Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kansas City's Iconic Boulevard Brewery and Boulevardia Festival

Guest Post by
Erik Wullschleger

The first annual “Boulevardia” festival had been a smash hit among the locals and I was currently swimming among a rumored 2,000 people on the 12th street bridge’s 2nd level (though it felt as though there were double that number).  After jockeying for position in lines that no beer festival goer can appreciate, there was a clear opening near the Duvel table and I was going to take it.  As I looked up I did a double take...sure…I had ‘tasted’ my fair share of beers that day but I couldn’t believe who was standing right in front of me offering to top me off with a Duvel Tripel Hop.  John McDonald, the founder of Boulevard and an entrepreneur I’ve long idolized here in Kansas City poured my beer and was patient enough for me to snap a picture of him doing so.  This man’s vision changed Kansas City, impacted craft beer culture and the brand he created is now not only a local icon but a global symbol of the vitality in KC.


I first encountered Boulevard Wheat during college.  It wasn’t the first craft beer I had tasted but the cloudy ‘Unfiltered Wheat’ with a wedge of lemon quickly became a go-to (for the first was a Fat Tire that I’m pretty sure my friends and I only pretended to enjoy...I still don’t like brown ales to this day).  At the time I didn’t put much weight into how a beer was crafted or where it came from but I would soon be closer than ever to the hometown of this beer and it’s delicious friends.

In 2004 I followed a girl to Kansas City (it worked out, we’ve been married for almost 9 years now) and the brick smokestack tap handles were at EVERY bar we went to.  Boulevard Wheat and Pale became a regular rotation in my nights out and I eventually started picking up anything of theirs I could find in the liquor stores.  By 2005, the brewery announced a significant $20M expansion plan that would increase their brewing capacity by over 600K barrels per year and allow them to really start experimenting with the old equipment.

This was the genesis of the Smokestack Series, a line of beers that were brewed with BIG flavor and high alcohol content.  It wasn’t until I had my first sip of a Boulevard “Sixth Glass” that I realized how complexly awesome alcohol could be.  My wife and I bought up every bottle we could find, sometimes buying multiples (one to drink and one to store for next year).  I can still remember my first taste of an Imperial Stout that had been aged for a year side by side with the freshly brewed, I always heard fine wines getting better with age, but the rich chocolate/tobacco flavors coming from this bottle blew me away.  Beer had turned into an obsession between the two of us and with the help of Untapped, discovering new beers had turn into a game.

There are two people responsible for the move from casual beer drinker to enthusiast, one was my employee at the time (and local beer reviewer) Mark Starr, the other his friend (and volunteer Boulevard tour guide) Tim Pratt (seen here reviewing Bourbon Barrel Quad together).  Tim turned into an amazing friend taking me on close to two dozen tours over the course of his tenure there.  If he was working (which he did twice a month), I was on his tour.  He was great at his ‘job’ and very willing to share his ‘pay check’ with me if I came in to keep him company.  

The experimental brews coming out of the tasting room blew my mind.  Multiple iterations of what is now known as 80 Acre, Love Child, Double Wide and many others that never made it to production could be had only inside of Boulevard’s brewery.  My favorite ‘memory’ was tasting (again and again) the 14% abv Mint Julep Ale while it was on tap over my 30th birthday weekend.  That would prove to be a huge mistake as Tim had been given one single instruction on that day...keep Erik sober so he can be awake for his surprise birthday party tonight.  He completely failed on keeping me sober but he was extremely effective on distracting me from my wife’s planning.

Eventually Tim was let go because the brewery was moving from volunteer to paid labor...he had a day job and couldn’t afford to work the hours Boulevard was looking for.  This wasn’t connected to the big changes coming but it was definitely the end of an era for me.

On October 13th, John McDonald wrote a letter to the people of Kansas City.  In the note he recounted his first sip of a belgian style ale, how it transformed his perspectives on beer and the culture surrounding it.  The letter and subsequent announcement of the sale to Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat sent shockwaves through the community.  This was Kansas City’s beer and the thought of a foreign controlling interest immediately sparked talks of boycott and breaking bottles in the streets.  As Kansas City collectively settled down and really read the words of Boulevard’s founder they saw the benefits of global distribution, increased production/expansion in our city and most importantly, access to new beers that weren’t previously available in the midwest!!  Duvel Moortgat is a parent company that operates nearly a dozen other independent breweries and Boulevard would retain a similar amount of autonomy.

This summer, Boulevard hosted their first ever beer festival.  While they’ve always supported the local beer scene, this was their first attempt at a home grown celebration of “Beer, Music, Food and Beer” (that’s not a misprint...they put beer twice in the slogan...hat tip to them).  Boulevardia was an instant hit, filling up the industrial “West Bottoms” of Kansas City with a large stage that hosted acts like the Hearts of Darkness, the March Fourth Marching Band, Robert Delong and many more.  Tents were littered throughout the event filled with “made in KC” merchandise and food trucks were parked along the perimeter soaking up the alcohol from the consumption of beer.

As if day one wasn’t enough, day two brought together 35 different breweries, most of them not currently distributed in the KC market.  At $75, the ticket price seemed steep but upon arrival it was clear Boulevard had oversold the event...I would eventually find a way to manage the crowd with my wife and best friend in tow and thankfully navigate my way to a cab that evening (I didn’t make it to day three…).

Over the last year, there are more than a ½ dozen breweries who have opened their doors to the general public and another group of 6-10 who are working toward commercialization here in Kansas City.  Many of them were on display and it’s exciting to see such a friendly competition in town.  Boulevardia was much more than a beer festival though, it was a show of support and a bear hug for everything Kansas Citians love about KC.  Beyond beer, the overwhelming number of makers, innovators, musicians, foodies and entrepreneurs in our town has exploded...many of them on display during the three day festival.

And that brings me full circle.  Over the last 25 years, a humble carpenter turned craft brewer had a remarkable impact on KC.  After what I believed to be a chance encounter with John McDonald during a drunken walk-about at his beer festival, I never thought I would get a chance to sit down and thank him for the contribution he’s made to our city.  When Silicon Prairie News interviewed my as part of their ‘Prairie Portraits’ feature I listed John as the one entrepreneur I wanted to have a beer with (never expected that to happen).  

This week, I received a phonecall from a friend who hosts a weekly entrepreneurial radio show in Kansas City and he was looking for help.  He had just booked Mr. McDonald for his show and was concerned about filling the entire hour long slot.  I gladly accepted his invite to co-host and not only did I get to thank him but I learned a lot more about a man who’s now turning his focus beyond his passion for beer into projects like glass recycling, urban redevelopment and much more (check out the full interview here).

Kansas City is lucky to have Boulevard, a brand that’s meant so much to KC.  John McDonald has led his company to do remarkable things in the last 25 years but I’m excited to see what he does with his 6th decade in our city.

Erik Wullschleger is the General Manager of the Sprint Accelerator in Kansas City, a blogger and an advocate for tasty beers everywhere.  You can follow him on twitter or keep up with him on his blog or just watch what he’s drinking on Untappd: