While my husband, Mark Gray, attended elementary school, in Wichita, he and future Boulevard Brewing Co. founder John McDonald frequently watched “Twilight Zone” together.
When Mark and I married, John’s family gave us wine glasses, handmade by John’s brother. Then, because Mark sold wine and spirits with a Missouri distributor, John asked him how to get in touch with somebody about distribution in Boulevard’s early days.
I had also been blown away by Boulevard Brewing Co.’s new facility when I attended an event there several years before. A tour was long overdue. Despite frigid temperatures and biting wind, nearly 30 people arrived by 11 a.m. on Thursday.
Logo’d soap, glassware and T-shirts mingled with beer in the small retail shop. About 45 minutes after the tour began we each savored two small beer samples in a vintage pub-style tasting room. The best part? The tour was free.
There was an immediate aroma of brewing and fermenting beer as we entered the company’s original brew house. Two tour guides provided history of Boulevard Brewing Co. and beer production as a whole. We learned that, as a nation of immigrants, the U.S. had approximately 4,000 breweries during the 1880s. Thirteen years of Prohibition devastated the industry, and only 40 U.S. breweries were operating by the 1980s, all making the same style of beer.
A University of Kansas graduate, carpenter and cabinet-maker, John McDonald had what he has called a “beer-piphany” while visiting Europe with his future wife, Anne. In less than two weeks of travel, he sampled more than 160 beers. McDonald’s “beer-piphany” arrived in a Belgian beer bar — in Paris — that offered a separate beer menu reflecting centuries of brewing history. After that trip, he made beer every Sunday.
Finally, with the help of investors and family, he opened Boulevard Brewing Co. in 1988. In its third year of operation, the company sold 2,000 barrels. By 2013, that number had skyrocketed to 188,000 barrels. Using proprietary yeast strains, most Boulevard beers are ales, which ferment for seven to 10 days, while the lagers ferment for up to 20 days.
In 2006, the company built a second brew house, adding a 150-barrel capacity to the 35-barrel capacity of the original building. At the time of construction, the second brew house was the most “energy-efficient brewery on the planet,” according one guide.
A massive glass wall facilitates natural illumination during daytime hours, and there’s also a green roof. In addition, by early in 2011, Boulevard became a zero landfill company, partially through sending all glass waste to Ripple Glass, the recycling company that Boulevard co-founded with other local businesses.
During our visit we saw spotless and well-lit brewing and fermenting tanks and got a bird’s-eye view of the $5 million high-tech bottling line, which fills 500 bottles per minute. We also learned about Boulevard’s secondary fermentation, which occurs inside each bottle. In addition, we toured several public event spaces, with Kansas City skyline views as a bonus.
These free tours are a great way to learn about what makes Boulevard Brewing Co. tick. Check in about an hour beforehand, on a first-come-first-served basis. And prepare for a great free taste of Kansas City’s oldest hometown beer.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.