Last night a crowd of 538 gathered in Kirk Hall at the Central Library to hear the entrepreneurial story of Boulevard Brewing Co. founder John McDonald and drink his beer – 20 cases of Wheat, Pale Ale, and Pilsner, to be exact. In the words of Public Affairs Director Henry Fortunato, we effectively “put the pub in 'public library.'”
But we also learned a thing or two about the beer business.
The August 3, 2011, event was part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Cradle of Entrepreneurs program, a series of public conversations with prominent members of the Kansas City business community.
The inaugural edition featured Spin! Pizza’s Gail Lozoff on June 14, and the next installments will bring Mary Carol Garrity of Nell Hill’s on Tuesday, October 11, at the Central Library 6:30 p.m.; Danny O’Neill of the The Roasterie on Tuesday morning, November 15, at the Plaza Branch at 7:30 a.m.; and Ollie Gates of Gates Bar-B-Q, on Wednesday, November 16, at 6:30 p.m. at Central. (Sign up for our e-newsletter to stay in the loop.)
As Crosby Kemper III led the discussion before a buzzing room of beer fans and business aspirants, McDonald revealed interesting details from his journey as an enterpreneur, as well as his perspectives on bigger issues such as sustainability and regionalism.
Growing up in the north-central Kansas town of Osborne, McDonald began home brewing – and drinking beer – at a young age: like, 12. He and a friend would brew up batches in the basement and sell the beer to teenagers at the local drive-in. Despite this wayward-seeming youth, McDonald later attended the University of Kansas, where he majored in art and did not pledge a fraternity.
After college, he moved to Kansas City to work as a carpenter, but brewing was never far from his mind. When he and his wife won raffle tickets for a trip to Europe, they visited the beer-drinking countries of England, Belgium, France, and Germany, and McDonald began hatching plans to bring good, import-style beer to the people of the Midwest.
He had his work cut out for him.
The American beer market has been perpetually dominated by watery pilsner-lagers sold by giant corporations, most notably Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis (which is now owned by a Belgian multinational). The idea of making and selling small-batch, handcrafted ales and selling them locally is even now, in 2011, a relatively connoisseurish enterprise. As McDonald himself pointed out last night, even in the Pacific Northwest, which has the highest concentration of breweries, craft beers still only hold about 35 percent of the market share. In the Midwest, McDonald, it’s around 8 to 10 percent.
Imagine, then, McDonald toting a keg of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat Beer into KC’s Twin City Tavern, circa 1989. Three old men sit at the bar, their glasses filled to the brim with some form of bubbly gold American beer – no foam whatsoever, so as not to cheat the men out of an ounce of their treasured, tasteless swill. The bar’s owner, Mike Devine, a fan of McDonald’s newly minted, pours three pints for the men.
“One of them wouldn’t even taste it – he absolutely refused,” McDonald recounted. “The other two took sips and pushed their glasses away. As I was leaving, one of them turned to me and said, ‘Young man, that is the worst beer I’ve ever had.’”
The crowd at the Library joined McDonald in laughing at this story. After all, the joke’s on the old codgers’ – Boulevard is now the largest craft brewery in the Midwest, producing more than 600,000 barrels a year, with distribution in nearly 20 states, and a portfolio of around 28 beers.
More significant to McDonald than his brewery’s size, though, is the reputation he’s build for Boulevard as a brewer of high-quality beer that is Midwestern in spirit and environmentally sustainable in the way it is produced.
Boulevard’s own green facility on Southwest Boulevard embodies the latter. Also drawing much applause last night was any mention Boulevard’s new glass-recycling program, Ripple Glass, which has, in the past year, filled an important void in Kansas City’s traditionally behind-the-curve recycling efforts. In addition to placing upwards of 80 containers around town, Ripple has built a high-tech processing facility. When McDonald announced the news that soon Ripple would begin collecting glass from restaurants and bars, the crowd at the Library all but stood up and cheered.
In conclusion, in his 22 years of business, McDonald has shown that, with personal ingenuity and the support of trusted friends, an entrepreneur can sell good, handmade, local, and sustainable beer to middle Americans.
And as the crowd last night at the Library showed, they’ll definitely drink to that.
The Kansas City Public Library is currently seeking your suggestions for other local business owners to participate in the Cradle of Entrepreneurs series. If you know of a Kansas City business owner who has an inspiring story to tell, drop us a comment below, or post your suggestion on our Facebook Wall. CEOs, moms and pops, we'll consider them all. This is your Library – tell us what you want.