Brewery, brewery tours, event space, craft beer, Tasting Room, flagship I.P.A., prohibition, Heim Bros. Brewery, Muehlebach Brewing Co.
The topic of discussion here? Kansas City, Mo.’s famous Boulevard Brewing Co., on Southwest Blvd. in the Westside. However, its tale cannot be justly told without mention of its predecessors, for the city has a long and influential history in the brewing industry. And beer itself? It’s an ancient art of craft and sustenance, standing the test of time like few things do. Boulevard, established quite literally thousands of years after beer was, still manages to continuously create innovative and very interesting blends.
This proves two things: that ingenious minds reside at Boulevard Brewing Co., and that the recipe for beer is liquid (ha!), in that endless combinations and ingredients can result in a new product every time. To understand the impact of our hometown brewery, one must understand beer itself. So, as we like to say here at Squeezebox …
Settle in, we’ve a lot to discuss.
Countless “styles” of beer abound, categorized by assorted traits like appearance, taste and history. Of course, this wide variety existed not in antiquity; the types have evolved over many years through trial and error and tried and true practice. The first-ever “adult beverage” – a blend of fruit and rice – had roots in China.
However, those amazing ancient Mesopotamians (responsible for the first civilization and cuneiform, the foundation of the entire written language system) mastered the brew, leaving record of the earliest substantive paraphernalia. It’s even addressed in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written epic tale: “Drink the beer, as it is the custom of the land.”
The invention of beer – thought to have been stumbled upon by an ancient female baker – arose when agriculture settled nomadic peoples. Rather than foraging and following food, humans could now grow their own and produce – ta da – bread. Though actual evidence of the lady baker is diminutive, it was indeed the production of bread that accidentally bore the beer. The yeast in the air and a bit of spilt water fermented the dough. And it was good.
Beer consumption and creation spread, evolved, transformed, improved. The Babylonians loved it. The Egyptians loved it. The Germans loved it. The Chinese loved it. England loved it, the Catholics loved it – monks learned and improved upon the art of brewing. Fun fact: the Bavarian Weihenstephan brewery established in 1040 still operates to this very day. And this Weihenstephan brewery? ‘Twas the handiwork of the Benedictine Weihenstephan Abbey. The holy men, mind you, sipped a much diluted version.
Only the Romans snubbed it. Bacchus, the god of wine and grapevine in Roman and Greek mythology (Greek: Dionysus), heavily influenced their embracement of wine over beer. Elsewhere, beer and bread reigned as every-meal staples for children to the elderly. Cheese often accompanied the “Bs,” and the wealthy feasted on meat and fruits as well. From mythology through the Middle Ages, century after century, to the present here and now, beer remains an undeniable basic element of human life.
Boulevard pays homage to ancient methods. They modeled part of the brewery after the traditional Bavarian brewhaus style. They employ the practice of bottle conditioning: “All of Boulevard’s ales are bottle conditioned, an old-world brewing tradition that creates a secondary fermentation in the bottle, resulting in a beer that tastes fresher, better, longer.” With clever alterations to age-old recipes, the brewery produces fresh twists on classics.
One excellent example: Boulevard’s 80 Acre Hoppy Beer. This wheat-and-hops combination has roots in Medieval Europe, when hops entered the flavoring category in brewing. The use of wheat can be traced back to the B.C. era in ancient Armenia. Boulevard’s Double-Wide India Pale Ale (or as this style is commonly known, simply I.P.A) is a variation on the good ol’ blend: “The classic India Pale Ale is a traveler’s beer, aggressively hopped to withstand the long, hot ocean voyage to the British East Indies… Enjoy this [Double-Wide] beer fresh to best appreciate the complex blending of hop aromas, ranging from minty to citrusy, with subtle hints of pine.”
Boulevard even throws shout-outs to local history, with Boss Tom’s Golden Bock (as in, Tom Pendergast and his political machine in Kansas City) and my personal absolute favorite, the KC Pils. George Muehlebach, whose influence shall be addressed below, popularized the pilsner, or pilsener, style in Kansas City, his brewery operating from the 1860s to the 1950s. Boulevard even boasts a beautiful event space within the brewery called the Muehlebach Suite.
Ah, Kansas City. At the turn of the 20th century, she was a haven for breweries and beer drinkers alike… not to mention all sorts of spirits. The city’s West Bottoms area merited the moniker “Wettest Block in the World,” home to all of the above – as well as countless rowdy saloons and brothels. The West Bottoms also housed Union Depot, the original railway station in the city, later damaged by one of many great floods to devastate the area and closed up for good when Union Station was built at Pershing and Main streets. Travelers-by-train added to the drunken crowds as did border-hoppers; the state of Kansas outlawed alcohol twenty years prior to Missouri.
