Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is Kansas City Having a Brewery Boom?

It's an exciting time in the KC brewing scene. We've already had two new breweries open in 2015, Torn Label and Border Brewing, and there's a few more planning to open in KC this year. It's great news for all craft beer drinkers in KC to have these new breweries open up. It's been a long road of hard work and late nights for the folks behind these breweries and it's a testament of will that they got this far. (Also, they are making great beer, so if you haven't had any yet, go get some!)

Torn Label and Border are the seventh and eighth breweries to open in the area in the last three years, with no closings. As of 2010, we only had 10 breweries total. Now with 18 breweries in KC, it really seems like we're having a brewing boom. Even the traditional news outlets are picking up on the story about the new breweries, with articles like "Business is booming for craft beer in KC," and "KC's Booming Craft Beer Scene."

While I love the mainstream exposure that craft beer is getting, the KC brewing scene has problems. Even if it doesn't feel like it right now, we're falling far behind other beer cities. Our brewery boom has had a great start, but it's nowhere near where we could be right now. Over the coming weeks in a three part series, I'm going to explore our current situation, why we don't have more breweries, why it matters that we don't have more breweries.

Part 1 - Where We Stand Today

For all the talk of KC being a great beer city with a brewery boom happening right now, we're falling behind other noted craft beer cities in terms of local breweries. In fact, we don't even measure up to the national average. Right now, there are about 3400 breweries officially operating in the US. This means that nationally there is one brewery for every 94,000 people. With 18 breweries in the metro, we only have one brewery for every 115,000 people. This means KC has 20% fewer breweries than the average rate across the US. Considering this average accounts for a lot of places with almost no breweries (like the entire State of Mississippi), we are falling much further behind other true craft beer centers.

Courtesy of the Brewer's Association. 

Consider our nearest and most prestigious beer neighbor--Denver. The Denver metro area has 87 breweries as of writing this, which means there is one brewery for every 30,000 people. It's not just Denver, either. Many other beer centers have similar rates. San Diego County is at 36,000 people/brewery and the Portland Metro is at 28,000 people/brewery. These places have 3 to 4 times more breweries per capita than KC. If you think that the brewery market in KC is close to saturation, think again.

Denver isn't just an island in Colorado either--state-wide there are 227 breweries, which means there's one brewery for every 24,000 Coloradans. This seems pretty extreme, but Colorado only places 4th in the nation for per capita breweries. Oregon, Vermont, and Montana all have more breweries per capita than Colorado. These states have 4 to 6 times more breweries per capita than Kansas and Missouri. Where do we sit on the list? Missouri is 27th and Kansas is 32nd.

So what gives? We've got a large, enthusiastic, and supportive community of craft beer drinkers and brewers. We also have a very active homebrewing community. KC has been one of 12 cities to host first round judging for the National Homebrew Competition in the past, and the annual KC Bier Meisters competition is one of the biggest BJCP sanctioned competitions in the country. We were recently one of 12 cities in the country to host the Sam Adam's KMF tour, and one of 24 cities to host a Zwanze Day celebration. And, of course, you can't go without mentioning the fact that Boulevard is the 12th largest craft brewery in the US.

The Bohemian Hall out in the Middle of Nowhere
All of this current evidence of KC as a beer town doesn't even account for the fact that our region has a strong brewing history dating back 150 years. A large percentage of people in KC, and statewide, have ancestry that goes back to the brewing centers of Germany, Czech Republic, and Ireland.

Before Prohibition, we had a strong brewing presence, and even during prohibition people kept right on homebrewing. My Grandma tells stories about the Bohemian Hall near Minneapolis, KS. Apparently untouched by Prohibition, all the Czech immigrants in the county would go there every weekend for dancing and drinking homebrews. Even my great granddad got in on the act, making homebrew during Prohibition using potatoes as the starch in place of malt.

KC also just feels like a great beer town. People here are into beer, and we love our local stuff. You can hardly find a place in KC where there isn't at least one local craft-tap or bottle on the menu. So if KC feels like it should be a city with a vibrant brewing scene and lots of breweries, why isn't it? I'll delve into the reasons for why we don't have more breweries in KC in Part 2.


  1. I am a home brewer and am interested in selling kegs to local bars. Anyone know who I need to contact to start the process of getting licenses/permits, etc.?

  2. There are huge regulatory hurtles to get from homebrewing to selling beer. Something I'm going to discuss in part in the next post of this series. To be frank, it's nearly impossible to do without a lawyer and a lot of money. If I were you, I would try to get in touch with some of the other local brewers to see how they managed the transition from homebrewer to probrewer.

  3. Nice post. I'm not sure per capita tells the complete story, though. Lawrence, for instance, has one brewery for every 45,000 people and this city feels underserved. I assume your future posts will address this, but I'd like to hear more about what makes a city "thirsty" for new breweries and what conditions prompt breweries to close. Is there even such a thing as oversaturation, or are closures more indicative of the quality of offerings? Also, where does beer tourism fit into all of this?

  4. I don't know if there is a saturation point. We had 1 brewery per 10,000 people in the 1870's. If we had that many breweries per capita today, we would have closer to 30,000 breweries in the US, instead of 3000. It sounds completely unfathomable, but there's definitely a historical precedent. I think it just needs to be a shift in beer consumer mindset. All those breweries in the 1870s were super local. If we've got 100 breweries in KC, you probably don't ever need to buy any beer they make in California, Colorado, or anywhere else outside the area. Someone in town is going to be making a fantastic IPA, a fantastic Imperial Stout, a fantastic Lambic, etc.

    And as far as closures go--I think it has mostly to do with poor management and initial under-capitalization rather than market demand. Boulevard started with about $1.5 million investment, and Free State started with about $1 million if I remember right. It's very difficult to ever get ahead if you start out with a lot less than that.

    The other side of it is just like a restaurant. Restaurants with crappy food can stay open for a long time if they are financially disciplined and run a tight ship. It's a lot easier to stay open if you make good food, of course, but lots of places make great food, poorly manage the business, and fail. I feel like it is very similar with breweries.

  5. Jay,
    Highly anticipating the next installment. Did I miss it? Or should I be on the lookout for it soon?

  6. Coming soon! I'll probably get it posted it early next week. I realized after the fact that I probably shouldn't have started this series right at the busiest craft beer time of the year with all the festivals and other events going on right now...

  7. Hey just wanted to let you know you in case you hadn't seen it...finally posted part 2.