Craft breweries are becoming a bigger and bigger thing in the psyches of warm-blood, alcohol-consuming Americans. Samuel Adams started the trend of the “popular” craft brewery, but across the nation, craft breweries are growing in popularity and name recognition. Many breweries are doing well that they are rightfully representing the cities they brew in, even amidst the “major breweries” that brew nearby. New Belgium and Blue Moon Brewing Company are well-known nationally despite being in Coors territory (New Belgium and Blue Moon brew in Denver while Coors brews in Golden, which is not too far). And despite Anheuser-Busch being across the state in St. Louis, a pretty solid craft brewing culture is developing here in Kansas City. In fact, while it may be lacking in years of tradition or presidential visits, the craft brewing culture here is so strong that it is giving Kansas City another thing to be known for other than BBQ (though BBQ is pretty damn good here).
The most major craft brewery is Boulevard and rightfully so. Created in 1987, Boulevard has really done an excellent job bringing different varieties of quality beers to the mainstream here in Kansas City. Whether it’s the popular year-rounds such as Boulevard Wheat, KC Pilsner, Bully Porter, the Single-Wide IPA or the 80-Acre Wheat (their best year-round beer; it combines the best aspects of a Wheat and IPA beer and the result is really refreshing) or their Smokestack series beers such as The Calling, Tank 7 or variety of limited edition seasonal beers (their Chocolate Ale was so popular that people would buy it in bulk from bars because it was so difficult to find in liquor stores), Boulevard has the variety and taste to be mentioned in the best craft breweries in America discussions. I most likely will do a whole post on Boulevard and their beers, but I figure any Kansas City beer discussion merits the mention of Boulevard to start off.
But one of the best, most underrated and slowly gaining steam craft breweries has to be Cinder Block in North Kansas City. I am not going to lie: most of my life in Kansas City has been in Kansas City, Kansas. I love KCK and Wyandotte county and for my first two years living here, I was hesitant to really frequent a drinking establishment beyond the Strawberry Hill area (much love to 403 and Chicago’s). But when I moved north of the river, one of the reasons I have enjoyed my migration to the Missouri side has been because of this place.
First and foremost, this is not a bar, but a brewery with a taproom. I know it sounds really “ticky-tack” when I describe it like that, but it’s important to know. They do not serve wine or hard alcohol drinks. Hell, they don’t always have every beer available every day. But the amount of variety they offer will suit even the most discriminating of beer drinkers. So if they don’t have a variety you want? Well, they got enough on tap to give you the diversity you would want from any craft brewery tap-room.
Cinder Block wins one over with their charming, relaxing decor, which is designed with a bar, a variety of high and low tables and stools, and a couple of couches in the corner with a coffee table between them (there are some board games like Jenga if you come with a crowd and want to go beyond just talking about the beer). There are only two televisions, but believe me, this is a place where you won’t notice the lack of viewing spectacles. With the quality of the beer, as well as the dozens of barrels racked in the far end of the taproom, there is plenty to observe that missing an inning or two of the Royals game will be hardly noticed. Some breweries try to go over the top in really giving off that “brewery” feel. Cinder Block does a good job of making the place welcoming but authentic: in fact, the brewery really speaks to the industrial demographic of North Kansas City in general, as gray and brown stands out the most in the taproom area, giving it a blue-collar but chic feel.
Thursday through Saturday the Back Rack BBQ food truck sits in front of the brewery and serves food to customers who are looking for a bite to eat amidst tastings. Kansas City is known for BBQ, but Back Rack can compete with the best, with a simple, tasty but affordable menu. Back Rack offers everything from BBQ staples (ribs, pulled pork, brisket, beans, slaw) to BBQ Pub Food hybrids (Brisket nachos, Smoked Salmon sandwich) and the crew doesn’t just serve quality, filling dishes, but they do so quickly and actually deliver to you in the bar (you don’t have to pick it up from the truck). While everything on the menu rates as above average for BBQ fare, the burnt ends and onion rings stand out as Back Rack’s signatures items.
Burnt Ends are common in BBQ places here in Kansas City, but they vary in consistency from place to place, ranging from good to bad depending where you go. Candidly speaking, Back Rack’s Burnt Ends rate as some of the best I have had from any BBQ place in Kansas City. Unlike some of the major places, these ends aren’t sauced ahead of time or chopped up, but are juicy, cubes of BBQ beef goodness served on white bread with sauce on the side. These burnt ends offer a nice balance of lean and fat, important since burnt ends needs to stand out from their brisket counterpart (after all, burnt ends traditionally were saved for the pitmaster and his crew while the brisket went to the guests…that’s right, Burnt Ends were bogarted by the cooks, which shows you how good they are). The sauce is a tangy, sweet, not as thick or tomato-based as a traditional Kansas City sauce, but closer to a Carolina-style considering its tangier and more liquidey consistency. The sauce, burnt ends and white bread make a perfect trio that will satisfy even the most peculiar of BBQ enthusiasts.
