Boulevard Brewing Company will mark its 30th anniversary this year, and Missouri Business Alert spoke with founder John McDonald to catch up with the Kansas City brewer’s latest ventures.
McDonald, originally a carpenter after attending art school, drafted his vision for Boulevard while vacationing in Europe in the mid-’80s. An experience at a bar specializing in Belgian beers led to a fascination with craft beers. By 1989, he was putting together the foundation of Boulevard.
Today, the Kansas City brewery is owned by the Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat, but McDonald still contributes as much as he can to the company, and he launched Ripple Glass, a glass recycling operation to curb the waste problem in the United States.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Missouri Business Alert: Boulevard delivered its first beer in November 1989. Can you take us back to 30 years ago today, so spring 1989? What were you doing in the lead up to that launch?
John McDonald: I was probably installing equipment. I would’ve been installing the equipment to move to the brewhouse we bought in Germany that dates back to the 1930s that we still have here at the brewery. It’s still actually used. We have a 35-barrel brewhouse that we bought in Germany in ‘88 and then installed it in ‘89. So we would’ve been working on that — hooking our tanks up, getting ready to make beer. And also doing all the paperwork involved in starting a brewery, especially at that time. And doing a lot of test brewing, also, because in the year or two before we had started doing yeast selection for the yeast we wanted to use.
MBA: What should others know if they want to open a local brewery or a craft beer company?
JM: One of the things that I was always very focused on, and Boulevard still is today very focused on, is making really quality beer. You know, just because beer is local and comes out of a small brewery doesn’t mean it’s good. I think that’s one of the achilles heels of our business is that the public needs to get into it for the right reasons and really work hard. It’s not easy to make really great, high-quality beer every day. So I think as more breweries open, there will be breweries that don’t adhere to strict standards of cleanliness and using the right materials and having educated, experienced people make beer. That’s my shout-out to anybody who wants to start a small brewery. I think it can go very well for you, but I think it will go very poorly for you if you don’t do those things.
MBA: How would you compare the current environment for entrepreneurs in Kansas City to how things were when you first started out?
JM: Oh, way better. Kansas City, I think, has really got a very vibrant entrepreneurial community, and I think when I started it was really not good. But at the same time, I found people that were entrepreneurial. It was just a tougher time. I couldn’t even get a bank loan when I started the brewery in ‘89. I had to do it all with private money. I think now, of course, banks are willing to loan. People didn’t understand what we were trying to do, and it was different. It was going up against millions and millions of dollars of advertising by big breweries to sell their beers, and we had none of that. We had a little bit of word of mouth and the quality of our beer, and that was pretty much how we had to go to market.
MBA: When you started Boulevard, were you aware of how much potential there was in the craft brewing market?
JM: Oh no, not at all. My business plan went out I think seven years, and I was going to have seven employees, and I was going to make a living. It’s interesting, in 1995, I went to the International Brewers Congress in Brussels, and I had only been in business since ‘89. I went on a tour of Duvel, and little did I know, 25 years later, I would sell my company to them. It’s interesting how things happen.
MBA: With the proliferation of craft breweries today, is it tougher for newer craft breweries to open up to compete against those other craft breweries and not just the bigger brands?
JM: Yes, I think it is. There is competition everywhere, and there always has been. But really the beer market, the beer world, is very global today, and that speaks a little bit to the reason I sold the brewery six years ago to Duvel Moortgat. They’re a old, historic, family-owned brewery in Belgium that had been in business since the 1880s. And even though they were a smaller craft brewer in Belgium, they had a little bit more of a worldview, and I really liked what they had to offer us. It truly has worked out.
MBA: What are some things you’ve learned in Boulevard’s 30-year journey?
JM: Well, I’ve learned that you need to decide on your business strategy and your go-to market strategy, and you’ve just got to refine that and keep working on that. It’s not easy. And now with all the competition that we have, we have to continue to innovate and, you know, improve always. Continuous improvement, I think, is a big part of Boulevard’s DNA. And continue to push the limits of making really high-quality, wonderful beer that people want to buy. Because if they don’t, your business isn’t going to continue to grow.
MBA: Speaking of improvement, what are some of the big projects that you’re working on today?
JM: We just installed a new state-of-the-art can line. It’s interesting. We were never a retailer of beer until just maybe five years ago. We gave tours of the brewery, but we never retailed. We were slow to realize how important it was to be able to sell directly to the public to really get the feedback of the consumer. And so we’ve really, over the last five or six years, developed our beer hall and new tours and rec center, and we’re continuing to expand that. That allows us to produce very unique beers to a fairly small market for trial and product development. Obviously the people that come through our beer hall, they like beer. We know that those are the brands that maybe we should grow out more on a local and national level.
MBA: You shifted roles after the sale to Duvel. What is your role today?
JM: I’m really the founder, and I’m still here at the brewery, and I do whatever needs to be done. But, I’m also very involved in glass recycling. We started another business called Ripple Glass, which is a glass recycling business here in Kansas City, and it has now spread into about six or seven contiguous states, and we collect glass from I think over 100 municipalities. We bring that glass back to Kansas City, and we process that, and it goes to both make beer bottles and fiberglass insulation. So I’m very involved in that business, and the brewery has a big part of that business also.
MBA: Was it more challenging starting Ripple Glass or Boulevard?
JM: Well, considering I didn’t have any money when I started the brewery, it was fairly challenging from that side. But, I have to admit that the glass business has been challenging. I thought it would be easy to fix it, and it’s been incredibly hard to fix it. To get people to recycle glass properly is not an easy thing. You have to change behavior, and it’s hard to change behavior. But I think from the ecological point of view and also the financial point of view, we really need to solve recycling in the United States because it’s very broken.
MBA: Other than Boulevard, what other breweries out there do you particularly admire?
JM: I have great admiration for Duvel. The beer itself is, I think, probably one of the greatest beers in the world, and even before I started my brewery, I drank Duvel. I like a lot of the beers that a lot of the craft brewers make. I think Bell’s is an excellent brewer. New Belgium, of course, in Colorado. A beer consumer today, if he says, ‘There’s no good beer for me to drink,’ there’s something wrong with that person. Because, for sure, a lot of the best brews in the world are being made in the United States, and we have the most vibrant beer culture now of anywhere in the world.
MBA: Now for the tough question. Imagine you could only drink one type of Boulevard beer for the rest of time. What are you drinking, and why?
JM: I’m drinking Pale Ale. It’s so funny, that was considered a really esoteric, hard-to-drink beer in 1989, but today I think a lot of people almost look at a beer like that as being mainstream. Personally, at my age — I’m 65 years old now — I appreciate all the beers we make. And some of the bigger, more esoteric beers, I really love them also. But beer, to me, should be almost an everyday kind of beverage. It’s low in alcohol. So I like a beer with good flavor, with a good balance between hops and malt, and something you can drink a couple of. So Boulevard Pale Ale would be my go-to beer if I was trapped on a desert island.