Kansas City loves its history. In the early 1900s, booze flowed so freely that one section of its West Bottoms industrial district earned notoriety as the “wettest block in the world.” That party continued through Prohibition, with Count Basie providing the soundtrack and with enough sin (or culture, depending on your view) for the city to be dubbed the Paris of the Plains.
For years, it was just that, though—history. Kansas City’s core faltered as diners and drinkers fled to the suburbs. But something happened around the turn of the new century. A new generation of chefs and bartenders appeared, fueled by their passion for fresh, seasonal ingredients and a re-emerging urban culture. The Roasterie began selling specialty coffees roasted right downtown, and Boulevard Brewing opened on a forgotten stretch of Southwest Boulevard.
And now? Everyone knows everyone in this metro of just over 2 million, and explosive cross-pollination among bartenders, brewers, roasters and soda makers has cultivated a drinks scene that belies Kansas City’s modest Midwestern demeanor. “This is the biggest damn small town ever,” says Eddie Crane, owner of The Drop bar and bistro.
Sitting at Justus Drugstore’s bar in Smithville, Missouri, about 20 minutes north of downtown Kansas City, you can’t help channeling the pharmacy it once was. Jars and bottles line the old soda fountain counter, filled with potions like smoked honey and sage liqueur, persimmon gin and “Yellowish-Green,” bartender Chris Conatser’s answer to green Chartreuse.
Conatser happily recounts his three-year quest to extract aroma from black locust blossoms, describes the chrysanthemum pu-erh tea in his autumn leaf bitters and explains how methyl anthranilate gives Concord grapes their unique flavor.
This is hardcore cocktail geekiness, but he can’t help himself. Conatser is a botanist by training, forager at heart and bartender by trade. If it grows wild or on a Missouri farm, it goes into his cocktails. The result? Hyper-local drinks with as many housemade ingredients as possible. “We’ve gone down the rabbit hole,” admits Conatser.
He’s not alone. Take Extra Virgin, a tapas restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District. About a year ago, bar manager Berto Santoro bought some empty barrels from Tuthilltown Spirits and set about aging Manhattans. They proved so popular that he filled more barrels with Negronis and Brazilian Sidecars, a mixture of cachaça, Cointreau, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, lemon bitters and black tea that’s aged for two months and then shaken with agave nectar and lemon juice.
It’s cool to crack a barrel at the bar, but cool’s not enough, Santoro says. It has to taste good. “The craft cocktail scene is exploding, but the standard is really high,” Santoro says.
Authenticity counts, says Scott Beskow, the bar manager at Grünauer, an Austrian restaurant in the Freight House District. The menu’s teeming with Grüner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch wines, Stiegl lager and Julius Meinl coffee. But Austrian cocktails? They don’t exist.
So Beskow adapts classics to fit the region’s cuisine. The Der Schmutzige is a made with black pepper and mustard-infused vodka, beet brine, dill pickle water and Frank’s Kraut juice, while the Flüssiger Strudel combines leftover strudel syrup with dark rum.
But perhaps there’s no more passionate champion of Kansas City’s cocktail culture than Ryan Maybee, who helped launch both the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition (which will this year expand into the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival) and the Kansas City Bartenders’ Alliance. He also heads the bars at The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Manifesto in the Crossroads.
Maybee opened the 48-seat Manifesto in 2009, only to shutter it about a year later when the restaurant with which it shared an address closed. Instead of relocating, he partnered with chef Howard Hanna to reopen both in 2011.
Hanna oversees The Rieger’s regionally focused cuisine, while Maybee keeps the drinks flowing. Upstairs, that means food-friendly cocktails made with ingredients like house tonic, kola, soda, bitters, infusions and gomme syrups. Downstairs, it’s Manifesto, its unmarked entrance and narrow staircase a nod to the neighborhood’s storied Prohibition-era past.
Manifesto’s cocktail menu includes reinterpreted classics like the Smokin’ Choke, made with applewood-smoked Four Roses Yellow Bourbon, Cynar, maple syrup and Peychaud’s bitters—an Old Fashioned riff that’s earned national accolades since appearing on the bar’s first menu. Others are newer, like the Port Fonda, which combines tequila with cucumber, tomatillos, cilantro and Serrano peppers. It’s named for the Airstream trailer that parks in The Rieger’s lot on weekend nights, where chef Patrick Ryan serves tacos and chilaquiles that transcend their Mexcian street food origins. Guests often slip into the bar beforehand to sample one of Manifesto’s mezcal flights.
Anyone wanting a mini-course in Oaxacan culture, mezcal production or mixology can get that too. But Manifesto and The Rieger are more about creating memorable, pleasurable experiences than delivering drink dogma, Maybee says. “If you take bartending too seriously, you alienate people,” says Maybee. “Being a bartender is first and foremost about hospitality.”
A Taste for Beer
Cocktails aside, Kansas City is a serious beer town. And the fact that there are so many craft labels to indulge in is largely thanks to Boulevard Brewing. John McDonald founded Boulevard in 1989. It’s now the Midwest’s largest specialty brewer, turning out 160,000 barrels a year. That said, it’s easy to forget craft beer wasn’t always so popular in Kansas City, says brewmaster Steven Pauwels. “We had to convince people that a beer that’s hazy or cloudy isn’t bad,” says Pauwels, a Belgian-born, second-generation brewer.
Boulevard’s unfiltered wheat is a hometown favorite, and its pale ale and Saison-Brett won gold medals at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival. And then there’s the Smokestack Series—big beers like Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale; Rye-on-Rye, aged in used Templeton bourbon barrels; and Collaboration #2, a white IPA Pauwels teamed up with Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery to make.
