I knew craft beers and the places featuring them were becoming more prevalent — I just didn’t know how popular and pervasive the craft beer movement was.
It’s not my fault. I’m a wine drinker. Want to know the names of the 10 Beaujolais’ “Cru” bottlings and hear an overview of their various characteristics and nuances? No problem. I’ve got an answer and an opinion.
But if you’re seeking the Holy Grail of American craft brews, the latest triple-hopped, barrel-aged monster malt taking the market by storm? I’m afraid I’m not going to be of much assistance.
Sure, I’ll have the occasional beer, usually an IPA or pilsner, and I’ve known to down a few Boulevard Wheat Beers at the odd Royals game. But, I don’t seek out craft beer offerings at the liquor store, couldn’t tell you what the hottest local, regional or national craft brewer is, and really didn’t know just how large the selection is these days.
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I was on the periphery of a trend exploding all around me. That is, until I attended Hopfest in Waldo earlier this summer. Hopfest featured nearly 250 beers and I tried and loved dozens. The craft beer bug had officially bitten me.
I was not alone. Consider these craft beer numbers.
▪ Craft brewers currently provide more than 110,000 jobs in the U.S.
▪ The craft brewing industry grew by nearly 20 percent last year.
▪ Retail dollar value from craft brewers in last year was an estimated $14.3 billion, up from $11.9 billion in 2012.
▪ There were nearly 3,000 breweries operating in the U.S. last year, the highest total in more than 130 years. More than 95 percent are craft breweries.
Those are some pretty compelling statistics, but how could I boil it down to what’s happening here in Kansas City? I had an idea.
I live in Liberty where a new brewpub opened last December. I’ve been to the Rock & Run Brewery many times and have had conversations with co-owner Gene Declue while sipping a variety of their craft brew offerings and noshing their food.
I had also heard about Martin City Brewing Co., which would complement their already existing pub. I quickly organized a visit and tasting there.
Opposite ends of the metro. Completely different beer styles. The same goal — serve up fresh, local, hand-crafted delicious beer and really good food. I had my hook.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” said Martin City Brewing Co. co-owner Matt Moore. “My grandfather created RC’s Chicken and Jess and Jim’s restaurants in Martin City.”
Both restaurants are Martin City landmarks. In addition, Moore’s grandfather ran a pub in the same building Martin City Brewing calls home.
“My family was going to sell this building for a lot less than it was worth, so I told them I’d buy it,” he said. “I had lunch with a good friend who would become my business partner, Chance Adams, and during that lunch, the idea of a brewpub was hatched.”
“We had $500 in the bank when the restaurant opened its doors, so we had to make money right away,” Moore said.
The Pub, as it’s known today, was opened three years before the brewery, which came online at the end of January. There are actually three businesses that comprise Martin City Brewing: The Pub, The Pizzeria, and the brewery, which is adjacent to The Pizzeria. I met with Moore in the brewery, which is a cool space with the standard brewing elements and some not-so-standard barrels for aging their Belgium-styled offerings.
“We spent $350,000 on the equipment alone,” Moore said. “Plus, this was all-new construction, and I was the contractor. That was a very, very bad decision, but we would have never gotten the loans if that hadn’t been the case.”
Moore, who strikes me as a guy who doesn’t do a whole lot of sittin’ around, is already eying distribution by the end of the year — kegs locally and large format bottles that might go out regionally.
As for the beers, Moore gave this assessment: “Nick Vaughn, the brewmaster, likes Belgian ales, so that’s what we feature. We have 10 of them on tap.”
I didn’t have a lot of time, so I only had one — the Belgian Blond Abbey Ale. I really liked it. It’s among the lighter of Martin City Brewing’s efforts, but still packed plenty of flavor and a nice, heady aroma. Not nearly as hoppy as an IPA nor nearly as creamy as some other Belgian-styled offerings I’ve tasted, I found the Blond Abbey Ale positively beguiling.
Moore said he enjoys barrel-aged Porters — a bit stout for my palate. Still, I would be happy to try them and any of the other Martin City Brewing malted beverages at any time.
At the other end of the metro area you’ll find the Rock & Run Brewery, just off the historic square in downtown Liberty, a place I enjoy visiting regularly. It’s a local addition to my chain-dominated suburban home.
One afternoon while waiting for my wife to get off work, I had a beer and a conversation with the “rock” portion of the Rock & Run, Gene DeClue.
“I’m in the local band, Cherry Bomb, and I’m also an avid home brewer,” DeClue said.
The “run” half of the business is partner is Dan Hatcher, a man who loves ultra-marathons who has spent his career in the restaurant business. Add up rock, run, beer, and restaurant and you’ve got the Rock & Run Brewery, which also hit the Kansas City craft beer scene last winter.
“I love packing as much flavor into my brews as possible,” DeClue said. It shows. DeClue’s brews are not for the faint of heart. Even the lightest of offerings are likely to pack a wallop and DeClue likes it that way.
DeClue and Hatcher offer 10 locally brewed beers and some 39 other beers on tap. My person favorite of DeClue’s creation is the Liberty Ale, a slightly hoppy, medium-bodied, smooth-as-silk creation.
And, after visiting in December then every month since, DeClue seems to be hitting his brewing stride, though that’s probably a word better associated with his running partner.
Whatever the case, I’m happy to have the brewery just minutes from my home — a place where I can order a wood-fired pizza and a different beer or two every two or three weeks, and still not run out of choices for a long time. Spoken like a true craft beer aficionado. See, I’m learning.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, for nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado.