Squinting toward a row of eight tap handles, the guys have no idea that they're in the middle of a bar fight. It's not a fistfight, but more of a territorial pissing match.
The combatants are listed on the taps in front of them: Skinny Dip, Blue Moon, Peroni, Stella Artois, Guinness and three beers from hometown favorite Boulevard Brewing Company: Wheat, Pale Ale and Lunar. The tap handle that brings in the least money over the next few months will get bounced from the bar in favor of a new beer.
The crowd favorite tonight is Boulevard Wheat. Lindsey Vannoi, a curvy, blonde bartender with purple nail polish, has poured more than seventeen glasses of it over the past hour. Some have been accented with orange or lemon slices. Others she has topped off with vodka and lemonade, a mixture that has become the Cashew's bankable signature drink, "Summertime Beer."
The hands-down loser in tonight's royal rumble of booze consumption also belongs to Boulevard. It's Lunar, the microbrewery's latest release. Lunar debuted in April as the first new beer offered year-round by Boulevard since the company concocted its Dry Stout in 1996. For more than an hour, not one person has ordered the brown-ale-style Lunar.
The jovial men lean forward, eyeballing their options for the next round. The tap handles before them are topped with attractive images: a pair of sandals for Skinny Dip, a night forest scene for Blue Moon, a bucolic rolling farm for Wheat. They've been drinking mostly light beer tonight, but Vannoi pours three samples of the Lunar into chilled whiskey glasses and slides them across the bar. The brew coats the glasses like chocolate milk.
She offers it with a warning: "I get strong feelings on Lunar. People either love it or they hate it."
Rice sips the dark brew and makes a sour face at the lingering, syrupy flavor. "It tastes like pop," he says.
Dan sips and pauses. "I don't like it," he declares.
Jim raises his glass and takes it in one shot, like cough medicine. His ruddy face grows redder. "It's got an aftertaste to where you can't drink and hit on women!" he shouts. He exhales, as though spraying dragon fire.
Lunar has provoked similar reactions all across the Kansas City area. And Boulevard owner John McDonald knows it.
But McDonald believes that quaffers are divided into two constituencies. One is worth courting, the other isn't. To McDonald, Rice and his pals represent "social drinkers." Beer, he says, is just a "social lubricant" to the majority of beer drinkers. "It's ubiquitous in American life," McDonald says.
McDonald is more interested in what he calls "real beer drinkers." They distinguish subtle aromas and flavors in beer, like members of a poor man's wine club. These guys thrill that Lunar is a German-style dunkelweizen with a Belgium yeast, billed on the company's Web site as "a cloudy, russet brown beer with subtle aromatic notes... a uniquely rounded mellow flavor crowned by a crisp, dry finish."
At the Cashew, the only "real beer drinkers" appear to be a crew in their early thirties huddled around a high-top table on the other side of the bar. Dressed in business casual, Doug Adams, Mike Major and Jason Koch, old friends from Baker University, have tasted all over the beer spectrum tonight gold-tinted Boulevard Wheat, sun-burned Fat Tire, mud-puddle-colored Guinness.
Koch notices for the first time that Lunar is on tap. He decides to order one. Adams warns against it. He tells Koch he's tried it before and found it oddly spicy. Koch flags down a waitress and orders one anyway. When the beer arrives, he grabs it and drinks gingerly.
"It's all right," he proclaims. He passes the pint to Adams and Major.
"Actually, I like it more than I remember," Adams says.
"Like any beer, it grows on you," Major adds.
McDonald has built his reputation on re-training taste buds. In 1989, believing that Kansas City was suffering from light-beer fatigue, he launched his brewery with two more robust choices, Pale Ale and Bully Porter. In 1992 he introduced Unfiltered Wheat. The Wheat now makes up more than half of Boulevard's business, helping the company become the fifth-largest specialty brewery in the nation. Boulevard has now colonized an eleven-state territory that stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas, Indiana to Kansas.
Last August Boulevard completed a $25 million expansion, ramping up production from the equivalent of 38 million bottles to as much as 46 million in 2007. When Boulevard opened the new facility, it also launched Lunar. The expanded facility and the new beer should have signaled good times for Boulevard. Until Lunar, the KC brewer has had nothing but success. Its Wheat and Pale Ale hold their own against anything produced by microbrewers or giants elsewhere, and its seasonal beers have loyal followings.
