“I was a hydro-ceramic engineer,” Thompson says of his first job, as a dishwasher at the Free State Brewery in Lawrence. “But it was just about getting in the door because the response to the brewery opening was crazy. It was packed since they opened.”
Thompson remembers the early days of Free State while sitting just feet from his own brewhouse at McCoy’s — where he has been the brewer since 1997. His feet are clad in rubber wading boots, and the floor is slick from being hosed down. The life of a brewer is not that different from that of a dishwasher. It requires a fanatical commitment to cleanliness. And in Thompson’s case, both have allowed him access to one of his life’s great passions: beer.
The 1989 opening of the Free State Brewery was monumental. That is not an overstatement. It was the first post-Prohibition brewery in Kansas, and it paved the way for the resurgence of craft beer in the area. It also started Thompson down an unexpected career path.
He was a junior at the University of Kansas when he started working at Free State, spending his off hours talking to the brewers and attempting to wheedle his way into the brewhouse. It was then that he began home-brewing, producing a first batch that he hoped would be super hoppy. Instead, he says, it came out “tasting like green tea.” He had more success at the commercial brewery. Thompson was studying environmental science and biology, and the nuances of brewing appealed to him.
“It was a perfect match," he says. "I thought, This is what I’m going to do and, to my parents’ chagrin, pursue as a career."
A year after 75th Street Brewery opened, in 1993, Thompson was hired as a server there, waiting tables as he waited for an opening in the brewhouse.
“Breweries have worked the same way for almost 20 years. Every assistant I’ve ever had has worked here [McCoy’s] in some other capacity,” he says.
His early days as an assistant were spent washing kegs and cleaning out lines. It paid $5 an hour and was backbreaking work in a humid basement — and he loved it. As he began to understand how the ingredients worked together, Thompson was tasked with filtering and conditioning the beer. At the tail end of 1994, he helped open a Barley’s Brewhaus outpost in downtown Topeka. He spent the next year shuttling back and forth between Lawrence and Topeka, learning what it took to start a brewery from scratch.
When he returned to Kansas City, big changes were afoot in the local beer scene. KC Hopps, the parent company of 75th Street and Barley’s, had acquired the space at 4057 Pennsylvania previously occupied by the Westport Brewing Co. McCoy’s opened in 1997, with Thompson as the brewer, and he wanted to push the palates of drinkers with the opening lineup, which included Hog Pound Brown Ale, Landing Light Lager, Newcomb’s I.P.A., and the restaurant’s house-made root beer.
“IPA was seen as too aggressive a style for this neighborhood. But it’s been our No. 1 seller to date,” Thompson says.
Still, it took time to develop the McCoy’s brand. Thompson remembers hiding bottled Budweiser (which was sold at the bar) in the back of the icehouse.
“All it did was take up room in my cooler and ruin my perfect dream," he says. "I used to hide it in back until the bottoms fell out."
The success of his early brews allowed him to experiment, answering the market craze for Zima with a Ginger Shandy, now made with fresh ginger peeled by brewer Tobias Case and then run through a Jack LaLanne juicer. That same spirit drives a new collection of coffee beers (made by running the beer through whole espresso beans and cold-pressed coffee), thanks to a new partnership with Brian Phillips, head roaster at the Broadway Roasting Co.
While the craft-beer movement has flourished over the past decade, Thompson has been disappointed that more local breweries have failed to find a footing in Kansas City. Still, he sees the glass as half-full for those willing to take the leap.
“If you have the passion and the dollar bills, go for it,” Thompson says. “This town is so thirsty for it.”