Squinting toward a row of eight tap handles, the guys have no idea that they're in the middle of a bar fight.
The fight card is 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 amount of 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, blond bartender with purple nail polish, has poured more than 17 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 company'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.
The jovial men lean forward, eyeballing their options for another round. The tap handles in front of 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 swill 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 Pavlich sips and pauses. "I don't like it," he declares.
Jim Pavlich 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 across the metro. 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 drinkers. "It's ubiquitous in American life," McDonald says.
McDonald is more interested in what he calls "real beer drinkers." Like members of a poor man's wine club, these drinkers sip for taste. They distinguish subtle aromas and flavors in a beer like Lunar.
At the Cashew, the only "real beer drinkers" appear to be a crew in their early 30s 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, sunburned Fat Tire, mud-puddle-colored Guinness.
Koch notices for the first time that Lunar is on tap. He decides to order one. Adams cautions against it. He tells Koch that 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 says. 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 retraining taste buds. In 1989, believing that Kansas City was suffering from light-beer fatigue, he launched his brewery with a more robust choice, Pale Ale. In 1992, he introduced Unfiltered Wheat. The Wheat now makes up more than half of Boulevard's business; it has helped the company become the fifth-largest specialty brewery in the nation. Boulevard has colonized an 11-state territory that stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas and from Indiana to Kansas.
In August 2006, Boulevard completed a $25 million expansion to its facility off Southwest Boulevard, ramping up production from the equivalent of 38 million bottles of beer a year to as much as 46 million in 2007.
When Boulevard opened the new building, it also launched Lunar. The expansion and the new beer should have signaled good times for the brewer. Until Lunar, the hometown company 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 from similar beers that have hit the Kansas City market in recent years. The onslaught includes the products of major companies, such as the Coors-made Blue Moon, and smaller breweries such as St. Louis' Schlafly. All of them are now vying for Boulevard's coveted tap handles and store cooler space.
Meanwhile, 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 local beer drinkers buy microbrews, Boulevard represents just 4 percent of local beer sales. To grow, the company needs to convert social drinkers.
McDonald admits that Lunar is "an acquired taste." He says he made the beer that 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."
Now he just has to get you used to what he's selling.
Boulevard sales rep David Colgan bounces into O'Dowd's Little Dublin on the Plaza with a hint of Pale Ale on his breath. He has just finished lunch at One80, where he drank a beer strictly for business.
"The average businessman wants to drink beer at lunch," he says. "If I order a beer, maybe it will make that guy feel more comfortable and he'll order one, too." His goal is to create what he calls a "cultural experience" with the brand. It's a good strategy, but Colgan admits that he has gained 10-15 pounds in the last year, primarily from drinking beer with lunch.
Still, he envisions himself as a personification of Boulevard. Everything about his look — the baby-blue waffle-weave polo shirt 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 keeps the laid-back vibe of a guy on the hunt for the next party. Born in Ireland, Colgan has an accent that sounds ideal for a beer salesman. "It's about being around when it 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. The introduction of a new variety wasn't supposed to hurt the profit margins of other Boulevard beers. Most bars that stock Boulevard already have at least two tap handles pouring Wheat and Pale Ale. Bars might also assign Boulevard an extra tap for seasonal beers such as 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, Sullivan says. That makes it the company's third-most-popular beer but still far behind Pale Ale's 27 percent share.
But 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. Worse, O'Dowd's put Lunar on tap but pulled Pale Ale, hurting Boulevard's sales.
Colgan asks a blond barkeep to fetch a manager. 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," Colgan says.
"If we put it back on, we pull Lunar off," Schneider says. "That was the plan, to pull Lunar off anyway."
"Well, don't do that," Colgan says. "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 managers there thought the demand wouldn't warrant it. The Granfalloon put the beer on tap at its Northland location, but the bar is about to pull it off.
At the Velvet Dog on Martini Corner, server Katie White puffs on a cigarette before a recent 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 each week. "It's gross," she says. "People miss the High Life."
And Lunar has been all but thrown out of Kauffman Stadium. Originally available in bottles and drafts at five locations around the ballpark, it is now being sold only on tap from just one stand and in bottles in two spots.
"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 their sales. "It's not a style of beer that competes with anything we produce," says Scott Poore, the state sales manager for New Belgium.
As Colgan leaves O'Dowd's empty-handed, he acknowledges: "You're gonna get fucked. You just have to suck it up."
Many brands are looking to take advantage of Boulevard getting fucked.
