In 2003, a Belgian brewer named Duvel Moortgat bought a family-owned craft-beer brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y., a hallowed place known as the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame.
The upstate beer crowd could have freaked. They loved Cooperstown’s Ommegang brew, particularly Rare Vos, an amber ale, which put the head on many a summer day of beer and baseball.
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What if the new owners come in and fiddle with the recipe? What if they’re out to cut costs, jobs and taste just to make a buck?
Jump ahead 10 years. That same Belgian brewer has come to Kansas City and bought controlling interest in Boulevard Brewing Co.
That’s our town’s beer. Has been for more than 20 years. What if...? What if...? What if...?
Chill out, Tank 7 lovers. Climb down from the bridge rail. Let Rich Bailey put you at ease.
“Tell those people in Kansas City to relax,” Bailey, 54, said the other day as he ate lunch at Cooley’s Stone House Tavern in Cooperstown. “They (Duvel) weren’t going to come in and mess with something that didn’t need messing with.”
Still, in the days since Boulevard founder John McDonald announced he was selling a majority stake in his 24-year-old brewery to Duvel, Boulevard’s loyal fans have wondered whether the Kansas City brewery will be less, well, Kansas City.
If the Ommegang experience is any indication, Boulevard will retain its local identity. And its beers’ taste as well.
The Cooperstown brewery hosts a summer concert series, supports the local hospital, employs 100 people and attracts 60,000 visitors a year. It produces award-winning Belgian-style beer, just like it has since 1997.
Ryan Pereira, who owns a bar 15 minutes south of Ommegang in Oneonta, N.Y., said Duvel “has done nothing but good things for us here.”
Duvel, the independently owned brewer, dates back to 1871 and employs about 900 people in Belgium and the U.S. Boulevard employs 125 people, most of them here.
Over the last five years, McDonald has had suitors, some big brewers with proposals featuring bigger rings than Duvel offered. But, McDonald said late last week, his decision wasn’t all about money.
“Most breweries today are owned by banks,” he said. “Duvel is a brewer like me. They’ve been at it more than a hundred years. I feel very honored to be associated with those guys.”
Boulevard has no plans to cut employees or move the operation, he said.
The brewery still has its partnership with Sporting Kansas City and the Royals and will continue to support Ripple Glass, a recycling program McDonald co-founded in 2009.
The deal with Duvel will allow Boulevard to expand more quickly. Construction on a new $17 million fermentation facility called “Cellar 5” is scheduled to begin next year.
“We’re gaining,” McDonald said. “I know change makes people nervous. But we are lucky to be part of (Duvel’s) plan.”
Nevertheless, some Boulevard fans are grieving over what to them feels like a loss.
Jason Burton owns a beverage marketing firm called The Lab. He lives in Brookside, frequents local restaurants and coffee shops, and takes a lot of pride in anything local.
When he heard news of Boulevard’s sale, Burton was shocked.
Like barbecue, Boulevard beer was something everyone in Kansas City could root for, Burton said: “It became a major Kansas City brand and a way of life.”
Here, Burton said, “we love hometown heroes.”
Burton wasn’t the only local with an emotional reaction to the news. Brent Anderson, a marketing consultant who works on branding for food and beverage companies, said he heard someone threaten to pour out the bottles of Boulevard beer in the fridge.
“We had to let the dust settle to have an adult conversation about this,” Anderson said. “Kansas City has undoubtedly taken this brewery close to heart. It’s gone beyond the beer to be this community touchstone we all identify with.”
Simon Thorpe, president of Duvel USA, gets it. He understands why Boulevard lovers might be wary.
“I think Kansas City is a lot like Belgium, particularly northern Belgium where we are from,” Thorpe said. “We don’t trust people right off. It doesn’t matter what you say — it’s what you do.”
Duvel is not the type of company to “slice costs so we can sell beer cheaply,” Thorpe said.
“We try to find the most beautiful craft breweries in the world and help them grow,” he added. “Boulevard has been on my list for years.”
Thorpe said that Boulevard, which currently sells beer in 25 states and Scandinavia, will expand distribution to the coasts and Europe in the coming years.
Over the past 10 years, Duvel has invested $15 million in Ommegang and expanded the brewery’s distribution to 10 more states, said Ommegang’s publicity manager, Allison Capozza.
Capozza said Ommegang’s brewmaster works closely with Duvel’s brewmaster, but “Duvel doesn’t dictate their recipes to us.”
“They’re very supportive of us as an individual brewery,” she said.
The Cooperstown brewery has expanded in recent years, said Roger Davidson, owner of a Cooperstown brewpub called Council Rock Brewery, “but they haven’t lost their craft feel at all.”
“It’s not like when InBev takes over a company and they start brewing the beer in some giant factory,” Davidson added, referring to the giant Belgian company that bought St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch in 2008.
After that sale, Boulevard became the largest American-owned brewery in Missouri. Now, after Boulevard’s sale, St. Louis-based Schlafly Beer takes that title, and Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City becomes the largest locally owned microbrewery in the area.
Cinder Block, which opened a month ago, racked up more than 150 new likes on Facebook in the two days following Boulevard’s announcement, said owner Bryce Schaffter.
Schaffter also received 20 to 30 tweets congratulating Cinder Block for its promotion to largest locally owned brewery.
“It was kind of funny,” Schaffter said over beers at his taproom bar.
Schaffter, a Boulevard fan who took home-brewing inspiration from the brewery’s Smokestack Series beers, said he supports McDonald’s decision.
Would he make the same decision if his brewery were to grow to Boulevard’s size in 24 years?
“The only thing I’m thinking about is keeping my doors open,” Schaffter said.
Boulevard beer also inspired John Couture, owner of a Waldo beer bar called Bier Station. Back in 1994, Couture stopped by a bar on 39th Street and ordered a Boulevard Wheat.
“I had no idea a beer could taste like that,” he said.
Couture developed a taste for craft beer that led him, years later, in 2012, to open Bier Station, where local beer geeks gather to tap Boulevard’s limited-release beers and other small-production brews.
So when Couture found out that Boulevard was selling out, his gut reaction was disappointment.
“It was, ‘We’re losing a local business,’” Couture said. “And this business is so tied in to Kansas City.”
But after talking to friends who work at Boulevard and learning more about Duvel, Couture grew optimistic. He said that now, most of his customers feel the same way he does: Supportive.
One night last week, Bier Station was packed for a tapping of Boulevard’s new barrel-aged sour beer, Foeder Projekt #1.
The following afternoon, people lined up for one of Boulevard’s popular daily tours. More than 1,000 locals and tourists visit the brewery each week, a spokesman said, and there’s been no drop-off since the sale was announced.
“It’s a great thing to do in Kansas City, and free beer doesn’t hurt,” said Amber Ayres, Boulevard’s director of guest relations.
Gloria and August Schellhase of Las Vegas were visiting Kansas City and took in the tour. They had heard about the beer, and August recently started making his own home brew.
“We had to come see Boulevard,” Gloria said. “We certainly connect it to Kansas City no matter who owns it.”
A few feet away, Michael Taylor of Clinton, Mo., said he went into a tavern in Boston not long ago and noticed bottles of Boulevard on a nearby table.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. This is Sam Adams country” — referring to a big-label Boston-based beer — “and they’re drinking Boulevard from Kansas City. People relate that beer to here, and I don’t see that changing.”