In 1989, John McDonald crafted a plan no one expected to work.
In fact, many told him it was a total failure.
But when he founded Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, he drowned out the noise of the naysayers, and forged forward with his plan to be a part of what would become a cultural shift in America’s beer industry.
Believing in the Little Guy
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Shortly after Boulevard was born, the then 34-year-old McDonald took his first keg of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat Beer to a local tavern.
But of the two men there to sample it, one refused to try it. The other looked McDonald in the eyes and told him it was the worst beer he’d ever tasted.
We might not be the flashiest or the craziest, but we work really hard at making great beer… And that’s pretty much who we are.
Steadfast in his belief in his brand new brew, McDonald was bruised, but his determination was strong as ever. He said he simply believed in his brand and the idea of small, local brewers.
“(I didn’t give up because) it was too much money invested and I was scared to death,” he said. “I had taken all these people’s money, and failure was not an option.”
He said, though, the experience of having to overcome such fierce resistance to a new brand of beer -- one that diverged widely from that status quo at the time -- was something that made him stronger and his beer better.
“It was a little tough because people didn’t really get it,” he said. “They don’t call this the Show-Me-State for nothing. They all said: Show me. That took a long time. You can’t make someone drink it, they have to do it on their own. It was humbling.”
But his unwavering belief in his brew paid off.
The now more than two-decade old brewery pumps out 29 different varieties of the bubbly liquid and distributes across the nation to 25 states.
McDonald credits Boulevard’s success to its Midwestern roots.
“We see ourselves as a very Midwestern mentality: A hard-working brewery dedicated to the quality of our products – our beers. We want to have the reputation for making some of the best beer in the world.”
In an effort to make that dream a reality, McDonald refuses to commandeer the brewing process at Boulevard. He said the difference between the larger beer companies that dominate the industry and the smaller craft breweries is the brewing and development process.
“They’re very much top-down type brewers, and we’re very much bottom-up,” he said. “If your business is all about beer, to not have the people who make the beer come up with the ideas – that’s not the way to do it.”
McDonald said any brewery staff member is welcome to come up with an idea for a new selection – he said then it’s just a matter of crafting it, perfecting it, and taking it to market.
Standing Out in an Ever-Evolving Landscape
Though it’s been more than two decades since Boulevard began, McDonald said it still feels like the company is in its early years.
“It still feels like we’re taking off – we’ve been really successful in a lot of ways. The business is always demanding and changing, and we’re much different than we were 25 years ago, but we still have the same plan in mind: To make world-class beers in the middle of the U.S. and sell them responsibly. It’s a pretty simple business model, and we keep trying to get better all the time.”
McDonald said, unlike many other craft breweries, he doesn’t have a strong desire to reach all 50 states. That’s because he believes local beer should stay local. He said, though, he wouldn’t rule out expanding distribution to other areas of the nation – using the brewery’s special Smokestack Series as an example of a label that would ship well considering its longer shelf-life than the brewery’s other, more traditional selections.
He said a part of the desire to get beer in the hands of more people is to the credit of the changing craft beer culture in America – it’s come a long way from traditional big brands that dominated the nation’s beer industry for several decades. But McDonald said there’s still a long way to go.
And he hopes Boulevard can be a part of that burgeoning revolution.
“We started making all these great beers, now we need to starting working on a great beer culture,” he said. “That includes making sure the beer is enjoyed in the right kind of glassware, and all the beers are treated right at retail and consumer levels.”
He said that’s something that’s slowly beginning to happen, but the more it builds, the more people will enjoy the brands they buy and love. McDonald sees that translating into more beer halls and better retail spaces that specialize in beer.
“Another thing I see in the beer world is very flavorful, lower alcohol beers becoming popular. The reason is beer drinkers like to drink a lot of beer. But if it has a high alcohol content, they can’t drink a lot,” he said. “This new version is flavorful, but low content.”
In the end, though, what it all comes down to is an appreciation and love of beer –exactly what McDonald set out to share with the world two decades ago.
“We might not be the flashiest or the craziest, but we work really hard at making great beer… And that’s pretty much who we are,” he said.
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