Thanks to a spirit of innovation infused by its founder, Boulevard Brewing Company continues to thrive as a 35-year-old Kansas City craft brewery evolving its product portfolio to stay ahead of trends in an ever-shifting industry.
Cases in point would be Boulevard’s expansion from its flagship Unfiltered Wheat Beer that put the company on the map, to developing a line of ready-to-drink craft cocktails, taking a dominant position in the hard seltzer market, and planning forays into the emerging nonalcoholic scene. Boulevard also crafts barrel-aged beers such as Bourbon Barrel Quad, Whiskey Barrel Stout, and Rye on Rye, and has one of the largest barrel-aging facilities in the country. “Innovation is the name of the game in the craft beer industry,” said Boulevard Market Manager Chris Scimecca. “It’s very competitive and crowded and you have to stand out, and sometimes that’s not even enough. You have to innovate beyond beer or you’ll get left behind.”
Boulevard founder John McDonald would most certainly approve of the brewery’s astute moves into other offerings. After touring the beer-brewing regions of Europe and falling in love with craft beer in the mid-1980s, McDonald found a dearth of brew options in the states, so he began to experiment with home brewing. A carpenter by trade, McDonald eventually asked his parents for early inheritance and convinced his wife to sell their home and moved into a turn-of-the-century brick building on Kansas City’s historic Southwest Boulevard. A vintage Bavarian brewhouse was installed with used equipment from a closed German brewery, and McDonald quickly became known as the guy in Kansas City who gave away beer on Southwest Boulevard. “He took his first keg to a Mexican restaurant and served it to some old guys who had been drinking domestics their whole life,” Scimecca said. “They told him not to quit his day job, but he sold out the first keg that night. He’s still a Kansas City legend.”
But he didn’t get there by resting on his laurels, and neither has Boulevard. McDonald morphed his first filtered wheat brew into an unfiltered variety, and Boulevard soon couldn’t keep up with the demand. “It became synonymous with Kansas City and was outselling national brands all over the city,” Scimecca said. “Now, one out of every three craft beers sold in KC is a Boulevard brew.”
Brewhouse #1 was running 24/7 to keep up with the Wheat demand when Boulevard expanded and built a second brewhouse with 100-barrel brewing capacity. Wheat production shifted there, leaving Brewhouse #1 open for McDonald to experiment and try his hand at some Belgian-inspired brews. That’s when Boulevard’s “Smokestack Series” of higher-alcohol content brews was born, with the dry-hopped Saison “Tank 7” becoming the flagship of the line. This crisp, dry, effervescent, and complex, straw-colored ale starts with a surge of fruity aromatics and big grapefruit hoppy notes, before tapering to a dry, peppery, lingering finish. Tank 7 has become the perfect pairing for just about any type of food. “The high carbonation scrubs the palate and makes it pair beautifully with bar food to steaks, French cuisine to a hot dog,” Scimecca said.
McDonald retired after selling Boulevard to the family-owned Duvel Moortgat Brewery—a 150-year-old Belgian brewer that McDonald coincidentally favorited on his early European beer tour—but Boulevard hasn’t wavered from its trend-setting roots since the 2014 acquisition. Boulevard’s “Fling” line of ready-to-drink craft cocktails was ahead of its time in 2019 and holds a strong position. In 2020, Boulevard released its “Quirk” line of hard seltzer, which is outselling craft beers throughout the Midwest and holds the #1 slot in the Kansas City area ahead of national seltzer brands. Sixteen flavors of Quirk have been crafted in less than three years—all made with real fruit juice and a floral element, such as Cherry Blossom & Lime, Strawberry Lemon Basil, and Blackberry Sage. “We wanted to create the best-tasting drinks in that brand family and convert non-seltzer drinkers to seltzer drinkers,” Scimecca said. “We wanted to make sure the flavor was right, and it stands out because it tastes so good.”
Boulevard is a zero landfill facility, as sustainability has always been an important focus for the company. In fact, McDonald started Ripple Glass, a glass recycling company that gathers over 700 tons of glass every week from residents and businesses in the Kansas City area and surrounding region, and then processes it into usable materials.
Boulevard continues to strengthen its distribution in the “Midwestern bubble” of states that include Nebraska and Iowa—with deep roots in Nebraska mainstays such as the Crescent Moon and Maha Music Festival in Omaha—and is now sold in 42 states and 13 countries. True to its history, Boulevard brewers are working on the company’s next iteration: nonalcoholic brews to capture its share of what is expected to be double-digit growth in nonalcoholic drinkers in the next five to 10 years. For example, Boulevard’s “Flying Start” is a year-round nonalcoholic IPA that has kept joy in the category. “Sometimes you can get overly analytical about it all,” Scimecca said. “But at the end of the day, it’s beer and everyone should enjoy it and have fun with it.”
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