Over Christmas I traveled to eastern Kansas, and one of the top destinations on my list was to visit Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri. Boulevard has been brewing fresh, flavorful beers since 1989, making it one of the earlier craft breweries in the United States. Founded by John McDonald with a few kegs of Boulevard Pale Ale, which John personally delivered to a Mexican restaurant a few blocks down the road, now Boulevard is the largest brewery in the Midwest and after a major expansion in 2006, the brewery’s capacity is about 600,000 barrels per year (100 times larger than John’s original business plan).
Boulevard beers, unfortunately, do not make their way into Montana through distribution. They do, however, make it to 21 other U.S. states, the closest of which is Washington. You can pick some up on your next trip to Spokane at a bottle shop, such as JB’s Food and Bottleworks.
As mentioned earlier, Boulevard Brewing is a big brewery that produces some very fine beers. It’s the 17th largest brewery by volume in the U.S., whereas Big Sky Brewing isn’t even in the Top 50. Some may raise up a skeptical eyebrow when “big” and “beer” are used in the same sentence. The worries are retaining quality control and customer satisfaction when businesses grow. Let’s put those worries to rest quickly.
If you don’t know Boulevard beers that well, a signature line of their brews is the Smokestack Series, which includes both 750 ml and 375 ml sizes. A few sought-after highlights from the Smokestack Series include Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, Saison-Brett, Bourbon Barrel Quad (BBQ), Imperial Stout and, most recently released, Chocolate Ale. Nearly all these beers are rated world-class or near world-class on sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, with most of them receiving hundreds of reviews.
Now it’s time for a little story about what makes a good brewery great, regardless of their size. Boulevard Brewing offers free public tours several times a week, and they often fill up. I knew the day we were planning to get to Boulevard we weren’t going to make it for one of the two scheduled tours, but we wanted to try their beers regardless so we drove up and walked in to the tasting room, which was completely empty except for my wife and I and a lone beertender behind the taps.
I joked that we had the place to ourselves and our beertender, Steve, asked if we were part of a tour. We weren’t. Steve explained that the tasting room wasn’t public (as they are everywhere in Montana), and tour participants were allowed four tastes after their tour. As we apologized for our lack of understanding and turned to head out, Steve stopped us and offered to pour some samples regardless. He explained that already they had to double the size of their tours since so many people were in town for the holidays. Steve himself wasn’t even supposed to be working that day. He just came by to drop something off, but he wasn’t bitter about it. He genuinely loved working at Boulevard and had been there for many years.
After a couple samples, we have our first other visitor come in to the tasting room. It turns out to be the Boulevard rep for all of Kansas City, John Kane, VP and General Manager for Central States Beverage Company. John explains how hard he’s worked to grow Boulevard’s presence in its hometown, having gotten it now into a majority of the tap lineups in the city – a big jump from when John McDonald first hand-delivered kegs to a single restaurant down the street. It’s heartening to see such a close, strong and symbiotic relationship between brewery and distributor.
Over the course of several more samples, a few more stragglers came in, as we did, not knowing the structure of the tasting room. Steve greeted them and then decided he’d give us a private tour. What a treat! We got a 6-person private tour of one of the grandest breweries in the United States.
As we toured, Steve explained that the founder, John, wanted to make his beers accessible and affordable to as many people as possible. And I applaud that approach. Boulevard doesn’t brand itself as an “out there” brewery, trying to push the envelope. Sure, they create some absolutely unique and tasty beers, but they want people to enjoy them. It’s why they began offering their Smokestack Series in smaller formats (375 ml), because they knew not everyone wanted to drink (or pay for) ¾ of a liter of beer in one night. Moreover, in an age where it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of $15 for a big bottle of beer (Big Sky’s Ivan the Terrible runs $14 at the brewery), many beers in the Smokestack Series run about $8 each for a 750 ml.