I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
It may well be possible to visit Kansas City, Missouri, without making a special trip to the corner of 18th Street and Vine, a historic cradle of American jazz, but for me it was not. So, after the beer tasting and dinner I hosted at the local outlet of the Flying Saucer chain of beer bars and an overnight in my hotel, the delightfully swank Ambassador, my third stop in the city was that aforementioned intersection. And there I stood.
But there is no great beer to be found around 18th and Vine at noon on a Monday, so after snapping a picture and stopping at the legendary Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque up the road for lunch, I headed off in search of KC beer. Which led to my next stop, KC Bier.
Properly named the Kansas City Bier Company, this south Kansas City brewery is, as you might well assume by its name, a specialist in German beer styles. And for an operation only a little more than one year old, they really are remarkably good at what they do.
There are signs of the Fall today in the brew house. Today we’re brewing our Oktoberfest lager, Festbier. pic.twitter.com/gyxyWeGEvi
— KC Bier Company (@KCBierCo) July 21, 2015
Sitting in the brewery’s somewhat plain tasting room, adjacent to its far more hospitable and appealing beer garden, I sampled several of the KC Bier beers, beginning with the fragrant and perfumey helles. Slightly sweet on the start, this golden lager nevertheless delivers a crisp and rewarding grain-led flavor that ends in a satisfying dryness, making it almost textbook for the style and ideal for quaffing from the one-liter Maß steins the brewery stocks. (In the interest of palate preservation I did not do this, but oh baby, I sorely wanted to!)
Surprisingly, the helles is hardly the brewery’s biggest seller. That honor, all 70% of total sales of it, belongs to the dunkel, a toasty and off-dry brown imbued with hints of sweet nuttiness. While quite good, I did not find it as good as either the helles or the very fruity but dry-finishing hefeweizen, and attribute its success to the anti-golden beer zealotry that sometimes affects craft beer fans.
En route back to my hotel and still thirsty, I made a stop at the Bier Station, a beer bar viewed by many as Kansas City’s best, located just over a mile north of the brewery. And indeed a most commendable beer destination it is, with 28 very mixed taps and numerous fridges filled with bottles and cans, any of which can be purchased for consumption on-premises or to take home. Better still, the atmosphere, at least while I was there, appears easy and open, with conversations between strangers the norm rather than the exception. You know, the way a good bar should be.
Given that nearly all the other KC breweries are a fair ways out of town, I focused much of my subsequent efforts on visiting beer bars, concentrating on the Westport neighborhood.
A historic settlement that became part of Kansas City around the turn of the 20th century and stands today as one of the city’s main entertainment districts, Westport is home to two more of KC’s top beer establishments, the Foundry and the Westport Ale House. Conveniently, each is located just a short walk from the front door of the sleek new AC Hotel, which was my lodging for my second and third nights in town.
Although the Foundry is the older and more revered of the two, my preference was for the Ale House, which is airy, inviting, and only one year old, with 33 taps and an admittedly somewhat clichéd warehouse-chic ambiance. The Foundry, on the other hand, I found to be a bit clique-ish and closed, although there was little faulting its extensive draft and bottled-beer list, arranged under such headings as “malt. sweet.” and “hops. subtle.”
My highlight from either bar was the Martin City Barrel-Aged Big Boy, a broad and boozy imperial stout aged in Dark Horse Distillery bourbon barrels and brewed by a local, four-year-old operation. Laden with aromas of cinnamon, vanilla, and dark chocolate, it is blessed with a rich and creamy body that edges toward too much bourbon character, but thankfully never quite gets there.Which brings us to my third day in town and the most obvious brewery visit, the pioneering Boulevard Brewing, now wholly owned by Duvel Moortgat.
Having spent several hours at the brewery and in the company of brewmaster Steven Pauwels, I can say pretty conclusively that the Belgian ownership has been good to this Midwestern original. Brewing capacity is up, expected to top 200,000 barrels this year; the popular spicy-fruity favorite, Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, is growing rapidly and may have already eclipsed the pale ale in terms of sales; new brands like the tropical-fruit-led The Calling IPA and West Coast-inspired Heavy Lifting IPA impress; and it is easy to sample beer in the brewery’s tasting room until they toss you out, never once needing to repeat your order.
In the end, I departed Kansas City confident that while the heartland of America may not have quite reached the beery heights of San Francisco or Philadelphia, its denizens are at least pointed in the right direction. Imagine what might happen when they discover the joys of drinking fresh helles by the liter!
Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading beer writers, Stephen Beaumont is the author or co-author of 10 books about beer, including The World Atlas of Beer (2012) and two editions of The Pocket Beer Guide (2013 & 2014), all co-written with Tim Webb. His new book, The Beer & Food Companion, will be published in October 2015.