Editor’s Note: This is the first piece by Stully, a new contributor to KC Beer Scouts. Stully comes to us with a wealth of knowledge from the craft beer industry, having worked in multiple cities across the Midwest in his career.
If you are a craft beer drinker in Kansas City, the last four or so years have probably been great for you. The local brewing scene in Kansas City feels like it went from “zero to sixty” in an extremely short period of time, both in terms of how much great product is available, and the growth of locally made product as well. Outside of the obvious local staple in Boulevard Brewing, it wasn’t until the 2010s that we really saw a concerted effort from folks to get breweries open within or near the city. Nineteen of the twenty-one breweries making beer around KC have opened since the beginning of 2013. As these breweries began making beer, KC had experienced, and was still experiencing, an influx of all sorts of great out-of-state product. Beer drinkers here were fortunate to have a lot of great beer available in a short period of time, and learn first-hand about the beers that were setting and continue to set the standard for American craft beer. This gave beer drinkers in our area the chance to develop a discerning palate. Many were, and still are, blissfully unaware of the some of the growing pains those standard-setting breweries experienced in their early years, before they were able to distribute their product to a wider market. Bad batches, ill-conceived recipes, infected beer, and simply bad liquid are things a lot of early breweries deal with. It’s naïve to think otherwise. KC beer enthusiasts got to benefit from these now “heavy hitters” getting the chance to dial in their product over several years.
Three to four hours east in St. Louis, you’ll see a different story. The craft boom hit maybe thee or so years before KC and was marked first by an uptick in the number of locally owned and operated breweries, and slightly later by a massive increase in out-of-state producers becoming available in the city. There was already a noticeable craft presence from out-of-towners, but nothing like it was around 2013 in Kansas City.
This is important to note because some of the great breweries in St. Louis also had a bit of a head start to …well … perfect their craft. To get their “shit together” before consumers had exposure to a plethora of established breweries making consistent product. There was room for all these young St. Louis breweries in bars and liquor stores, and they were able to work out their kinks for a year or so before these retailers gained access to the currently large (almost massive), competitive, craft portfolios. The local guys could survey the market place, get feedback from customers and buyers at key accounts, and take that knowledge to see where they needed to improve. There’s not a single brewery in St. Louis, even the ones that most aficionados would agree make, solid, consistent, interesting, great tasting product that didn’t need a year or more to work some stuff out. That’s not a knock on any one brewery, that’s just the nature of the business. To further add to my point, a lot of the breweries I’m talking about (if you are the kind of person that’s reading this post, you know who I’m referring to) didn’t make it out to Kansas City until their product became consistently good.
It Takes Time
I’m making a point to describe the craft beer scene in St. Louis because there appears to be an underlying feeling among brewers in Kansas City that some consumers here might not have similar patience. I’ve had brewers here tell me that there’s sometimes this assumption that the nano brewery in your neighborhood should be up to par with Ballast Point, Firestone Walker and Odell in terms of their initial quality. That’s not realistic, but that’s what a lot of the craft beer drinkers here have been tasting, and that’s what many expect. They know what great product is, and want to continue drinking great product. That alone, isn’t a bad thing.
The issue becomes apparent when I try to have conversations with people about what I’ve been enjoying locally and far too many times I hear the response “oh, you LIKE their beer?” after I reference a smaller brewery in the area. I then rattle off a couple of beers that I think are great and the conversation follows with lines like “yeah, I haven’t tried THOSE beers” and “I’ll be honest, I went when they first started, and I wasn’t impressed … I haven’t tried much since.” I then implore them to go back to the brewery, the liquor store, or the bar and try them again. Sometimes they don’t know that the brewery has really locked in that IPA they didn’t like since last time they drank it. The conversations often end with me trying, in my least condescending tone possible, to explain to them that nearly every brewery is going to go through initial growing pains. It’s what happens.
Patience Will be Rewarded
Only a few years ago you had Kansas City brewers scaling up trusted recipes that they’d been making with friends in their garages or back yards for a professional brewing rig that’s producing anywhere from 30–100 times the quantity of beer they were used to making. It is going to take a handful of batches and some minor to drastic tweaks to the recipes before they are happy with the product that they are making. Notice how I said “they” when referencing satisfaction with the product. If you know a professional brewer, there’s only a slight chance that he or she is 100% satisfied with a new beer right off the bat. I’d be curious as to what we’d think of things like Bell’s Two Hearted and Odell IPA the first time it was tapped in their tasting rooms or poured at a beer festival. It was probably good, but nowhere near the quality it is now, or was even a few years after that first batch.
I wouldn’t throw anyone specific under the bus, but if you come across a rep from a small to mid-size brewery you like that’s opened within the last, say five to seven years, politely ask them if there were any initial issues with their product. I’m not sure everyone would say “yeah, our stuff was garbage”, but I’m positive that most would admit to at least a few minor (to glaring, in some cases) issues. Most would also be able to even mention a beer or two that they were positive would be in their initial core rotation that ended up not even lasting a year after they opened. Maybe that specific concept wasn’t well received in the market they were serving, maybe it was difficult to execute that recipe on a larger scale, or maybe they got a dose of reality when a much larger audience tried a beer that the brewery thought would be a winner and said “we’re not paying six bucks for a glass of this.” True story: I’ve had a brewer flat-out tell me to my face that the initial batches of their flagship IPA and saison that I had purchased and was currently pouring were … and I quote … “dog shit.” This is a brewer who is now producing some of the best beer made in our state. It happens. They were persistent, and luckily, the market and consumers allowed them the time to ultimately crank out super solid product.
My Point is…
I’m not trying to beat a dead horse here, but please, be patient. Give your local guys multiple shots. If you aren’t a fan right off the bat, wait a bit and go back. You’d be surprised what even a few months can do. If you have a sincere issue, give them feedback. HONEST feedback. Don’t just trash them on social media, but be specific in what you are tasting and what you think is missing. There are enough great beers available here (local or not) and you should have a solid point of reference. Every brewer wants to make great, local beer, just as much as you want to drink it.