Notable happenings of 2020 in KC’s craft beer scene
It’s been a big year for drinking in Kansas City—and not just because we’ve needed a constant stream of alcohol to get us through the drudgery and blinding anxiety of existing during this era. No, we’ve been drinking for better, less cynical reasons.
We’ve been drinking because, in spite of the ennui that has pervaded the local and national consciousness, Kansas City has had a banner year in beer. Let’s look back on the good times.
It’s been a brutal year for everyone, especially the food and beverage industry. But while some cities have seen a cascade of brewery closures, KC has seen net growth. Johnson County has had a trio of notable openings. In Lenexa, longtime homebrewer Patrick Davis opened Lost Evenings with his wife, Heather. Along with the very European no-tipping model, the brewery features a tap list that leans heavily on British pub favorites like mild, stout and brown ales. In Shawnee, Pathlight is making single-hop pale ales and a Helles featuring only imported ingredients from Germany. In Mission, Rockcreek Brewing opened in May, owned by a group who met while working at Cerner—they even offer occasional discount nights to Cerner employees. Rockcreek offers a standard assortment of craft beers, and it’s been actively attracting food carts serving everything from tacos to barbecue to fancy grilled cheese.
Down in Grandview, Transparent recently opened behind a Harley dealership with a classic line of craft beers including an amber, a California common and an IPA with the four “C” hops. The industrial-chic space features large garage doors that open to turn the whole taproom into a covered patio, a nice feature in these times.
Even KC’s most beer-dense neighborhood got a new opening, as longtime homebrewer Kevin Gittemeier opened Nimble in the Crossroads mid-May. Gittemeier and his wife, Jodie, have six kids and live in old Leawood. Kevin started homebrewing with a focus on beers he could make cheaper than he can buy—so look for milkshake IPAs instead of lagers.
“I like all kinds of beer,” Gittemeier says. “But I’ve always brewed what I wanted to buy in the store that is too darn expensive. Stuff that’s twenty dollars for a four-pack? Yeah, I can make that. With most of the traditional stuff, I can go to the store and buy a good six-pack of that for five bucks.”
Newcomer of the Year
The middle of 2019 saw two huge new brewery openings: City Barrel in the Crossroads and Alma Mader on Southwest Boulevard. Alma Mader owner-brewer Nick Mader had just opened when we made our 2019 beer issue, and if you haven’t yet sampled his wares, know that this brewery a few blocks from Boulevard has quickly grown into one of the top destinations in town, especially for fans of craft lagers that are packed with character yet still go down smooth. Likewise, City Barrel was very new last year and has continued to grow, continuing its serious culinary program and adding a large sidewalk patio to battle the plague.
The past year’s smaller class has already given us one brewery that’s now unquestionably among the top ten in town: Liberty’s 3Halves Brewing, led by the talented Rodney Beagle. Beagle is a self-taught brewer who formerly worked at Colony KC, which shuttered its brewery last summer. After a few months as a freelance collaborator around town, Beagle landed at 3Halves, which sits just off the town square in Liberty and shares a space with Jousting Pigs BBQ. Beagle’s brews push the envelope with exotic ingredients—witness a honey ale with smoked pineapple, a Moscow mule sour or a pineapple upside-down cake milkshake IPA—but always seem to find perfect balance.
It’s worth mentioning that in the lockdown phase of the pandemic, Beagle also helped run Quarantined Beer Chugs, a Facebook group that helped provide a little levity during dark days.
BKS Goes Stratospheric
For beer fans in the know, BKS Artisan Ales has been at the top of the heap locally for a while now—we named their Tiny Clouds hazy pale our 2019 Beer of the Year, a nod we won’t be giving out to anyone this year because the pandemic has made it irresponsible to do the amount of legwork necessary to credibly hand out that award.
However, if you ask most local beer geeks for a Beer of the Year, they’d likely nod to something from Brookside’s tiny BKS, which has had a breakout year. BKS makes the finest hazy IPAs in town but keeps superfans tuned in with an unpredictable and impressive array of one-offs like a crisp, clean Pilsner and a wet hop IPA. BKS has closed its intimate taproom indefinitely and pivoted to selling everything brewer Brian Rooney can make in cans to-go. Those cans are listed for sale on BKS’ website at 7 pm sharp every Thursday, and by 7:05 they’re gone.
