With its Ripple venture, Boulevard Brewing sees the future through recycled glass 

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"Yeah!" The crowd roars back to life.

Three top executives from Boulevard are banking millions that they can make Kansas City as enthusiastic about recycling as they are about beer.


John McDonald is distracted.

Dressed in well-worn jeans and a collarless blue shirt, the founder and president of Boulevard Brewing Company skips the small talk on a casual Friday morning. As he strides to his office, he doesn't mention the high-tech features of Boulevard's top-of-the-line production facility and says nothing about the chic event space for wedding and receptions. No, he wants to boast about a small Belgian visitor.

Even the guy's name — Jean-Marie Rock — makes the gray-haired McDonald grin.

"You ever heard of Orval?" he asks.

In his office, which isn't much bigger than the average cubicle, he pulls a hardcover book from a shelf and settles on a page with a picture of a stone monastery. In two decades as a craft brewer, McDonald has traveled all over the world examining and admiring the creation of beer. The destination he's talking about is the Orval complex in southern Belgium, which looks like something from a fairy tale. Today, though, Rock has traveled from Europe — from Orval — to work with Boulevard's brewers. The goal: Craft a special concoction for the company's popular Smokestack Series. For McDonald, it's like a visit from the pope.

The timing is appropriate. November 17 marks the 20th anniversary of Boulevard, which traces its origin to the day that McDonald loaded a keg of Pale Ale into the back of his pickup truck and drove it two blocks to Ponak's Mexican Kitchen. Now it's the eighth-largest craft brewer in the nation, with a production facility that can pump out 700,000 barrels a year.

But McDonald doesn't dream of extending his reach. He wants to deepen his roots.

"What appealed to me most was to be a small, local and, hopefully one day, regional brewery," he says. "I wish we sold all the beer we make in the surrounding four or five states — that's the way it should be. In a perfect world, there would be 200 1-million-barrel breweries, all with regional ties. That makes more sense."

McDonald, then, isn't a bean-counting businessman or even a single-minded beer fanatic. He's taken by the history, the community, the full social context of the brewing industry. Even his office has the feel of a mini history exhibit.

On the top shelf, there's a small section of leatherbound journals. They were a gift, McDonald explains as he handles them gingerly. When he started the brewery, one of his first visitors was an elderly man, both of whose legs had been amputated at the knee, who took a taxi from his nursing home to the upstart Boulevard plant. After a few friendly encounters, Bob Werkowitch revealed to McDonald that he had been a master brewer for George Muehlebach Brewing Company, a Kansas City icon that produced local beer from 1868 until the company was sold to Schlitz in 1956.

"That's Bob," McDonald says, pointing to a framed picture of the Muehlebach crew that hangs over his desk.

That's not the only artifact from the old brewery. From his bookshelf, McDonald grasps with both hands a thick antique bottle imprinted with "Muehlebach" in raised lettering. "You can bet this was made in Kansas City," he says. "It went to the brewery, they filled it up, packed it in wooden crates with straw, and the only thing that was thrown away was the cork. And then it was returned to the brewery and refilled as many times until it was broken."

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