Boulevard Comes to Brooklyn

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This week, thousands of Midwestern transplants like myself delighted in stumbling upon dozens of barroom posters branded with one familiar red and green logo. New York City watering holes across the five boroughs were gearing up to welcome Kansas City’s award-winning Boulevard Brewery to town, complete with night after night of tap takeovers, meet and greets with company bigwigs and buckets of downhome, Heartland-style merriment — not to mention some fantastic suds, of course.

Boulevard, long beloved by those in our nation’s center for their well crafted lineup, recently joined on to Duvel Moortgat, a move that allowed the Missouri stalwart to increase its distribution reach exponentially. Yesterday, I sat down with Boulevard founder John McDonald, Marketing and Communications Manager Julie Weeks and Duvel Moortgat USA President Simon Thorpe over a few mid-day Unfiltered Wheats to get their thoughts on what it’s like being the new kid in the concrete jungle.

How long have you been looking into getting in the NYC market?
Simon: Officially? About a year. Unofficially? A lot longer.

John: We’ve thought about it for years, but New York is not the easiest market for a bunch of small brains from Kansas City, you know? With the sale to Duvel and their understanding of the market, it makes it a lot easier for us to bring Boulevard here now.

Simon: When we put the two companies together, one of the reasons we did it was to expand Boulevard’s reach. We launched in Europe last week — UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands — so you can now find Boulevard beer from Kansas City to Paris, France, which is very cool. Last year we launched in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, Ohio, but a lot of that was a dry run, frankly, to launching in New York.

Ommegang has always had a stronghold here, obviously, and Duvel has had a really strong presence on the West Coast. Boulevard had a very strong presence in the Midwest, so it’s a perfect collaboration. It was just a matter of taking Boulevard and leveraging the Duvel footprint.

In the last two or three years, New York City has seen massive growth in local production, with new breweries opening left and right all over the city. But, since 2015 started, there’s been a sizable influx of out-of-state brands coming in and showing up around town. As one of those new brands, what are your thoughts on the current market? Is there room for everyone or will we see some shakeout?
Simon: I think we’re going to see some shakeout. The next three or four resets are going to be defining. There’s always going to be someone who’s more local than you are, but there will be a handful of craft brands — and we want Boulevard to be one of them — that are truly national and that people recognize. People are approaching this at the moment a little bit like cosmetics. It’s like lipstick — all about the hot flavor, the new color, what have you. Today, people are walking into bars and saying, “What have you got that’s new? Bust out the can of whatever’s hot.” But eventually, I think, they’re going to say, “Okay, I’m overwhelmed by all of this. I know Boulevard, I like Boulevard, I trust Boulevard, I’ll have Boulevard.”

John: I have a different answer to that question, actually. I hope they all make it, because that’ll be good for all of us. I mean really, at the end of the day, if every little small brewery that starts up is successful in their local market, that just means the movement will keep on. It’s not a competition between craft brewers — we’re still just 8% of the volume. It’s the big brewers, the 80%, that are the target for all of us. And as craft brewers, we our job is to convince consumers that we make better beer. You can’t say that Anheuser Busch and Miller-Coors don’t make good beer, because they do — it’s technically perfect. But it’s tricky because if the local guy is making diacetyl bombs that stink and taste bad and everyone’s just drinking them because they’re local? That won’t be a good thing for the craft beer business.

There’s a saying a guy who helped me open my brewery told me once: “There are only two kinds of breweries in the world: those that know they have bad beer and those that don’t.” When he said it, it didn’t mean that much to me, but recently, it’s come to mean a lot more. We all make bad beer sometimes — you know, we’ve dumped out giant tanks of beer, lots and lots of bottles. But, there are a lot of small breweries now that don’t know when they have bad beer because they just don’t have the understanding or the experience. If there’s a shakeout, that’s where it’ll come from.

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How do you see yourselves fitting into the NYC beer scene?
Simon: From our perspective, a lot of creative people, a lot of makers, are returning to Kansas City — it’s just cheap to live there. They can’t afford to live places like Dubee, Dumbee, what do you call it? Under the bridge? DUMBO, right. Boulevard has always had this reputation as being a brand with boundless possibilities, a hardworking brand, and that reflects the spirit of Kansas City. We recruit a lot of people to work at the company who are makers, not just business people.

These days, that kind of culture is really resonant in New York, in Chicago, even in Florida. We’ve caught a wave with this “makers” movement. We’re quite closely identified with it in Kansas City, which makes it so cool to finally come to Brooklyn — it’s a retrofit kind of feel.

Julie: John was a carpenter before he started the company.

Simon: He likes to say cabinetmaker.

John: When we first opened in ’89, you know, it was tough time. Our Missouri Brewer’s License has the number “two” on it.

Simon: Guess who was number one?

John: Back then, [Free State Brewing Company’s] Chuck Magerl, who was a friend of mine, he wanted to do a brewpub. And I said, “Chuck, I don’t want to be a brewpub, I don’t know anything about the restaurant business. I just want to be a brewer. We’re just going to concentrate on making beer.” And we really took that to heart.

Julie: It also seems to be almost like a nostalgic thing — for so many people originally from the Midwest, their first beer was an Unfiltered Wheat. They’ll come into a bar and say, “Oh! I gotta get a Boulley Wheat!” It’s so fun to see that.

John:  I think Kansas City is still a mythical kind of place, even here. There’s so many people that have come to these New York launch parties from Kansas and Kansas City —

Simon: It was like a Chiefs game!

John: They all come up to us with their KC Royals caps and their KU gear.

Simon: We didn’t think there were that many people from Missouri in New York, but they were all out last night. It’s part of your DNA, I think, this pride in where you come from. We’re a country of 380 million people, and that sense of state identity is really profound here. In that sense, we’re in a great position.

