Kansas City Craft Breweries showing a flight of light beers
Kansas City Craft Breweries

Although Kansas City has established itself as a burgeoning beer town in recent decades, the brewery scene in the heartland is not a novel concept. Rather, it comes with a rich and storied history, which has led to it being one of the country’s fastest-growing beer destinations. 

In recent years, innovative brewmasters have driven the success of numerous craft breweries in and beyond the urban core. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t hurt that the Kansas City community enjoys a good pint – and as Kansas City locals, we can personally confirm this.

And that appreciation of a frothy brew goes back to the 1800s – let’s reminisce on the history of beer brewing in Kansas City, shall we?

Kansas City’s Early Breweries

European immigrants started brewing in Kansas City in the 19th century, bringing their generations-old traditions to the heartland.

Kansas City’s brewing roots are marked by influential figures like George Muehlebach, an immigrant from Switzerland who founded the Muehlebach Brewing Company in 1869. 

This brewery, significant for its Pilsener beer, saw remarkable growth, becoming one of the city’s largest by the early 20th century. It was referred to as the “Beer Castle” and frequented by local Kansas Citians at its 18th and Main Street location.

The Imperial Brewing Company, established in Kansas City around 1902, was another notable entity in the city’s brewing history. Known for its impressive Romanesque revival-style brewery building, it thrived, producing a variety of beers.

The Heim family, Austrian immigrants and founders of the Heim Brewing Company, were other key contributors. They began a brewery in St. Louis before crossing the state to Kansas City, where they opened another brewery. 

During its initial year in Kansas City, the company successfully crafted 12,000 barrels of beer. However, by 1900, their production skyrocketed to over 130,000 barrels, accompanied by a workforce of 250 employees. This remarkable growth propelled them to become the largest brewery west of St. Louis. 

They also created Electric Park, which opened in 1907 and was a remarkable amusement destination, originally designed to attract visitors to the Heim brewery. 

The park featured advanced technology for its time, including 100,000 electric lights and various attractions like a roller coaster, vaudeville theater, and a German-style beer garden.

Impacts of Prohibition

The Prohibition era was a challenging time for both Kansas City’s breweries and historic distilleries. Many establishments, including the Muehlebach and Heim breweries, struggled to adapt. This period saw the temporary decline of the brewing industry, with many companies either closing down or pivoting to other products.

During Prohibition, the Muehlebach Brewery sold non-alcoholic “Mulo”, a malt cereal beverage. In 1938 after Prohibition, Muehlebach built a new brewery at 4th and Oak Streets in the City Market area. 

Schlitz took over the new brewery in 1956 and eventually discontinued the brand in 1973, when it also closed the former Muehlebach brewery.

As for the Heim Brewery – in 2018, J. Rieger & Co. converted the old Heim bottling plant into a new home for its distillery. And in 2021, it opened the Electric Park Garden Bar, where you can sip on a Heim Bier, brewed for the distillery by beloved KC Bier Co., the local keeper of the German brewing tradition.

Kansas City’s Craft Brewery Scene

Although the original titans of Kansas City brewing have faded, a modern resurgence began in 1989 with the founding of Boulevard Brewing Co., marking the beginning of a new era for Kansas City’s brewing industry.

In the now legendary tale, brewer John McDonald brought his first keg of Pale Ale to Ponak’s on Southwest Boulevard. He sold out by the end of the night, marking the start of Boulevard Brewing Company.

Boulevard has grown to become one of the heartland’s largest specialty breweries, with distribution in over 40 states.

Undoubtedly, the success of Boulevard Brewing Company and Kansas Citians’ desire to support local businesses have spurred the opening of numerous local breweries across the city.

In particular, there are several located in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. Located right in the heart of it all, is a locally beloved blend of urban art and culture — and it has increasingly become a sanctuary for craft beer aficionados.

In fact, a portion of the neighborhood has been dubbed Brewers Alleydue to the high concentration of breweries all within walking distance of one another. Those looking to do a local brewery crawl can find their haven in the Crossroads.

These contemporary breweries in Brewer’s Alley, among others, have embraced both traditional and innovative brewing techniques, experimenting with flavors and styles, and contributing to a diverse and vibrant beer scene.

Another signal of the heartland’s burgeoning brewing scene, Kansas City’s breweries are competing at the national level. 

In 2023, Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine named two Kansas City breweries, BKS Artisan Ales and KC Bier Co., in their list of The Best 20 Beers in 2023.

What Is The Oldest Brewery In Kansas City?

Unfortunately, the original Kansas City breweries mentioned at the beginning did not last, so the oldest brewery still in operation is Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company, which began in 1989.

The Future Looks Frothy

The future of Kansas City’s beer scene is as bright as a freshly poured golden ale. With more breweries opening, a growing number of beer festivals and events, and a community that’s passionate about quality and innovation, Kansas City is on track to become one of America’s top beer destinations.

If you’re into IPAs, check out our guide to the best IPAs in Kansas City.