(On this date, September 27, 2019, the Osborne County Hall of Fame is pleased to present for the first time anywhere the last of the five members of the OCHF Class of 2019.)
In order to appreciate the following story, one needs to consider these facts about craft beer and microbreweries in America:
- Craft brewers are small brewers, as opposed to large well-known American brands such as Anheuser-Busch, Coors, or Miller.
- The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
- Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
- Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism and sponsorship of events.
- Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, being largely independent of outside corporate ownership.
- Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
- The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer.
In the latter 1970s interest in local specialized beers, or craft beers, emerged in America. Long an European tradition, craft breweries became popular in the 1980s as microbreweries and brewpubs sprang up across the country. Only a very few ever managed to stay in business for any length of time. That is what makes John McDonald’s story all the more remarkable.
John Reed McDonald was born in 1953 in Osborne, Osborne County, Kansas. Sandwiched between siblings Carrie and William, John was the second of the three children of Bill Ray and Mary Jean (Hoffman) McDonald. He grew up in Osborne and considered himself to be, as he puts it, “an average study, more interested in social endeavors and hunting quail than in books or formal learning.” John and his friends did all the things normal boys did in those days – played PeeWee baseball, joined the Boy Scouts, and was a member of the football, basketball, and golf teams in junior high and high school.
And drank beer.
John’s father indeed made, as John would later put it, “a little home brew which you know was more of a conversation piece than something good to drink.” In fact adding a little tomato juice to it helped to get the potent stuff down.
“I grew up in a small rural town in Kansas. Growing up in that small town, we drank beer. The whole age thing wasn’t a big deal. So by the time I went off to college in the ‘70s, drinking beer wasn’t really a big deal. It was just part of life.” – John McDonald, as quoted in the story John McDonald of Boulevard Brewing, heavytable.com, November 22, 2010.
In the summer following his junior year of high school John’s family moved to Wichita, Kansas. After high school graduation he followed in the family tradition and enrolled in the University of Kansas. “It’s interesting because when I was at KU I really didn’t drink a whole lot of beer,” McDonald later recalled. “I had already gotten that out of my system growing up in Western Kansas and I knew I was going to flunk out of school if I partied too much.”
John graduated from college in 1976 with a fine arts degree and was awarded the Lockwood Scholarship for his promise in the visual arts. John then spent several years traveling widely across Central and South America and taught for a time in Ecuador. When he returned to the United States John bought a home in Kansas City, Missouri and started his own construction business, earning a living for the next fifteen years as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. He became well known as a hard worker and a dedicated craftsman. In the early 1980s John married Anne L. Blumer. The couple has three children, Boulevard, Jake, and Piper.
It was when he and his wife won raffle tickets for a trip to Europe in 1984 that John’s eyes were opened to the vast number of beers available and the traditions small European brewers embraced. John and his wife traveled extensively throughout the great beer-making regions of Europe, and he fell in love with the idea of small breweries making flavorful beers in a variety of styles for a local or regional market.
“I just fell love with English ales,” he later recalled. “Then when we were in Paris, I stumbled across a Belgian beer bar. My wife would go to museums and I would go back to that bar every day. They had 400 different bottled beers from all of these different breweries. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is crazy interesting.’”
Returning to Kansas City, John took up homebrewing in his woodshop and was soon fascinated with the small brewery phenomenon that was then sweeping America, with microbreweries suddenly popping up all around the country. John decided that his interest in brewing was more serious than just a hobby and he put his career as a carpenter on hold.
“There was this guy that I was in art school with at college who ended up in the wine business. I was always enamored of the wine business, but he kept telling me that I ought to open a brewery. You couldn’t start a winery in Kansas City, but you could open a brewery.” – John McDonald.
It also occurred to him that having a degree in Fine Arts was beneficial as a business owner. The same qualities that made John a sought-after-carpenter made him a natural at brewing beer. He was a process kind of person, and making beer isn’t that different from painting and carpentry.
In the mid-eighties John started looking into starting a craft brewery, one that made spec. He visited a lot of breweries in the central Midwest, gathering ideas and making plans. John had a friend who was a writer and he helped him write the business plan. Raising the money needed to get going wasn’t easy. People kept wondering how he could possibly try to compete with that big brewery across the state in St. Louis. No, he kept telling them, he wanted to produce an entirely different kind of beer on a much smaller scale. For four years John met with dozens of bankers and a lot of disappointment. He even sold his house to raise money. By 1988 John had raised about $850,000 in capitalization, just enough money to start the brewery. By then he was living and working in an old brick building on Kansas City’s Southwest Boulevard that had once housed the laundry for the Santa Fe Railroad. John moved his carpentry shop to a corner and began to build a brewery, using second-hand equipment that included a vintage 35-barrel Bavarian brewhouse. The first keg of Boulevard Pale Ale Beer was produced in November 1989.