How do you see the NYC market differing from the MidWest?

John: In the MidWest, there’s just not a lot of people. If you look at the North East — it’s probably bigger than our whole Midwestern market from Texas to Minnesota to Colorado combined. I think there’s a lot of potential, because we’ve grown to be a pretty big brewery in a small pond — for comparison, when Brooklyn Brewery was 30,000 barrels, we were 100,000 barrels in Kansas City with no population. It used to be that the imports dominated the East and West Coasts, and it was harder for craft brewers to build business there. But now, all of a sudden, the pendulum has swung and there’s such a huge amount of people here beginning to embrace craft beer. There’s a lot of opportunity for us.

What beers are you most excited about introducing here?

Simon: Boulevard is known as a brewery that has  broad range of styles. We’re not a hop bomb factory, we don’t only do fruit beers — that’s not the way that we work. We don’t set out to be the X-Games of brewing, to make some wild and crazy thing with a worm in the bottle. We set out to make perfectly balanced beers that will endure, and that’s probably the hallmark of what we try to do.

That being said, we’re really good at a few things — we’re very good at Saisons, and we’re excited about them. We’ve also set a very high bar for our IPAs, because we were never driven by IPAs in the way that some others were. We took a long time with them and our goal was, very simply, to get a 100 on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. That was our threshold. So in that sense, it’s The Calling. That’s been a project been long in development for us and we’re very pleased with how it turned out.

John: Ten years ago, we made eight beers. And now we make 30+, and it’s because the consumer wants choice. I think you have to have a very vibrant R&D plan — which is great for our brewers, and great for our consumers because it keeps them interested. It used to be that 80% of our volume was wheat beer, which we can make that blindfolded. We made a huge mistake by getting caught up in the growth of that one brand and not being very experimental, but I think we fixed all that in the last few years and now we’re one of the most experimental breweries in the country.

And while I think all that experimentation is a good thing, ultimately, breweries are built on brands that last. And Duvel is a greatest example of that — here’s a brand that’s been viable since the first World War and has always commanded a high price. Tank 7 is our Duvel in a lot of ways, and we’re hoping it’ll do well here. I’d like to see Tank 7 become a 200,000 barrel brand in the United States, because then that’ll allow us to do all the cool experimental shit that we want to do.

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Tell me more about Duvel. How is that relationship going and how have they helped extend Boulevard’s reach?
John: One of the reasons I was so interested in Duvel is that they’re a bottle conditioning brewery, we’re a bottle conditioning brewery, and very few breweries believe in that process these days. It’s a huge commitment to spend that extra two weeks fermenting in your warehouse at a controlled temperature — that’s a big difference and it’s not cheap. People don’t realize — a lot of what makes these really great beers is process and decisions on process, not always taking the easy way. Open fermentation isn’t easy, but you know what? If it makes your beer that much better than the other guy, it’s probably worth doing.

Simon: We work very hard to empower the organization. It goes back to this whole notion of the maker’s movement and the boundless possibilities that we believe in. Enabling the brewers to be able to brew is a critical part of it, in the same way you enable to finance crew to do what they do. You try not to put constraints on people, and in that way, we’re a lot better as a group in terms of ideas than any individual alone. It’s cultivating that creative spirit within the organization that allows you to go and do these great things.

Think of the expansion in six month blocks: The first six months, we’re thinking about what kind of IT system we’re going to use and it’s all very prosaic, very ordinary. The next six months is all about sorting out your focus and priorities and starting projects. And after about a year to eighteen months, you’re at the point where you’re starting really see all of the reasons you put the company together in the first place. We’re launching cans, we’ve revamped the IPAs, we’ve accelerated Boulevard nationally, we’ve launched in Europe — this is the most exciting part.

In terms of the future, we’re building Cellar 5 in Kansas City, which will take us up to about 300,000 barrels cellaring with the brewhouse at about half a million, so we’re investing in that — that’s about 14 million to get that done. We’re investing in sorting out distribution. We’ve got a brewery in the middle of the country, which is a dream, frankly — we don’t have to build a brewery on the East Coast or the West Coast to reach everyone. And we’re also investing in Cooperstown, to make it more creative, flexible and innovative within the constraints of the brewery. And we’ve invested a lot in people — typically, when you bring companies together, you know, you’re trying to save people? We’ve added 42.

John: I think everything’s going really well. But everyone at the brewery is really tired, because I don’t think anybody was used to working as hard as we have in the last year.

What local beers have you had while you’ve been here?
John: I had some Sixpoint the other night, and that was very good. But, mostly, well, we’ve been drinking our own beer, you know — supporting the cause.

Simon: It’s probably a dull answer, but I’ve always really, really admired Brooklyn Brewery. We look at what they do and some of what they’ve done is truly impressive. They make a really great beer.

Julie: We’ve got a crew over there right now, actually. Garrett invited us over to come taste some beers and tour around. They’re having a blast.

Simon: We’ve known those guys for many years and they’re very, very smart — both in terms of brewing and also in building Brooklyn’s beer culture as it is today.

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You’ve been going to a lot of bars, I’d imagine. What’s your take on our beer scene here?
Julie: The diversity is amazing to me. It’s great to see all the tap handles and all the variety, but it’s also just great to see people get excited about, not only our beers, but other craft breweries, too. It’s been fun. It seems like there’s a really good energy in the bars here.

John: I’ve been coming out here for a long, long time, and Brooklyn’s beer industry took a long time to grow. It was always hard here. Distribution was tough, how they sold beer — people don’t buy beer in liquor stores, really, just corner stores and bars. And for as hip and big as it is, it really seemed like New York was late to the scene as far as craft beer goes. But it’s different now. It really is.

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