But Boulevard faces a deluge of similar beers that have hit the Kansas City market in recent years. The onslaught comprises major companies, including Coors' Blue Moon, and smaller breweries like Schlafly. All of them are now vying for Boulevard's coveted tap handles and store cooler space.
And Lunar the symbol of Boulevard's expansion has made few fans.
In Kansas City, Boulevard dominates 65 percent of the microbrew market, says Bob Sullivan, the brewery's vice president of sales and marketing. But because only about 6 percent of beer drinkers buy microbrews, Boulevard represents just 4 percent of all local beer sales. In order to grow, the company needs to convert social drinkers.
McDonald admits Lunar is "an acquired taste." (Brown ales are the twelfth-most-popular beer on supermarket shelves.) He says he made the beer he wanted to drink, not something that would do well among social drinkers. "Some people don't like it. It's not a beer that you are just going to drink because it's there. It's something that takes a little getting used to."
Boulevard sales rep David Colgan bounces into ODowds Little Dublin, in the swank Country Club Plaza shopping district, with a hint of Pale Ale on his breath. He has just finished lunch at another watering hole, where he drank a beer strictly for business. The average businessman wants to drink beer at lunch, he explains. If I order a beer, maybe it will make that guy feel more comfortable and hell order one, too. His goal is to create what he calls a cultural experience with the brand. Its a good strategy, but Colgan admits he has gained fifteen pounds in the past year, primarily from drinking beer with lunch.
Still, he envisions himself as a personification of Boulevard. Everything about his look the baby-blue waffle-cut polo stamped with a subtle Boulevard logo, the thick-rimmed glasses, the carefully spiked plumage of hair has been cultivated to help him make sales. Colgan exudes the laid-back vibe of a guy on the hunt for the next party. The fact that he was born in Ireland has provided an accent that sounds ideal for a beer salesman. "It's about being around when something happens and taking advantage of it," he says.
Today, though, he's on damage control. The concept of releasing Lunar was "no brand left behind," he says meaning the introduction of a new variety wasn't supposed to hurt the profit margins of other Boulevard beers. Most bars that stock Boulevard already had at least two tap handles pouring Wheat and Pale Ale. Bars might also assign Boulevard an extra tap for seasonal beers, like the Irish Ale offered around St. Patrick's Day. After Irish Ale's run this year, Boulevard's four sales reps teamed up with nine distributor reps to convince roughly 130 bars to flip Irish Ale taps to Lunar.
The brand has since surpassed expectations, accounting for 8 percent of Boulevard sales in Kansas City, according to Bob Sullivan. That ranks it the third-most-popular beer, but still far behind Pale Ale (27 percent).
And Lunar has yet to prove its value to bar owners. O'Dowd's lubes a lot of social drinkers, so the demand for a highbrow brew is low. What's worse, O'Dowd's put Lunar on tap but pulled Pale Ale, hurting Boulevard's sales.
Colgan asks a blond barkeep for a manager. To pimp Lunar, he keeps a series of positive reviews of the brew in his car, but he has decided to leave them there. After all, one reviewer, Michael Jackson, author of Ultimate Beer and World Guide to Beer, lauded Lunar as: "Distinctive, assertive, fruity, peachy... Shortbread in the middle, tea-like in the finish: very Southern flavors." Jackson claimed it should "be enjoyed over ice (did I say that?) in a Collins glass, with a splash of Sazerac rye whiskey, while lazing on the porch thinking lustful thoughts about the languorous young lady on the swing." Not exactly cheers-worthy to the party crowd.
When manager Brad Schneider appears, Colgan presents him with a shrink-wrapped package of 500 coasters.
"I was hoping we might be able to bring Pale Ale in, perhaps carry it in bottles."
"If we put it back on, we pull Lunar off," Schneider says. "That was the plan, to pull Lunar off anyways."
"Well, don't do that," Colgan gasps. "Keep it on, and we'll see where it goes. We'll keep on representing."
After Colgan leaves, Schneider asks a bartender's opinion of Lunar. "They usually try one and then switch to something else," she says.
It's the same across the city: Tomfooleries never carried Lunar because the managers there thought the demand wouldn't warrant it. The Granfalloon did put the beer on tap at one location, but the bar is about to pull it off.
At the Velvet Dog in Martini Corner, server Katie White puffs on a cigarette during the lull preceding a happy-hour shift. She says the bar pulled a Miller-brand keg to put Lunar on tap. But bartenders pour just a few glasses of Lunar a week. "It's gross," she says. "People miss the High Life."