Beer (and alcohol in general) garnered quite the controversial history in the United States. For as many people who enjoyed it, there were those who opposed it heavily. Temperance advocates, they were – later also known as “bone-drys” – had existed in America since at least the earliest 1800s.
But long before the temperance movement, beer was here.
The oldest documentation of beer in the United States dates back before the country had ever even heard of the United States. The first beer was created in the colony of Virginia in 1857, when settlers used corn for their brewing. By the early 1600s, Virginia ordered beer and received shipments from the motherland (England). Apparently, that corn method was unsatisfactory – a plea for English brewers to aid Virginia appeared in advertisements overseas.
The first brewery to be established in America opened in 1612. And as the New World was settled, expanded, ahem, stolen from the natives… beer production and consumption grew. And kept on’ a growin’, globally as well. So much so, that in the mid-1700s, The Theory and Practice of Brewing was published in London. Brewing had become mainstream enough that it needed a whole book dedicated to the art. In the later 1700s, states enacted laws to bolster brewing numbers and consumption of beer among the general public.
Beer production saw continued expansion. By 1810, the United States produced 185,000 barrels of beer annually. This is largely in thanks to Mr. George Washington, who didn’t like it much that Americans were still importing beer from England after the United States fought and won the Revolutionary War to gain its independence from England in 1776. As the first president, his influence was considerate. He started the original “Buy American!” movement – by announcing that if a beer wasn’t made in the U.S. of A., he wouldn’t drink it. By George, it worked.
The first brewery in the state of Missouri cannot be claimed by Kansas City, but St. Louis, opened in 1789. At that time, our great city was yet to be quite as developed, and St. Louis remained the last stop before heading into the wild west. It wasn’t until the mid-1850s – when America was producing 9,000,000 barrels of beer per year – that brewing truly begun in earnest in Kansas City.
Brewing long preceded the-then Town of Kansas. Still, Kansas City would become – and remain – a staple in the beer industry. In 1857, just two breweries graced city records – one being the Kansas City Brewery at 3rd and Oak streets. Operated by Peter Schwitzgebel, the man himself proclaimed at its opening: “I am prepared to furnish the public with the best lager beer west of St. Louis!”
In 1862, Misters George Messerchmidt and Heinrich (Henry) Helmreich designed and executed the first structure in Kansas City specifically for brewing purposes. The Western Brewery, they called it, and it occupied the corner of Westport Rd. and 23rd Street.
By the year 1870, five breweries were in continuous operation in Kansas City. Many breweries came and went within one to two years. The thriving five included Star Ale Brewery, owned by one F.H. Klumpf (he’d soon rename it Kump Brewing, omitting the “l” and “f” from his surname), Western Brewery (as mentioned above), Grand Avenue Brewery (20th and Grand, owned by Frederick Hey) and Main Street Brewery (11th and Main).
The same year, Kansas City’s soon-to-be beer baron, George Muehlebach, acquired Main Street Brewery. Best known for popularizing the pilsener style of beer in the area, by 1879 the brewery (re-dubbed Muehlebach Brewing Co.) was the second largest producer of beer in Kansas City. The following year, George’s brother and co-owner died, and George razed the brewery. He replaced it with an elaborate “beer castle” and a more spacious, better equipped brewing plant – the company sold thousands upon thousands of beer barrels every year.
Meanwhile, old F.H. Kump’s brewery exchanged hands, purchased by Ferdinand Heim. The Ferd. Heim Brewery set up shop at 14th and Main for a few years, but the company’s success urged a new brewery, built in the East Bottoms at Agnes and Guinotte. This new building became the Heim Brothers Brewery. By the late 1890s, Heim Brothers was within the top 50 producers of beer in the United States. In 1899, they opened Electric Park (Kansas City’s first electric amusement park) and Beer Garden next door to their East Bottoms brewhouse. The following year, the Heims added a separate bottling house to their empire (now home to the newly resurrected J. Rieger & Co. Whiskey distillery). In 1901, they erected a brand-new boiler house and claimed the title of the Biggest Brewing Company in the Whole World.
The Rochester Brewery, established in 1888 at 20th and Washington streets, produced a whopping 125,000 barrels of beer annually within four years. The old Western Brewery became the Weiss Brewery in 1898 upon its acquisition by Leo Thoma (Weiss beer is described as “effervescent, highly-carbonated wheat beer.”). Imperial Brewery was erected in 1902 on Southwest Blvd., where today it still stands at I-35 highway. Imperial was one of just two breweries in the entire Midwest to have installed a state-of-the-art ice machine.
