It was the summer of 1984, and John McDonald was thirsty. On vacation in Europe, the future founder of Boulevard Brewing Company wandered into a bar specializing in Belgian beers. He tried one, then another and another, amazed by the variety, the aromas, and the flavors. He was hooked.
Back home, John couldn’t stop dreaming about those beers. But dreaming was all he could do, because American beers of the time were homogenous and unremarkable. Kansas City, once home to more than a dozen breweries producing a wide array of beers, had succumbed to the industrial onslaught. Nothing was left.
After art school John made his living as a carpenter, always fascinated by the creative process. He couldn’t shake the memory of those amazing beers, and he began to wonder, began to consider the possibilities. He started homebrewing. He visited breweries. He put together a business plan, sold his house to raise money, and set out to find the rest of the resources he would need to start a brewery.
As John talked to potential investors, he often heard the same question: “You want to do what? You want to compete with the biggest brewer in the world on the other side of the state?” “No,” he answered, “they do what they do really well. I want to do something different. I want to make big beers, a variety of beers, beers with color and flavor and aroma and body, beers for real beer lovers.”
He didn’t have to look far to get started. John lived and worked in an old brick building on Southwest Boulevard that had once housed the laundry for the Santa Fe Railroad. He moved his carpentry shop to a corner and began to build a brewery. It wasn’t ideal, but it was his.
It took more than a year and every bit of the money he’d raised to retrofit the building, find the equipment – including a vintage 35-barrel Bavarian brewhouse – and get everything up and running. Finally, in November 1989, the first keg of Boulevard Pale Ale was ready. John loaded it into the back of his pickup and delivered it to a restaurant just a few blocks away.
For the first year the brewery produced only draft beer. The small crew worked long hours brewing, kegging, cleaning, and then selling, convincing bar and restaurant owners to put Boulevard beers on tap. Still, John knew he needed bottles. But there was no money, and bottling lines weren’t cheap. Rejected by bank after bank, one institution finally saw promise in his vision and made a loan that enabled Boulevard to install a very small, very used bottling line.
Word was spreading – Boulevard was making surprisingly good beer. The original business plan called for someday selling 6,000 barrels a year. By the third year sales passed 7,000 barrels, and continued to climb. Boulevard began selling its beers in neighboring cities and states. The original Bavarian brewhouse, designed to produce only a few thousand barrels a year, was approaching 100,000 barrels by 2004, turning out a dozen 1,000 gallon brews each and every day. But it had reached its limit, and a decision loomed.
When John built the brewery deep in the heart of a century-old urban neighborhood, he hadn’t worried about outgrowing it. But it had happened. Now, consultants said the smart move was to relocate to a new site with plenty of room. But the brewery was tightly woven into the fabric of the city, and the Boulevard team was committed to its continued revitalization. So in 2006 a $25 million expansion project brought a new building with a 150-barrel brewhouse, packaging halls, offices and hospitality spaces.
For years John had been eager to drive more experimentation and innovation, but the continuing growth of Unfiltered Wheat Beer and Pale Ale meant the brewery’s limited resources were devoted to the existing line-up. Now, with a new brewhouse, the team’s creative energies were unleashed. The Smokestack Series was launched, featuring an ever-evolving array of even bigger, bolder beers.
Back in 1984, one of the beers that so captivated John’s imagination was Duvel, among the most famous and iconic beers of all time. So when John was approached by Michel Moortgat, president and fourth generation leader of Duvel Moortgat, he listened. In 2014, Boulevard became part of the Duvel Moortgat family, a collection of artisanal breweries dedicated to the highest expression of the brewers’ art. Boulevard remains committed to its original mission, pushing boundaries and helping to re-define American beer.