Still, Boulevard was surprised last year when its Chocolate Ale, created with artisanal chocolate maker Christopher Elbow, sold out locally within a week of its February release. That was good news for Dallas Gutschenritter, co-owner of the Riot Room, a music venue in Westport. He cellared a keg and then tapped it in April during his “Spring Cleaning Cellar Blowout” of rare beers. “People thought we’d lost our minds,” Gutschenritter says. “But I’m dedicated to bands and beer.”
The Riot Room’s circular bar is packed with five beer towers, including a pink Delirium tap and a Gulden Draak dragon, for a total of 53 draught beers and another 30 or so in bottles. It’s the kind of place where hip-hop fans clutch tulip glasses of Great Divide Brewing’s Yeti Imperial Stout, fashionable young women trade sips of Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale and suburbanites order Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, all while listening to metal, jazz, soul, rock, ska or whatever is onstage.
Elsewhere, Swagger in south Kansas City sports a 200-plus beer list, while Waldo Pizza’s tap room offers around 20 draughts and more than a hundred bottles. Grinders, known for its “taste beerings” in the Crossroads, stocks almost as many.
It’s not just a numbers game, though, says Josh Eans, a former chef and partner at Blanc Burgers + Bottles, which has two locations in Kansas City and one in Nebraska. Finding the strong, sour and strange is getting easier as more European and American brewers dive into the market. “Right now is prime time to be a beer geek in Kansas City,” says Randyl Danner, the beer manager for Beer KC.
The company owns McCoy’s Public House, The Foundry and the Beer Kitchen, all within a half-block of each other in Westport. That simplifies coordination of the company’s Strong Ale Festival in November and the Craft Beer Festival in June, and puts McCoy’s within strolling distance of a regular collaborator—the Broadway Café & Roastery. “We were drinking a lot of their beer, and they were drinking our coffee,” says Broadway’s head roaster Brian Phillips, who helped develop McCoy’s Broadway Toddy Stout and Toddy Porter. “So, why not?”
Sara Honan opened Broadway Café in 1992, back when espresso machines were few and far between in Kansas City. When a Starbucks moved into an adjacent storefront six years later, her loyal following ignored it. After a decade, the giant closed its corner location, yet Broadway remains. “Our goal was to set the standard for good coffee,” says co-owner Jon Cates, who oversees the roasting operation in a renovated fire station two blocks from the café. “If you go to any city and come back here, the worst shop in Kansas City is as good as the best shop somewhere else.”
That’s because competition helps everyone, says Danny O’Neill, who founded The Roasterie in 1993. It’s now Kansas City’s biggest wholesale specialty coffee roaster, with a multi-million-dollar expansion in the works and two coffeehouses of its own.
Local roasters share a commitment to quality specialty coffee, but they’re otherwise a diverse crowd. There’s the philanthropic: Habte Mesfin of Revocup in Overland Park, who specializes in single-origin coffees and roasts in the wee hours so he can pull shots during the day. He also donates 10 cents from each cup to the Revocup Coffee Foundation, a non-profit Mesfin started to provide books to libraries in his native Ethiopia.
There’s also the community-minded: Ben Helt, who opened Benetti’s Coffee Experience in the suburb of Raytown, rather than flee to sexier parts of the metro. The café roasts its own coffee, features ristretto-style drinks and even has a mug club for demitasse drinkers.
Helt knows some of his neighborhood regulars prefer caramel mocha lattes to double shots. He just figures he can do both without sacrificing quality. “People who are in love with coffee culture often devalue the Midwestern palate,” Helt says. “They think people won’t notice, so they do the music and the bookshelves, but they don’t do awesome coffee.”
And like most cities these days, there’s the mobile: Brian “Stubbie” Jurgens, a self-described extreme hobbyist who turned pro in 2009 and founded the E.F. Hobbs Specialty Coffee roastery. He renovated an old laundry service van and hit the streets, parking outside offices and at events like First Fridays in the Crossroads and selling drinks made from his own beans and cupcakes from Renee Kloeblen’s Takes The Cake Bakery. “Sometimes I feel like a carnival barker,” Jurgens says, “but I want people to come over and have a fabulous cup of coffee.”
PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., in nearby Topeka, Kansas, did it the other way around. PT’s began with a single coffee shop in 1993, became a wholesale roaster four years later and now regularly racks up awards for its small-lot coffees.
At Oddly Correct in Westport, nano-roaster Gregory Kolsto processes tiny 11-pound batches of coffee beans mere steps from the counter where he serves pour-overs. During lulls, Kolsto talks performance schedules with other musicians, prints labels on his letterpress or plays with his kids. A former roaster for Krispy Kreme Donuts and Kansas City wholesaler Parisi Artisan Coffee, “I know what it looks like to be big,” Kolsto says. “I want to be small.”
Some of Kansas City’s top coffeehouses, like LattéLand’s seven locations or The Filling Station “coffee garage” in Union Hill, don’t roast at all. But they still make an impact, as 100 ticket holders learned during a one-day, four-bus, 11-stop Caffeine Crawl in September. Another 250 turned out for the free “Home Roaster Roundup” and after-party at Benetti’s, says organizer Jason Burton of The LAB, a local specialty beverage marketer.
Anyone who needed a break from the buzz had only to reach for Kansas City’s newest cult favorites, the naturally brewed SodaVie sodas. Sean Henry and Benjamin Topel launched their line of “live” sodas in 2010. Their hand-filled, cobalt blue bottles are just as readily found at farmers’ markets and events like the opening of the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts downtown as they are in specialty stores; soon they’ll be available in Southern California, too.
It’s all about curiosity and an appreciation for quality, says Doug Frost, a wine and spirits writer and educator who is both a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. If that marks Kansas City as small-town, so be it. “We know we don’t know everything,” says Frost. “It’s part of what makes this culture interesting.”