I write this not to bury Boulevard Brewing — I’m sure the business will survive and even thrive under its new Belgian ownership — but to wistfully praise what’s being lost in terms of hometown pride.
The rap you sometimes hear about Kansas City is that most people around the country don’t have a bad impression about our community, but the trouble is they don’t have any impression at all.
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Boulevard, however, stood out as authentically Kansas City along with rib joints, the Country Club Plaza and lingering memories of jazz greatness. And what’s amazing, Boulevard grew into that iconic role in just a short 25 years.
The first time I ever sampled a Boulevard beer, it was on a Vanguard Airlines flight between Buffalo and Kansas City sometime in the mid-1990s.
Though that creaky jet made me nervous, the taste of Boulevard Wheat was a great discovery and made a lasting impression about the town that someday would become my home. This was the early years of the micro-brew boom when it seemed a craft brewer was being hatched every month.
A lot of those microbreweries came and went — as did Vanguard — but the Boulevard guys knew what they were doing as they slowly grew from 25th Street and Southwest Boulevard to Omaha, Springfield, Wichita and beyond, bringing a little Kansas City to bars and taverns around the region.
Skipping ahead a few years, I was in Spearfish, S.D., three years ago on vacation, a pretty little town on the edge of the Black Hills, 750 miles from Kansas City. Walking into the local tavern, there it was, Boulevard Wheat on tap. A familiar face and great ambassador for our city.
When I finally had a chance to visit Boulevard Brewery as a reporter in 2001, that first interview felt like I was dropping by some old friends’ place. Founder John McDonald struck me as a lucky hippie who’d found a fun hobby in 1988 and ran with it.
His anecdote about running out of gas while touring the East Coast in an old VW bus back in the 1970s only reinforced the notion. Boulevard, though certainly a business, had a counter-culture feeling from the blue jeans everyone wore to the cool, retro graphics designed by in-house artist Payton Kelly.
In some ways, to me, those distinctive graphics have done as much to win the hearts of beer drinkers as the brews themselves. Familiar in a whimsical 1930s meets Zap Comix way, they identified a Boulevard product instantly. It was capitalism with a heart and playful attitude.
The collection of old and new buildings tucked next to the railroad tracks and West Side neighborhood had a 1930s feeling, too — old industrial capped by that smokestack the company wisely adapted as its symbol.
And a $25 million overhaul of the complex completed in 2006 dramatically boosted Boulevard’s brewing capacity and created one of Kansas City’s more architecturally fascinating blends of old and new. The outdoor terrace off the upstairs banquet space offers one of the most beautiful views of the downtown skyline.
It became the craft beer of the Big 12, referring to the states where it was sold before the conference fractured, until it made the big break a couple of years ago to the Pacific Northwest, Chicago and then Boston and Washington, D.C.
Craft beer had gone big time, and Boulevard was stacked in coolers from coast to coast with Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and other heavyweights. Today it ranks as the 12th largest American craft brewer.
Boulevard introduced its “artisanal” Smokestack series in 2007, a way to introduce flavors to the line-up and to scout markets. If the 750 ml Smokestack proved a hit, then cases of Pale Ale and Wheat could follow.
There have been some hiccups. I’m not a fan of the Chocolate Ale, and having a trailer park of India Pale Ales —Single-Wide, Double-Wide and Pop-Up —may be an IPA too far.
Boulevard’s hometown aura may have peaked in 2008 when it stumbled into the title of being Missouri’s largest American owned brewery. That’s when InBev, a giant Belgian company, bought Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser.
Boulevard executives joked for years that A-B brewed more beer by Jan. 2 than they would make all year, but they also couldn’t resist boasting of their hometown roots at Bud’s expense.
I’m sure Duvel, the new Belgian owner, won’t mess with business success. And many people salute McDonald’s dream story of starting a company, building it and then cashing in.
I hoist my Pale Ale and shout slainte to him and all the bright, dedicated men and women who had fun while employing lots of people and putting our city on the map.
But I wonder whether Duvel would have been willing to dabble in something like Ripple Glass, the initiative Boulevard helped launch three years ago to jump-start glass recycling locally. Its bright collection dumpsters have made it much more convenient to do the right thing environmentally.
It was vintage Boulevard and a huge civic-minded venture that still doesn’t make much sense financially, but scores big points when it comes to social responsibility.
So there is sadness saying good-bye to local ownership, and losing the bragging rights to bore some bartender in Spearfish about how Boulevard’s a Kansas City company.
It’s global now, and here’s to having my next Boulevard in Paris — and fibbing a bit about its roots.