And Lunar has been all but thrown out of Kauffman Stadium, the home of the Kansas City Royals. Originally available in bottles and drafts at five locations around the ballpark, it is now being sold only in draft from just one stand. "We brought it in as sort of a test case, and it didn't sell as well as we thought," says Gael Doar, director of communications for the stadium's concessions contractor, Centerplate.
Direct competitors of Boulevard have welcomed Lunar for one reason: It hasn't drained sales. "It's not a style of beer that competes with anything we produce," says Scott Poore, the state sales manager for New Belgium.
When Colgan leaves O'Dowd's empty-handed, he utters his business maxim: "You're gonna get fucked. You just have to suck it up."
Jon Poteet, director of marketing for Boulevard's distributor, Central States Beverage Company, says the demand for so-called craft beers is exploding. "There is room for multiple brands, because they are all growing right now."
Poteet says Samuel Adams' sales so far this year have jumped 26 percent in the Kansas City area. Leinenkugel, owned by Miller, leaped 75 percent. Coors' Blue Moon more than doubled its sales in the market, with 113 percent growth in the first six months of 2007, compared with the same time last year.
In its own backyard, Boulevard's market share is still bigger than Sam Adams', Blue Moon's and Leinenkugel's combined. But whereas the others saw double- and triple-digit increases, Boulevard's sales have grown only 11 percent so far this year.
The air-conditioning inside the van blasts as Gary Briggs, western Missouri salesman for Schlafly Beer, rolls through Kansas City. The boxy Dodge Sprinter 2500 van is painted with pint glasses and Schlaflys company slogan, The Craft Beer From Americas Beer Capital. One side has holes for tap handles that run from kegs kept inside. For maximum brand recognition, the Schlafly name has been printed backward, ambulance-style, across the hood.
"We're not that prevalent here. We're gonna be," Briggs says of Kansas City.
Briggs is the antithesis of Colgan. Not particularly flashy, he's 40, with a shaved head and the imposing build of a construction worker. With Lunar, Boulevard offers five full-time beers and four seasonals. Schlafly brews six year-rounders, seven seasonals and four more special releases for what they call "the drinking holidays." That means that if a bar owner wants a different style lager or flavored ale, chances are Schlafly offers it. Briggs was hired last September. Schlafly first announced its presence in Kansas City in 2005. Before that the company had focused on building a presence within a 100-mile radius of the Arch. Since then, they've expanded their reach to tap places in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
One of the biggest hurdles for Briggs is teaching bar owners how to pronounce the brewer's name. (For the record, it's "shlaff-lee. ") In less than two years, the brewery with a tough name to pronounce has placed taps in Charlie Hooper's, Kelso's, Grinders, Waldo Pizza and the Hotel Phillips.
"The truth is, we want to be on anywhere we can get on," he says. "But this is Boulevard country I take what I can get."
Today he has five stops to make. At World Market in Westport he heads to the back room to grease the palm of a sales manager, offering him a bottle of Export India Pale Ale for his own fridge, then a sample of Raspberry Hefeweizen. "The chicks will dig it," Briggs says of the berry flavor.
Briggs heads to Charlie Hooper's, where he gives the assistant manager a neon Schlafly sign to put up next to a Golden Tee machine because the bar previously agreed to carry his brand.
Briggs moves on to M&S Grill, where he hands Geordie Pollock, the restaurant's food and beverage director, an unfiltered wheat called No. 15 Ale. The bar has two Boulevard Wheat handles. Briggs wants one. He nods toward the bar area. "I think the duplicate Wheat handle [should go]," he says. "It just makes sense."
Pollock responds sarcastically, "What do you think about just moving all the Boulevard out? It's overplayed! It's old!"
Briggs nods seriously. Pollock stops joking. He tells Briggs he'll consider the offer.
Briggs heads downtown to Paddy O'Quigley's, dropping off more samples. Next he cruises a few blocks west to John's Big Deck. He silently appraises the place, figuring correctly that it's a blue-collar bump-and-grind spot after dark. He grabs a Raspberry Hefeweizen. Inside he spots Jimmy Monaco, a stocky manager, flipping stools. Monaco sees the bottles and stops him.
"You guys are from St. Louis, aren't you? How do you say it? Sh-a-flow-ee? Sh-ef-a-fly?"