The story of Boulevard’s first sale is now legendary in Kansas City business circles: how on November 17, 1989, the first keg of Boulevard beer was sold to Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen, located just a few blocks from the brewery. John McDonald personally delivered that half-barrel of Pale Ale in his pickup truck. A handful of regulars looked on in amusement as the young upstart tapped the strange new brew. John’s product would do well at Ponak’s. But it was often tough going elsewhere.
“It was grim in the early days in the Midwest trying to sell a better beer. I remember once I went into this bar called the Twin City Tavern. It was a real classic tavern. I went in at like eleven in the morning and there were three guys in there all drinking their twelve-oz pilsner, probably Busch. No head on the beer, because that would be cheating them out of some of the beer. So our sales guy said, ‘You know what, guys, I’m gonna buy you a beer. This guy makes this beer just five or six blocks from here. He’s working his ass off. He’s out here delivering beer at eleven in the morning. You should try one of his beers.’ So the bartender poured them all a Pale Ale. It looked great. Had a nice head on it. One of the guys wouldn’t even try it. The other two guys took a little sip and then pushed the beer back across the bar to the owner. And then they didn’t say anything. So I went and picked up my little half-barrel keg. There were probably 20 full Busch kegs there. And as I was walking out the door one of the guys looked at me and said, ‘Young man, that is absolutely the worst beer I have ever had in my life.’ I ran out of there thinking, ‘What have I done? I’m gonna go broke.’” – John McDonald, John McDonald of Boulevard Brewing.
When Boulevard Beer opened its doors it instantly became the largest brewery in Kansas City. For the first year the brewery only produced draft beer. After a lot more cajoling and pleading for money, a small loan was finally secured to install a used bottling line so Boulevard could start bottling its own product.
The original business plan called for someday selling 6,000 barrels a year. By the third year sales passed 7,000 barrels, and continued to climb. For the timing was perfect. Boulevard was at the forefront of America’s taste switching from homogenous-tasting nationally distributed brews to Pre-prohibition style craft beers with a local identity.
When John built the brewery deep in the heart of a century-old urban neighborhood, he hadn’t worried about outgrowing it. But it had happened, and a new brewhouse was needed. This time around finding financing for the project was not a problem. In 2006 a $25 million expansion brought a new building with a 150-barrel brewhouse, packaging halls, offices and hospitality spaces. The addition of the new brewhouse increased the annual brewing capacity from about 140,000 barrels a year to almost 700,000 barrels a year.
Almost from inception, Boulevard has consistently been among the region’s fastest-growing companies. Boulevard grew in double digits every year since opening in 1989. The regional specialty brewery enjoys a strong reputation and an enviable market presence in its limited territory. Revenues for 2009, at $26.3 million, were up nearly 12-fold from 1994. About 35 percent of its sales are in the Kansas City market and 90 percent within a five-state area. One Boulevard beer, their unfiltered wheat, is the company’s most prolific product and accounts for more than 60 percent of their business.
John McDonald’s success has not gone unnoticed. In 2008 he was inducted into the Greater Kansas City Business Hall of Fame. And in 2012 Boulevard Brewing Co. was named the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year. At the time it was noted that Boulevard controlled more than 5 percent of the Kansas City-area beer market, with 40 percent of its beer being sold locally. Boulevard reported 2011 revenue of $32.01 million, up 11.2 percent from 2010. In presenting the award Jim Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, observed the following: “John exemplifies the three qualities needed by every successful entrepreneur — passion for what he wanted to accomplish, extreme attention to detail and remarkable perseverance. Plus, John is someone who does a lot for the community in which he lives.”
John, along with other Boulevard colleagues, founded Ripple Glass in 2009 as a response to Kansas Citians throwing away some 150 million pounds of glass annually, 10 million of which were Boulevard bottles. They built a $4 million state-of-the-art processing facility that took glass recycling from around 3,000 tons a year to up to 18,000 tons a year. Since then, Ripple Glass has transformed the way Kansas City recycles: in just six years, Ripple Glass converted Kansas City’s glass recycling rate from just 3% to over 20%. All of Boulevard’s beer is now bottled with recycled glass.
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A Letter from Boulevard Brewing founder, John McDonald
(Kansas City, Missouri) – Boulevard Brewing Company founder, John McDonald released a statement on Thursday regarding the sale of his majority stake in the company to Duvel Moortgat.
October 17, 2013
Almost 30 years ago, I was fortunate to spend time traveling around Europe with my wife, Anne Blumer. In each city I visited, one of my favorite adventures was trying different beers. I sipped bitter ales in England, spent my days in Munich drinking pilsners and wheat beers, but it was in Paris, in a Belgian beer bar, that I truly fell in love.