This past year in KC beer has seen the explosion of two beer trends that had already begun before the pandemic.
Remember when canned craft beer was an exception to the brown bottle rule? During the pandemic, breweries that used to sell most of their beer over their own bartop have switched to packaged product. And the vast, vast majority of them have opted for cans over bottles, with local shelves now brimming with aluminum.
Hard seltzers, likewise, were growing before the pandemic but have become a supernova since. According to Nielsen, which not only rates the popularity of broadcast television but also booze, during a fifteen-week period that ended in mid-June, retail hard seltzer within the U.S. quadrupled year-over-year.
Craft beer has adapted to the surging seltzer market by making its own sparkles. Boulevard introduced Quirk, a line of seltzers that use real fruit juice and boast “clean, all-natural ingredients.” We like the pear and yuzu, which is well-balanced. In downtown Overland Park, Brew Lab made a wonderful seltzer named for the old Zambezi Zinger roller coaster at Worlds of Fun. Unlike others, it comes out of the tap plain, with bartenders mixing in flavors to-order.
New to Town
We’ve got no shortage of fantastic local beer in and around Kansas City, but being in the middle of the country, we’re also on the distribution path for some great regional beer—Iowa’s Toppling Goliath and St. Louis’ Perennial Artisan Ales are at the top of the list. KC was even gifted a limited run of cans from Minnesota’s famed Surly this year.
This year saw two notable newcomers, Wichita’s Central Standard and Denver’s Prost. Central Standard—not to be confused with Chicago’s Central State—could stake a claim to being the best brewery in the state of Kansas. With its wild popularity in Wichita, where the brewery is anchored by an epic patio bar, they typically only came to KC to pour at festivals or sell a few random kegs. But now you can find small-format bottles of farmhouse and sour beers at Mike’s Wine and Spirits and other local shops, says Mike’s manager Jeremy Morton. Look for Peach Contrails, a wild ale brewed with Kansas peaches and wild yeast.
Lagerheads should grab some cans from Prost, a German-style brewery from Denver. Their Dunkel is brewed with grains imported from Munich, and their Helles—a Munich-style lager—is smooth and crushable. The Pilsner, with subtle flavors and lively effervescence, is Prost’s bestseller.
“The thing I like the most about them is that their beer is easy to drink,” Morton says. “Over the last several years, there was a trend in craft beer to over-flavor things, and you were seeing beers flavored with chocolate bars, hot pepper, sheet cake. Now, it’s trending back, and craft beer drinkers are wanting beer-flavored beer. That’s where Prost is cool.”
Patios have been premium real estate throughout the pandemic across the spectrum of food and beverage businesses, and that includes breweries. Along with the continued popularity of large patios at places like Boulevard, KC Bier Co. and Brewery Emperial, the city has seen a number of breweries adding or expanding their outdoor spaces.
In North Kansas City, the pandemic gave Callsign Brewing owner Steve Sirois an opportunity to add the eight-hundred-square-foot patio he’d been planning for a long time. “After the [shutdown] restriction was lifted, the patio was a great thing to have—right now, that’s the first place people like to go,” he says.
Likewise, the owners of Strange Days in the River Market added a patio after working hard to pivot to to-go beer. When the two-year-old brewery reopened with limited seating, the Strange Days team added a parking lot patio with twenty-eight distanced seats. Within a month, they doubled it.
“Our patio space is definitely busier than our taproom right now,” says co-owner Chris Beier. “We’re still trying to figure out the best option for cold weather. We’ll try to have the patio set up with heat lamps. People so far have been great about coming out and wanting to support us.”
In Mission, Sandhills Brewing has closed its bar and only has three tables indoors. Instead, they’re counting on their patio to serve customers until finishing an expansion into a neighboring space. Sandhill’s long-planned patio opened in mid-August, giving the brewery an additional eighteen seats. “Dealing with Covid has been interesting, for sure,” says taproom manager Emily Hink, adding that the brewery is look-ing into outdoor heaters to extend patio season. “Initially, we had a huge boost in to-go sales, especially during the lockdown. That has leveled off as the pandemic has continued.”
Likewise, Raytown sour-masters Crane Brewing added onto a tiny patio that was an afterthought before the pandemic. There is now seating for thirty next to the gravel parking lot in front of the building, says co-owner Christopher Meyers, which has already been very popular. “We think that will increase as we get more moderate fall days,” he says.