A few short years later, in 1905, the Kansas City Breweries Company was formed in a threefold amalgamation of the Rochester Brewery, Heim Brothers Brewery and Imperial Brewery – and quickly became the largest producer in Kansas City. Missouri was ranked fourth in United States beer production for nearly half a century, well into the 1900s.
But in 1919, some major changes to the American Constitution halted beer production on a dime.
Yes, the good ol’ days of Prohibition. The ratification of the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act rendered the manufacture, sales, and transport of intoxicating beverages illegal. An intoxicating beverage was defined as anything containing more than .5% alcohol. Sorry, breweries.
Many went out of business. Many replaced their beer products with soda. Kansas City breweries largely saw both situations, though Imperial Brewery converted to a flour mill. The populace remained mostly unaffected. Boss Tom Pendergast and his mafia connections kept booze-a-comin’ in the city with bootlegged liquor. In fact, the reason most Americans prefer a bit-weaker beer than, say, Europeans, is that they adapted to weaker beer during the 1920s. It was profitable to water down bootlegged beer, you see. It’s often said that Prohibition didn’t really happen in Boss Tom’s kingdom. Perhaps not, for the people. But for Kansas City’s breweries and distilleries, it was very real.
Fast-forward to 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on the 21st amendment: the repeal of national prohibition. He ordered in a case of 3.2% beer to celebrate at the White House and voila! Alcohol production and consumption reconvened slowly but surely. In Kansas City, it was no different.
George Muehlebach opened back up for business at 4th and Oak, until 1956 when the brewery was acquired by the Milwaukee, Wis.-based Schlitz Company. Continuous improvements in laws, brewing and containers kept the beer scene fresh. In 1935, the very first canned beer debuted, and the 1960s proved a most innovative decade. Between 1959 and 1965, tab-top cans, aluminum cans, aluminum tops and ring-pull tab-top cans were all introduced. In 1978, the allowance of home-brewing became federal law. Microbreweries cropped up through the 1980s. And craft breweries? By the mid-1990s, 1,102 craft breweries were in operation in the United States.
One of these 1,102 craft breweries was our Boulevard itself. See, when home-brewing was legalized, Daniel McDonald unknowingly started an empire, creating the “flagship ale” of Boulevard Brewing Co., IPA, in his basement. McDonald began the building of Boulevard Brewing Co. at 2501 Southwest Blvd. in 1988, and made his first keg delivery in the back of his truck to the nearby Ponak’s Kitchen restaurant in 1989.
Kansas City is home to several burgeoning breweries, like McCoy’s Public House in Westport, the Kansas City Bier Company in Waldo and Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City. There’s even a new brewery set to open in October 2015, appropriately titled Stockyards Brewery, in the West Bottoms’ old livestock district — back to the city’s booze roots.
And we appreciate every single one of them.
But Boulevard is our crown jewel. Over the years it’s grown into the Midwest’s largest craft and specialty brewery. The many varieties of Boulevard beer are distributed throughout the nation. And the incredible variety and continuous new releases are one of the top reasons Boulevard is so successful. Offering something for everyone, you’ll find seasonal beers, backroads beers, year-rounders and tasting room beers – the company releases test beers and encourages feedback from their consumers to decide what stays and what goes.
Tasting-room beers include Westside Rye Ale, Red IPA and Ginger-Lemon Radler – the last of which, I might add, is particularly tasty. The backroads beers are adventurous, with Last Splash and Entwined Ale, a mix of malt beverage and grape juice (also very tasty). Seasonals, like the Irish Ale, Bob’s 47 Oktoberfest and Nutcracker Ale come round during the appropriate holidays, while classics like Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, Double Wide I.P.A. and Dark Truth Stout are always available.
In 2012, the Brewers Association reported 2,126 craft breweries in the United States. Still as of 2015, Boulevard Brewing Co. is alive and well – and better than ever. Recent releases include a Chocolate Ale, and (as always, representing Kansas City) the limited-edition Crown Town Ale in honor of the 2014 Royals winning division and fighting to the very last seconds of World Series game seven (*sobs… damn you, Madison Bumgarner!).
We love you, Boulevard Brewing Co. And we look forward to many more years of innovative, exciting beer as you expand. For an art having been around since the first civilization, you’d think it’s all been done. But you prove that notion wrong with each and every new product.