Briggs places the Raspberry Hefeweizen on the bar. "This is our Raspberry Hefeweizen. It's our summer seasonal. It's a pretty good summer drink for the ladies."
"Like a Smirnoff Ice," Monaco says.
Gary swallows his pride and nods. Comparing beer to Smirnoff makes beer geeks cringe, but he knows plenty of women are drawn to what he calls "fruity-type drinks."
A week later Monaco calls Briggs to tell him Schlafly's Raspberry will replace Lunar. Next he learns M&S Grill will bump off a Wheat handle for Schlafly American Pale Ale. And World Market agrees to carry the Raspberry Hefeweizen. A week after that Briggs lands additional taps at three other KC watering holes.
He isn't concerned that most of the managers who have picked up Schlafly can't pronounce it. "As long as they are trying, that's all that matters," he says.
Schlafly is after the same customers that McDonald describes as serious beer drinkers. But Schlafly owner Tom Schlafly coyly claims he's not looking for a head-to-head fight. "We are definitely going after the same customers, but our approach to Kansas City is absolutely not going to be, 'Choose between us and Boulevard,'" he says. "It's more about expanding your horizons a little bit."
But when Schlafly and McDonald cross paths at Kansas City's Central Library on a late June day, that rhetoric sounds like a setup for a surprise attack.
Schlafly's in town to give a reading from his new book about his company's struggle for survival in an Anheuser-Busch-saturated market. The book is titled New Religion in Mecca: Memoir of a Renegade Brewery in St. Louis.
McDonald had agreed to introduce him. They go back. Schlafly began his company out of a brewpub in 1991, two years after McDonald founded his brewery. When Schlafly ran out of some beer styles a few weeks later, McDonald shipped him some. There has always been a bit of cross-state support.
Times have changed. As McDonald steps off the elevator into the library, he faces a full-on Schlafly sales blitz. In front of him stands a five-foot pyramid of empty Schlafly six-packs, adorned with plastic pint glasses and coasters. In a corner nearby is Briggs, offering samples of seven ales.
Standing near the bar, Briggs looks up to see McDonald, the baron of Kansas City beer. Briggs notices he is running out of everything except Wheat and Pale Ale, the Schlafly brands that directly compete with Boulevard. "People really want to try something different, which is good," Briggs concludes.
Sipping a Schlafly Pale Ale, McDonald looks confident and unflustered. He approaches Schlafly, hands him a copy of his book and asks for an autograph.
Placed along the massive wraparound bar inside Gomers liquor store in the KC suburb of Parkville is a row of short-stemmed snifter glasses, grape-embroidered towels and a metal bucket meant to act as a communal spittoon. The wine-tasting paraphernalia has been repurposed for beer. Nearby stands Jason Oliver, a 34-year-old in a black T-shirt that reads: Lord of the Beers.
As a half-dozen tan and trim patrons gather around him, Oliver pulls twelve-ounce beer bottles from a plastic tub of ice. He pours nips into the glasses. Above him an inflatable Chiefs helmet hangs from the ceiling. A blown-up racecar beside him advertises Winston cigarettes.
He begins the tasting by noting that one brew, Demolition, is a Belgian strong ale from Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, which is owned in part by Anheuser-Busch. The patrons pick up their samples, sniff, sip and swirl.
"What an aroma!" proclaims Roy Williams, a bespectacled man who baked a loaf of multigrain bread for everyone to munch on.
"It looks real dark, but it's not that heavy," adds a sunburned guy with a mane of long hair tucked behind his ears and who's wearing a T-shirt from a gardening service.
"I'll pick up a six-pack," one patron says before stomping off to the cooler.
Two and a half years ago, Oliver noticed a conundrum facing consumers. Liquor store shelves were filled with niche brands not available in most bars. But customers balked at spending $10 for a six-pack of untested ale. So Oliver started invite-only beer tastings by sending out e-mail blasts to customers who used store discount cards to buy microbrews. News spread by word of mouth. Today Oliver offers tastes of five beers. Over the next few hours, 125 people will stop by.
"I just want to expand people's beer," Oliver says.
These beer tastings, which are becoming increasingly popular, are aimed directly at Boulevard's key buyer, a group that liquor-store owners say constantly demands to try new things. Oliver says there's high demand for two other local products Flying Monkey and O'Malley's Irish Cream Ale as well as for Wheach, a wheat and peach beer made by O'Fallon Brewery.
