At 10:30 a.m. Monday, around 20 people milled about the first floor of Boulevard Brewing Company’s six-month-old visitor center waiting for the first brewery tour of the day.
Tour guide Keith Kennedy, who wore a gray Levi’s jacket and a black leather cap, corralled the group into a semicircle.
“My job is to make sure you know what we do at Boulevard — aside from drink,” Kennedy told the crowd.
More than 45,000 people have toured the Kansas City brewery since it opened a visitor center in a brick building at 2534 Madison Ave. on June 30. The 20,000-square foot space boasts a gift shop, an interactive education area with information on the history of brewing, a tasting room and an upstairs beer hall that can seat 300 — or 400 if you count the deck overlooking the downtown skyline.
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The visitor center helped Boulevard double its number of free public tours, according to Amber Ayres, director of tours and recreation. Ayres says Boulevard used to offer about 40 to 50 tours per week on a first-come, first-served basis. That wasn’t enough to quench the thirst of craft beer lovers.
“We used to fill up five minutes before we opened,” Ayres says.
Now Boulevard has 80 to 100 tours a week and turns away fewer visitors. And because tours are more frequent, the guides don’t have to rush through their presentations. Kennedy says he used to show a video during his tours, but now his presentations are more interactive, with ample time for stories and questions.
The one-hour walking tours, which run from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, begin in the visitor center.
At the start of Monday’s tour, Kennedy warned visitors not to touch tanks — “They could have boiling hot stuff inside,” he said — before leading them across the street to the pub-style tasting room in the main brewery building at 2501 Southwest Blvd. There, the bearded tour guide offered the 21-and-over visitors 4-ounce pours of Pale Ale, the first Boulevard beer brewed by founder John McDonald in 1989.
“I normally don’t like pale ales, but this is good,” said 25-year-old Michelle Coleman of Bartlesville, Okla., as she sipped the amber liquid.
Coleman, who was in Kansas City to visit friends over the holidays, said she tried to take the Boulevard tour last year, but was turned away because that day’s tours were booked. This time around, it was easier to score a spot.
After finishing what Kennedy called the Pale Ale “breakfast,” the group donned safety glasses and followed the tour guide to Cellar 1, a brewhouse filled with concrete floors, shiny steel tanks and humming machinery where Boulevard tests new beer recipes. Then Kennedy led them to an event space overlooking even bigger steel tanks and launched into a chemistry lesson.
“Cooking is chemistry,” he said, “and that’s what we’re doing here — cooking.”
The tour guide explained the role of every beer ingredient, from water to grains, yeast and hops.
“Are you familiar with what hops look like?” he asked before pulling up an image on his phone and showing it to everyone in the room.
They look like little green pine cones, he said, and their bitterness balances the sweetness in beer.
The tour’s fourth stop overlooked a packaging machine capable of boxing 500 bottles per minute.
“See that machine that looks like it belongs in the back of Marty McFly’s DeLorean?” Kennedy asked. “That’s where the capping is done.”
As the tour guide led the crowd back to the visitor center for their final beer tasting, Brad Osthus turned to his wife, Brenda, and said, “We should have kept that homebrewing up.”
The Nebraska couple dabbled with the hobby in the late 1980s, but stopped in 1988 when Brenda found out she was pregnant. Now they get their beer from craft breweries, and Boulevard is a favorite. His go-to brew is Early Riser Coffee Porter; hers is 80-Acre Hoppy Wheat.
The Osthuses, who were passing through Kansas City on their way home from the Music City Bowl in Nashville, said they’d taken Boulevard’s tour before, but returned to check out the new visitor center.
“This is all new to us,” Brad said.
When the group arrived back at the visitor center, they entered a tasting room with a bar that serves samples of familiar beers such as Unfiltered Wheat and seasonal experiments such as Rosemary IPA.
Kaycia Voorman of New Jersey, who took the tour on a whim with boyfriend Quinn Hurshman of Lee’s Summit, selected Tropical Pale Ale and Cranberry Orange Radler.
“I really like this one,” said Voorman, 21, as she pointed to the rosy radler. “And it’s pink, so that’s cute.”
A couple tables over, Sarah Hartsig of Lawrence and her dad, Dennis Hurd of Olathe, tried Long Strange Tripel, a Belgian-style beer named after longtime Boulevard employee Harold “Trip” Hogue.
“That was probably the best beer tour I’ve ever been on,” said Hartsig, who has also toured the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colo.
The Boulevard tour was Hartsig’s Christmas gift to her dad: “I wanted to give him an experience rather than a thing,” she said.