I will never forget the day. I walked into the pub, ordered a Belgian ale, and experienced what I can only describe as an epiphany. The beer was brilliant in color, with intensely floral aromas and a flavor bursting with joyous complexity. I went back day after day, sampling a wide array of amazing beers, and was hooked for life.
Last winter my wife and I returned to that same Parisian pub, and the memory of that long-ago experience flooded my senses. It has been many years since that fateful encounter started me on the path to brewing my own beer and founding Boulevard Brewing Company. At the outset, my goal was to make a beer as extraordinary as the Belgian ales I had so fortuitously discovered. With the help of my parents Bill and Mary and my wife Anne, Boulevard has grown into one of the largest craft breweries in the country, and my dream has become a reality. While I always say I don’t have a favorite Boulevard beer, I must admit that some of the Belgian ales in our lineup are as exciting to me as those beers I first tasted in Paris all those years ago.
I have long felt as though I have three children: Boulevard, born in 1989, Jake, in 1990, and Piper, in 1992. I’m not getting any younger, and the long-term future of the brewery has weighed on my mind for the past several years. After long discussions with my family, we determined that we wanted to find a way to take Boulevard to the next level while retaining its essence, its people, its personality – all the characteristics that make our beer and our brewery so important to Kansas City and the Midwest.
I am honored and humbled to announce that I have chosen Duvel Moortgat as the long-term partner for Boulevard. An independent, family-owned craft brewer spanning four generations, Duvel Moortgat produces world-class beers at several breweries in Belgium, and owns and operates Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. They bring to us an unparalleled depth of experience, strong resources, and an unwavering devotion to quality. Duvel Moortgat is committed to our people, to the expansion of our Kansas City brewery, and to growing Boulevard brands throughout the US and abroad. After spending a lot of time getting to know the company and its people, I am confident this is the right decision. We share the same values, respect each other’s achievements, and have the same obsession for exceptional beers.
Be assured that this is not goodbye. Although Boulevard is combining with Duvel Moortgat, I will remain closely involved, with a continuing stake in the business and a seat on the board. My commitment to sustainability initiatives will continue, as will Boulevard’s support of Ripple Glass, the glass recycling company I co-founded.
For now, all I can say is thank you. Thank you for making the last 24 years an amazing journey for me and the entire Boulevard family. We will continue to work hard to produce great beers, and to give back to the community. Ultimately, I am determined to make Kansas City even more proud of its hometown brewery, and our dedicated supporters delighted to raise a glass of Boulevard beer.
Cheers, John McDonald
Posted by Adam Nason
October 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm
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Boulevard Brewing Company is now the largest craft brewery in the Midwest and the 12th largest craft brewery in the United States. It employees 125 people and is known both for its quality of product and its commitment to being an environmentally friendly company. In 2017 its products were sold in 41 states and the District of Columbia, along with a global distribution in the following countries: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Outside of Boulevard and Ripple Glass, John has managed to keep himself otherwise occupied. He has led in the redevelopment of Kansas City’s East Bottoms area and serves on the Board of Directors of the Greater Kansas City Chamber Of Commerce.
John McDonald has come a long way from his days growing up in Osborne County, Kansas, and we look forward to watching his life’s tale continue to unfold, only now as a member of the Osborne County Hall of Fame.
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Osborne County Farmer newspaper, October 26, 1961; July 29, 1965; August 26, 1965; November 4, 1965; June 30, 1966; November 3, 1966; July 6, 1967; August 3, 1967; September 28, 1967; November 30, 1967; June 27, 1968; July 25, 1968; September 19, 1968; December 18, 1969; May 7, 1970.
Osborne High School, Osborne, Kansas, Swan Song Yearbook, 1968.
Osborne High School, Osborne, Kansas, Swan Song Yearbook, 1969.
Osborne High School, Osborne, Kansas, Swan Song Yearbook, 1970.
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Nason, Adam, “A Letter from Boulevard Brewing founder, John McDonald”. beerpulse.com, October 17, 2013. http://beerpulse.com/2013/10/a-letter-from-boulevard-brewing-founder-john-mcdonald-1643/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=
Staff, “Boulevard Brewing Co. and Duvel Moortgat USA to Combine.” All About Beer Magazine, October 17, 2013. http://allaboutbeer.com/daily-pint/whas-brewing-co-and-duvel-moortgat-usa-to-combine/
Strom, Stephanie, “An Ale Admired, Now Owned”. New York Times, October 17, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/business/belgian-brewery-buys-boulevard-a-us-craft-beer-maker.html?_r=0
“Profile: John McDonald”. https://www.boulevard.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2017-John-McDonald.pdf