bar. Having quite the lineup up beers I went big right away and ordered the 8 taster flight. The flight arrived in grand fashion, the copper paddle was quite impressive and several of the other patrons were gawking as the copper monstrosity took up quite a bit of space at the bar. There were several different styles, all fairly common: Pale Ale, IPA, Amber, English Mild and a Vanilla Porter. The two more unique offering were a Watermelon beer and a Belgian Sour. Once I had traversed my way through the first 8, I wanted a splash of the Session IPA and the Milk Stout. As I was enjoying my tasters and taking notes, a couple seated to my right asked what the heck I was doing. I explained to them that I was beginning a craft beer trip through a few states for the craft beer blog, Beerploma. They instantly lit up and began telling me all about the history of craft beer in Wichita and the places that I had to go and the places that I could skip. Scott and Stephanie were very enjoyable. It became obvious very quickly that these two really enjoyed their craft beer. Stephanie was having a beer cocktail for the first time and that meant that Scott was driving. As the beer cocktails went down, the chattier Stephanie got. We gabbed for a while and then another gentleman placed a food order to my right and ordered a beer. His name was Marcus and he was a Pet Counselor. I had the luxury of getting to know him because apparently, they were shipping his food order in from the other Wichita Brewing location, and he had time to drink two beers while the kitchen moved along at a snail’s pace. The latency of the food didn’t seem to bother Marcus because he really liked the Belgian Sour. Marcus finally got his food and was ready to move on and Scott and Stephanie eventually departed. It was time for one last stop before I wrapped up my Wichita adventure.
The River City Brewing Company is the oldest craft brewery in Wichita. Located in the heart of Old Town, River City Brewing has been making great beer since 1993. According to most of the people that I chatted with earlier in the night, this would be the crown jewel of the Wichita craft beer scene. I am happy to say that all those claims were true. I could hear the buzz of this place halfway down the block as a live band was rocking the house up on the second level. As I climbed the steps to enter the brewery, I saw a huge bar at the center of a larger dining area. Big tables were situated on the outer walls to accommodate bigger groups. I saw only one spot at the bar and snagged it quickly. There were a lot of beers on tap. All ranging from lighter wheat beers to a couple really heavy hitters. I wanted to try as many as I could, but I also wanted to be able to drive, so the bartender obliged my strange request of half-pour tasters. I began tasting the craft beer and really liking most of what I had. I noticed a pretty wide margin of quality and flavor from some of the other places I had visited. The fact that River City has been brewing beer for over 20 years showed in their offerings. The Wit had a great yeast tang along with some nice citrus and spice. Some of the bigger and hoppy beers were very balanced out with a nice malt component to go along with a good dose of hops. One of the real mind blowing beers from a flavor standpoint was the Donut Whole Affair. Remarkably, this beer lived up to its billing of tasting like a donut. The bready and slightly sweet malt was done very well. Its counterpart, the Barrel Full of Donuts, was a cinnamon version that was also incredibly flavorful and pleasing. As the band finished up, a DJ starting playing all the hip-hop hits from the late nineties. While I knew all the songs, the pulsating bass was making me ready for bed and I settled up. It was back to the hotel for 40 winks before I hit the road in the morning for the 8 hour drive to Denver.
I went into Kansas without many expectations or premonitions of what I would find there. Everything I knew about that state I learned from the Wizard of Oz. While I saw no tornadoes or flying monkeys, I did find a craft beer scene that is growing. I was able to see a nice swath of the Kansas craft beer scene, huge production breweries like Tallgrass all the way to smaller taprooms like Hopping Gnome point to a growing craft beer market. In Wichita alone, there are at least two breweries set to open in the next year. The people of Kansas are discerning craft beer drinkers and are clamoring for options that go beyond American Light Lager. I am excited for Kansas and what will transpire over the years. Now, it is on to Denver. The density of great breweries along with the fact that I am staying with some really awesome cousins-in-law have be excited for the next leg of the trip. Prost!