Jon Poteet is director of marketing for Boulevard's distributor, Central States Beverage Company. Poteet 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' year-to-date sales in the Kansas City area are up 26 percent over this time last year. Leinenkugel, owned by Miller, has seen a sales leap of 75 percent the first half of 2007. Blue Moon, manufactured by Coors, has more than doubled its sales in the market, with 113 percent growth 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 that of Sam Adams, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel 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, the western Missouri salesman for St. Louis-based Schlafly Beer, rolls through midtown Kansas City. The boxy Dodge Sprinter 2500 is painted with pint glasses and Schlafly's company slogan, "The Craft Beer From America's 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 the company calls "the drinking holidays." If a bar owner wants a different style lager or flavored ale, chances are Schlafly offers it.
Until 2005, Schlafly focused on building a presence within a 100-mile radius of the Arch. Since then, it has expanded its reach to Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Briggs was hired last September.
One of the biggest hurdles for Briggs is teaching bar owners how to pronounce Schlafly. For the record, it's shlaff-lee. And 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 home, 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 offers the assistant manager a neon Schlafly sign to put up next to a Golden T game 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.
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 that he'll consider the offer.
Briggs heads downtown to Paddy O'Quigley's and drops 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, the 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.
Briggs swallows his pride and nods. Comparing beer to Smirnoff makes beer geeks cringe, but he knows that plenty of women are drawn to what he calls "fruity-type drinks."
A week later, Monaco calls Briggs to tell him that Schlafly's Raspberry will replace Lunar. Next, Briggs learns that 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 in Lee's Summit at The Peanut and Habanero's Mexican Restaurant. Clancy's Café & Pub agrees to replace a Lunar tap with Schlafly's No. 15 wheat.
Briggs 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 claims that 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 June 27, that rhetoric sounds like a setup for a surprise attack.
Schlafly is 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 brew pub 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 Boulevard.
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 5-foot pyramid of empty Schlafly six-packs, adorned with plastic, logo pint glasses and coasters. In a corner nearby is Briggs, offering samples of seven ales.
Briggs looks up to see McDonald, the baron of Kansas City beer. Briggs notices that he is running out of everything except wheat and pale ale, the Schlafly flavors 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 wrap-around bar inside Gomer's in 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 12-ounce beer bottles from a plastic tub of ice. He pours nips into the glasses. Above him is an inflatable Chiefs helmet hanging from the ceiling; a blown-up race car next to him advertises Winston cigarettes.
He begins the tasting by noting that one brew, named Demolition, is a Belgian strong ale by 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!" says Roy Williams, a bespectacled man who brought a home-baked 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.
"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 invitation-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. The same thing is happening at liquor stores all over the metro.
"I just want to expand people's beer," Oliver says.
These beer tastings are aimed directly at Boulevard's key buyer, a group that liquor-store owners say constantly demands new tastes. Oliver says there's high demand for Olathe's Flying Monkey; Weston's O'Malley's Irish Cream Ale; and O'Fallon's Wheach, a wheat-and-peach beer made just outside St. Louis.
"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 offered Lunar in a tasting in April. He 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, a wine and beer shop at 17th Street and Baltimore, that owners there recently wheeled a flatbed cart loaded with cases to the front of the store so that 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. "I sell more Lunar than probably anything right now."
This is exactly the sort of real-beer-drinker crowd that McDonald would like to tap. So Boulevard recently pushed its own retail-store party.
On July 12, a Boulevard rep gave out samples of Boulevard products at the Gomer's near 99th Street and Holmes. 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 of the company's beers, 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."
Like a street proselytizer willing to turn anyone on to Jesus, Little tried to encourage even the most unlikely store patrons to try Boulevard.
"What is that, a German beer?" asked 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 man in a camouflage T-shirt 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, Boulevard 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.
On July 13, about 30 lawyers surround high-top tables in the clubhouse-style back room of the Granfalloon 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 who settles onto his bar stool. A self-proclaimed beer snob, Reavey is the kind of guy who would rather drink water than Miller Lite. He is eager to order the same thing that's waiting for him in a six-pack at home, a Boulevard Pale Ale.
The waitress stops him. "We don't have Boulevard Pale Ale," she says.
Reavey tromps to the bar to investigate. He finds that the only pale ale handle at the bar belongs to Schlafly. In late March, Boulevard lost its Pale Ale tap at the Granfalloon to its cross-state rival.
But Boulevard will soon have a chance to win it back. On August 1, the Granfalloon kicked off a kind of I-70 series: Schlafly versus Boulevard.
The event is being held at the Plaza and Northland 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. Boulevard rep Colgan plans to bring in a new weapon for the brewery: "Boulevard girls." The women, provided by Boulevard's distributor, will offer free samples and "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.
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, Reavey decides he might as well order a Schlafly.
"I like the taste," he tells the men 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. Reavey decides that his beer is a luxury good purchased on one standard: quality.
"If it tastes good, that's what I'm gonna buy," he says.
That sixer in the fridge back home? He's already thinking of replacing it.