Chocolate beer for Valentine's Day: Kansas City falls in love
It was the beer that drove Kansas City crazy.
The storefront signs, plastered all over town on handwritten scraps of notebook paper or on sidewalk chalkboards, came in two stages this week. First was: WE DO NOT HAVE ANY BOULEVARD CHOCOLATE ALE YET. In most cases, they were followed hours later by: WE ARE OUT OF BOULEVARD CHOCOLATE ALE.
The Boulevard Brewing Co., whose famous smokestack-topped brewery is in Kansas City, Mo., teamed up with local chocolatier Christopher Elbow to create the Chocolate Ale specially for Valentine’s Day. Although it’s not unusual for beer companies to be closely tied to the cities in which they’re based, the ensuing mania seems to be a phenomenon bred purely out of the nature of today’s smaller-scale era of beer-making.
Kansas City TV stations ran footage of lines outside liquor stores Tuesday as Kansas Citians waited for the arrival of beer trucks; Jason Bent, a producer for local ABC affiliate KMBC 9, reported that one store sold out its entire stock in 3 minutes despite a limit of four bottles per person. The Kansas City Business Journal reported rumors that some residents were starting to drive out of state to find bottles.
The company produced just 20,000 gallons of the ale, offering it in 750-milliliter bottles that sold for $8 to $12 each. But last year, when the company’s much smaller initial offering took off, some people reported buying bottles for $100 on EBay, so this year there was reason to get in line.
Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune declared it “beer of the month”: “Chocolate Ale might be a gimmick, but it's a deft gimmick worth drinking a couple of times a year.”
Other reviews were more muted, and the arrival of another shortage this year inspired conspiracy theories that Boulevard made too little on purpose to drive up demand. “This is categorically false,” the company announced on its blog.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Star columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah grouched at what he saw as hype, declaring, “Folks, it’s only beer.”
Regardless of whether the beer’s any good, the frenzy is a coup for the Boulevard Brewing Co., a local darling whose rise on the national scene has been contrasted by the slow diminution of cross-state giant Anheuser-Busch.
Anheuser-Busch’s close fusion with the civic identity of St. Louis has been complicated in recent years by the company’s acquisition by, and subsequent layoffs from, Belgian-based InBev. The implications of local pride and the politics of globalization weren’t lost on Boulevard in Kansas City, which now markets itself as "Missouri's largest independent brewery" and last year sponsored the commissioning of the Virginia-class submarine Missouri.
It’s microbreweries like Boulevard that have challenged Anheuser-Busch’s domination on the beer market in recent years. So when a local beer makes the locals act a little crazy, it’s also a sign that the little brothers of small-time beermaking keep growing bigger and bigger.
On its company blog, Boulevard freely lauded the genius of its creation as one reason to explain the Chocolate Ale’s popularity, but also admitted there had been some hype, and hazarded another guess with a bit of a shrug. “A more likely answer, and one we may have underestimated: Kansas Citians really love products made in Kansas City.”
-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City, Mo.
Video: Last year's frenzy (as described in the video) may have stoked this year's frenzy for Boulevard Brewing's Chocolate Ale. Bottles reportedly went for $100 on EBay last year. Credit: YouTube