Boulevard’s big beers, known as the Smokestack Series, have recently started showing up in Chicago’s more tuned-in pubs. A few months ago I had my first run-in with Tank 7, a farmhouse ale that’s less funky, a bit more citrusy with an incredible body. Eyes up here.
So with Boulevard newly on my radar thanks to Northdown Taproom, I was elated to find a sudden opportunity to go downriver to the source (yes, that’s backwards, but accurate) in Kanas City. But when I checked out the tour schedule, they were booked 4+ months out. Even beer blog clout didn’t sway my chances. Thankfully, however, Boulevard was everywhere. Every pub, every six-pack shop, everywhere. Kansas is clearly proud and connected to their hometown brew.
Despite enjoying the run of the place (you can take in most of KC in a couple of ambitious days) It was seriously bumming me out that I wasn’t getting a tour. On our last day, we decided to at least swing by and look at the building. I wanted to get a look at the famous smoke stack that rises over Southwest Blvd like a beacon for the tired, the poor, the all-too-sober masses.
Pulling into the parking lot of this Willy-Wonka-scale brewery, I noticed a “taproom and tours” sign. Maybe I can at least have a drink on-site? Fingers crossed. “The taproom is only for tours,” I was told. After a few moments of negotiation, we got a tour. Pro tip: I think they reserve some walk-on room for locals and especially adamant visitors.
And so it began — We started in the old carpentry shop where the founder, John McDonald and his dad shared space as he got his first tanks and started producing his first batches of beer. McDonald had to get private funding to launch the brewery in 1988 because banks would simply point down the road to Anheuser-Bush and look back at him like a crazy person.
Like so many brewers from this period (Sprecher, for example), McDonald had been to Europe and had an epiphany — Americans aren’t really drinking good beer. And he returned with a longing for the big Belgians and ales he no longer had access to. With half a carpentry shop and a 35 barrel tank, he started brewing and hand delivering Boulevard’s Pale Ale to nearby restaurants by 1989.
That’s when things scaled up, and quick. Before long, Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat took over, and even today it constitutes about 80% of their sales. McDonald shattered his original goals, enabling him to plan for an incredible expansion. His original plan called for 6,000 barrels of beer a year. With a newly built expansion reminiscent of the post-modern Pompidou Center in France (pipes, walkways and glass all around), Boulevard was making over 600,000 barrels a year, making them the 17th largest brewery in the US, and 10th largest craft brewery.
Boulevard’s brewery features some of the most unique structural elements I’ve seen in a brewery. Tanks tower through cement ceilings. Pipes run in all directions and connect to entire walls made of valves and switches. It’s calm, industrial exterior masks the amusement park inside where it seems like any moment you’re going to stumble into a secret lab of bubbling beer.
But what’s become of the original smoke stack building? That’s where they’re making their big Belgians. Aptly named the Smokestack Series, Boulevard continues to experiment, fully funded by their Unfiltered Wheat sales, with colossal flavors, like the Long Strange Tripel, The Sixth Glass, and more. The videos they played for guests (incredibly designed videos, by the way) highlight their passion for making unique, but attractive brews. No one’s getting carried away with bizarre ingredients just for the sake of it here. And like any craft brewery these days, they have a large barrel room like a meat locker where barrels sit silent, aging, like mammoth sides of beef. Boulevard ages mostly in Templeton Rye barrels, which are abundantly available in this area of the country.
And finally it was time for the Taproom. With 12 beers on tap, there were only about four I’d failed to track down around town and this was my chance to complete the journey. I bellied up to the bar and made friends with our host, Matt, who volunteers his time for free beer. Well beyond my ticketed limit, I finally had a pour of the Hoppy Wheat, an incredible concoction of wheat-y tartness and hoppy clarity. It had a bright color, lemony scent and finished crisply. It was a perfect balance to a 100-degree day in the great plains.
Go to Binny’s. Get some Boulevard.