Kansas City’s beverage industry origins: spirits, wine, coffee, and beer

Picture of Broadway Cafe sign

Cheers to 30 years. | Photo by @broadwayroasting

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As Drink Up Week continues in Kansas City, we felt it was only right to pay tribute to the local origins of four major drink industries: spirits, wine, beer, and coffee. Grab a glass of whatever, and sip along with us.

Spirits

Regional distilling boils down to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, where they discovered a limestone spring near Weston, MO. The natural water source had stagecoach + freight magnate Ben Holladay gushing — thanks to the money he could make supplying whiskey to westward travelers. In 1856, he established what’s now the oldest continuously operating distillery in Missouri (thanks to “medicinal alcohol” during Prohibition).

By 1950, the Holladay still was the only one operating in Missouri. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that craft distilleries started making a comeback, including J. Rieger & Co. in 2014 + Tom’s Town in 2016.

Lewis and Clark mural

Who would have thought Missouri River exploration would yield such delicious results? | Photo by KCtoday

Wine

California who? Before Napa Valley was the winemaker’s wish upon a star, Kansas and Missouri led the nation’s wine industry in production. We’re not joking. German immigrant farmers settled along the Missouri River in 1837, where they found out that Midwest soil is actually prime for grape growing. Kansas farmers produced hundreds of thousands of gallons a year by the latter half of the 1800s.

In 1880, Kansas amended its constitution to outlaw recreational alcohol, predating national Prohibition by four decades. The state hung on until 1948, but it wasn’t until 1985 that Kansas allowed farm wineries. By 2010, wine production had increased back up to 107,419 gallons.

Coffee

It’s hard to imagine a world without your corner café (especially if you’re a darn Millennial like me). However, KC’s craft coffee didn’t begin to percolate until 1992, when Sara Honan and Jon Cates opened Broadway Cafeat 4106 Broadway Blvd. in Westport.

Using KC-roasted beans + fancy latte art, they quickly attracted a crowd that preferred them over the nearby Starbucks. Jon later said that was the first Starbucks location to close in the nation. However, the two businesses together brewed up a local love of coffee shops that has bean growing ever since.

Beer

We know all about Boulevard Brewing Co. (and we’ll get back to that), but Kansas City beer was bubbling long before John McDonald sold his first keg. Breweries in the Heart of America date back to the mid-1800s, with Main Street Brewery (1866) and Muehlebach Brewing Company (1869). Bigger names like Heim Brewing Company and Pabst Blue Ribbon came along in the early 1900s before Prohibition, decimating most of the local industry. George Muehlebach was able to reopen afterward, but his company was bought by Wisconsin-based Schlitz Brewing Co., which was just one of many acquisitions happening at the time.

So the mid-1900s was a dark time for local beer, but then we get to 1988 when John McDonald registered Boulevard Brewing Company. He released his first keg the next year, tapping it dry in one night. Popularity grew, KC real estate was cheap, and craft beer flourished.

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