Is Kansas City Having a Brewery Boom? - Part 3

If you remember way back when I posted the first part of this series, I wrote about just how far behind KC is than other beer centers in terms of breweries. As much as we might want to have a love fest for how great KC is because of all the new breweries, we've got about 1/4 of the breweries of most other true brewing cities. Of course, this lack of breweries isn't for lack of beer geek enthusiasm, a grass-roots brewing community, or local brewing history. So in Part 2, I explained some of the less than exciting legal reasons for our predicament.

Now that we're all armed with the facts and some of the reasons for the situation, we have to ask the question: what's the point? Looking at the rows of taps at places like Bier Station, Flying Saucer, and Barley's, and the endless shelves of craft beer at Lukas, Royal, MDL, and others, one has to wonder why on earth we need more breweries?

The Local Option

Nano-brewery circa 1830.
I don't know how many more nationally distributed craft breweries the country can handle. There's limited room at bars and liquor stores--when a new tap handle comes on, another comes off. I don't worry a lot about that problem though as I don't see brewing as something that should be a nationwide or worldwide scale business. Widely distributing beer only started on a large scale a little over 100 years ago. For the previous 4,900 years, it was almost exclusively a locally made and locally consumed product.

We've come a long way to address the issues related to beer spoilage, oxidation, and logistics that forced beer to be a local product, but as great as our technology it's still hard to get fresh beer very far from the source. And fresh beer is always best. I'd put a fresh average fresh beer up against a stale world class beer any day.

More local breweries means more fresh beer to choose from. It also means more local competition and thus better local products. If we've got two dozen great IPAs being made in KC, we won't ever have to concern ourselves with whether or not that IPA brewed 1000 miles away is stale or skunked.

It's interesting to note that the advent of nationally distributed beer brands coincides with the beginning of the end for American brewing. Many people think that Prohibition killed American brewing. The reality is that from the high over 4,000 breweries in the early 1870's, the number of independent breweries had dropped to a little over 1,000 before Prohibition even began. This timeline correlates directly to the rise of Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz.

Local, small-scale, artisanal brewing is what started the craft beer renaissance in America in the 1980's and it's what is going to sustain craft brewing for perpetuity. It's simply a return to the norm of what brewing has always been, and what it always should be.

Local beer is awesome. 

Dollars and Sense

Aside from the quality of the beer, why should your average non-craft beer geek care? Put another way: why should our elected officials care? As usual--it's all about the money (and jobs). You might not believe it, but craft brewing has an estimated annual economic impact of $257 million in Kansas and $612 million in Missouri. These are big numbers, but they pale in comparison to Colorado's $1.62 billion in annual economic impact.

I noted San Diego as being one of the true brewing centers in the US in the first post of this series with one of the highest number of breweries per capita in the country. They recently released some economic data about their brewing industry. Last year, the economic impact of brewing in San Diego alone was nearly $600 million, and the brewing industry directly employed 6,200 workers in the city.

Not only does craft brewing have the potential to be a big business sector, but craft breweries are the kinds of businesses that politicians fantasize about. They source local products, they employ people locally and they sell their products locally. Every point of the process benefits their community. Most craft brewers are also focused on being socially and environmentally conscious--supporting local charities while finding ways to use renewable energy and keep byproducts out of landfills. They're also tourist destinations that create a sense of community pride and cohesion.

With all the animosity around the enormous tax-incentives that our cities and states regularly dole out attract new businesses, it seems like the changes needed to boost brewing in our area are a no-brainer. Eliminate the overly restrictive regulations, and the jobs and tax dollars will come without the need for other incentives. There is pent up demand for these small businesses, and people chomping at the bit to open them.

What We Can Do About It

The impediments to opening a small brewery in the KC area are all related to laws at various levels of government. It's going to take people like you and me to get involved with our elected officials to make change happen. Take for example the recent zoning changes in KCMO that will allow small nano-taproom breweries to open up outside of industrial areas.

Brian and Mary Rooney are two regular folks that wanted to open a part-time neighborhood nano-brewery in the Waldo/Brookside area, but discovered that it wasn't possible with the KCMO zoning codes. Outside of brewpubs, breweries could only be opened in industrial zoned areas (for example, the Crossroads and West Bottoms). So they got in touch with Councilman Taylor, the chair of the small-business committee, who got right on board with the cause.

They worked together with the city council to write an amendment that would allow taproom breweries to open up in commercial areas like Westport, Waldo, or the Plaza. They put their effort into working with the council, and the council recognized a common-sense solution that would lead to more business and job growth in KCMO. (No details on the brewery yet if you're curious--the Rooney's are working on securing a location now that the zoning ordinance has been amended.)

It's involvement like this that we will need to address the right to self-distribute. The 3-Tier System framework is set up at the state level, and any reform would have to come from our state legislatures. Just like in the Rooney's case, individuals can make a big difference. Your local state legislators represent far fewer people than you might think. Emails and phone calls make a big difference, especially since most representatives probably aren't even aware of the issues.

The JoCo Food Rule is a bit of a different animal. When Kansas ended statewide prohibition in 1949, each county was given the option to either maintain prohibition (yes, there are still dry counties in Kansas), open up drinking in taverns regardless of food sales, or go the middle route with the 30% food sales rule. Johnson County voted to go the middle route, giving us our current issues with opening a brewery. Because Johnson Co residents voted to enact this law, the residents have to vote to change it.

There has been an effort underway for some time now to get this matter on the election ballot, and it may happen in the near future. Of course, we'll be spreading the word when the issue does come up for a vote, and we will all need to do our part to vote and inform others of why they should vote to update the prohibition-era laws.

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