The onion rings though probably stand out though as Back Rack’s best item. Battered in Northtown Native beer, the onion rings are crisp and fresh and will go quickly whether consumed in a group or solo. Onion rings tend to be a difficult dish for me to enjoy. Way too often I found out that the onion rings come from the frozen, Sysco-produced variety, and they often feel like a waste of money. The onion is too soggy. The batter is not crispy enough. There is no flavor but bland, watery onion, and halfway through you end up regretting not just sticking with the fries. But these onion rings buck that trend, and made a fan out of a guy who normally would rather just save the buck or two on french fries. If you want to get a side for yourself or to share, get the onion rings. In the words of James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio, “It is a delight!”
That being said, while Back Rack is a nice benefit of visiting Cinder Block on the weekend, the reason to go there is for the beer. Cinder Block offers a variety of what is expected from a craft brewery: Pale Ale (Prime Extra), IPA (Block), Porter (Pavers) and a Wheat (Weathered Wit). Of their year-round selection, the Northtown Native is my favorite, a California Common that is a delicious hybrid of an Ale and Lager. It goes down smooth, but it has a distinct taste that is usually missing in the common American Lager. If I were going to compare the Native to anything, it reminds me of the Boston Lager from Samuel Adams (which I like, but not as much as the Native).
Another plus of Cinder Block is they offer growlers, which I think is secretly my favorite aspect of craft breweries. There is something special about going into a brewery with an empty jug and asking for it to get refilled. I mean, in what other forum could you carry in a big jug of something that could also be used as an instrument in a how down and see it filled with the refreshing nectar of the Roman gods? (I say Roman because we always use the Greeks in this kind of analogy; it’s pretty much the same thing and the Roman gods need their due too; go Mars!) Craft breweries…and yeah I am done at that. I mean, I know Shatto Milk offers milk refills with their milk jugs, but getting my milk refilled in a Whole Foods makes me feel like a 38-year-old husband who works at Sprint and lives in Overland Park and sends their kids to the Olathe Public School System. That isn’t for me.
To get back to the point, yes they have growlers, which are all kinds of wonderful and great because I can take my beer home, in a massive quantity and in a cool-looking jug. They offer three kinds of growlers: the traditional glass, a plastic and some kind of hybrid plastic, graphite-ish…thing (I don’t know, it looks like it used to store plutonium, not beer). Go with the traditional glass. You’ll bring out your inner logger inside and that will have all kinds of benefits down the road.
And lastly, one of the phenomenons Cinder Block turned me onto was the existence of sour beers. I had never had a sour beer until a couple of days ago, where I tried the KC Weiss. A lot of their sour beers are brewed in chardonnay barrels, which I believe contributes to some of the sour flavor of the beer brewed (I base this on no research or Googling of sour beers prior to this post). The KC Weiss was unbelievable beyond measure. I had to take a look at it every couple of sips to just bask in what the hell I was drinking. It was as if a great wheat beer and a top-shelf chardonnay made love to Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” and their baby was delivered into my glass. Constantly I was in flux with every sip (“Is it a beer masking as a chardonnay? Or a chardonnay masking as a beer?”) slowly appreciating the sour beer more and more until its completion. For a person who loves beer and appreciates chardonnay, the Weiss sour beer hit on all cylinders for me. (I know that statement will elicit all kinds of comments considering not many men drink chardonnay but keep in mind this: it’s cold and it doesn’t stain your teeth, an important thing to remember if you are at a function of some sort that only serves wine; last thing you need is for people to not just see you sloshed, but looking like Hannibal Lecter after he surprises the cops when he gets out of his handcuffs to escape his cell in “Silence of the Lambs” and bites into one of the cops…yes gross, just like red wine stained teeth). Today, I had the Peach Sour Beer (can’t remember the name, started with a “V”, which I will update soon), which also shared the same sour but refreshing qualities of the KC Weiss. I do plan on making sour beers a more regular staple of my beer rotation. They are pretty much like the Shannyn Sossamon‘s of beers (hat tip if you understand my reference; if not just enjoy the picture).
Cinder Block is a mecca for beer enthusiasts and a pretty damn good place to go to for anyone else who likes beer and likes cool places in different areas of Kansas City. For Northlanders, Cinder Block requires visiting on a regular basis, and if you are not in the Northland, it is worth the trek for their venue, their beer and Back Rack BBQ if you happen to be there on a weekend. Kansas City is becoming home to a great beer scene. And Cinder Block, both its brewery and tap room, are a testament and shining representation of that scene that is growing on a national basis.