"We have repeat customers for them. We have people coming in looking for them. There's times when we've been out of all of them," Oliver says.
Oliver offered Lunar at a tasting in April and says it's still hot among his cultured crowd. "In the last couple months it's slacked off a little bit, but all in all it's one of their better-selling ones, right behind the Wheat."
And Lunar has been selling so well at the Cellar Rat, another KC wine and beer shop, that owners there recently wheeled a flatbed cart loaded with cases to the front of the store so customers wouldn't have to wander far to find it. "We just bring it in and sell it," says Ryan Sciara, Cellar Rat's managing partner. "It blows [other beer sales] away. I sell more Lunar than probably anything right now."
This is exactly the sort of crowd John McDonald would like to tap. So Boulevard recently pushed its own retail-store party.
On July 12 a Boulevard rep pushed Boulevard products at a Gomer's outpost. Taylor Little, a summer marketing intern from the University of Missouri-Columbia, stood in front of a card table set with Boulevard pint glasses, promotional posters, catalogs and seven different styles, including Lunar.
Little proudly proclaimed Lunar his favorite. "The first time I tried it, I didn't like it at all. It kind of grew on me."
With the zeal of a street proselytizer, Little tried to encourage even the most unlikely store patrons to try Boulevard.
"What is that, a German beer?" screeched a tottering old woman who passed Little's table on her way to grab some Michelob. "I'm a Bud Light man," added a man in a security uniform. "What's your response to a low-carb beer?" asked another elderly woman with a sweater tied around her neck.
Kenneth Hill, a middle-aged guy in a camouflage T-shit and khaki shorts, stopped to try a sip of Pale Ale. "Shit don't taste like Miller," he said. "Is this an import? Which one tastes like American beer?"
Hill made a face like he might throw up. "Let me come back when I can get that taste out of my mouth. He moved on, scanning far aisles for a bottle of white zinfandel. "Ack! It's still there!" he shouted.
Ignoring the unenlightened, Boulevard is about to go even more gourmet. This fall the brewery will release the Smokestack Series, a line of four strong specialty brews. Symbolic of Boulevard's effort to target highbrow consumers, the new beers will come in 25.4-ounce, champagne-style bottles.
About 30 lawyers surround high-top tables in the wood-paneled, clubhouse-style back room of Kansas Citys Granfalloon Bar & Grill for a monthly meeting of the Kansas City chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association. Among them is Patrick Reavey, an Anderson Cooper look-alike. A self-proclaimed beer snob, Reavey is the kind of guy who would rather drink water than Miller Lite. When the waitress arrives, he is eager to order the same thing waiting for him in a six-pack at home, a Boulevard Pale Ale.
The waitress stops him. "We don't have Boulevard Pale Ale," says she.
He could have sworn he'd seen a waitresses float past with a few pints of the stuff on her serving tray, so Reavey tromps to the bar to investigate.
Sure enough, the only pale ale tap at the bar belongs to Schlafly. In late March Boulevard lost its Pale Ale handle at the bar to its cross-state rival.
But Boulevard will soon have a chance to win it back. On August 1 the Granfalloon will kick off a kind of I-70 series: Schlafly versus Boulevard.
The event will be held at the bar's two locations. Throughout the month patrons will compete in head-to-head drink-offs to see which brand's pale ale is more popular. Boulevard's distributor, Central States, will help provide I-70 Series banners, table tents and T-shirts for the bar staff.
David Colgan plans to bring in a new weapon for the brewery: Boulevard girls. The women, courtesy of their distributor, will offer free samples and Napoleon Dynamite-riffing "Vote for Pale Ale" stickers to sway the crowd.
Granfalloon manager Tim Caniglia hasn't promised which brewery will get the tap handle afterward. It's a win-win for his bar, whatever happens.
But Boulevard rep Colgan wonders if it's really good for his business. "It's a double-edged sword, a little bit, because we're going to promote their brand, too."
At the meeting of lawyers in July, Reavey decides he might as well order a Schlafly.
"I like the taste," he tells the guys around him. "It's good. Really good."
"Don't you want to support the local economy?" someone shouts over the laughter and clinking bar glasses. But Reavey reasons that his beer is a luxury good purchased on one standard: quality.
"If it tastes good, that's what I'm gonna buy," he concludes.
That sixer in the fridge back home? He's already thinking of replacing it.