Rating the Boulevard Year-Rounds as Midwest College Basketball Teams

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Boulevard Brewery has become one of the best craft breweries in the United States over the past decade.

I love the NBA. However, I still do appreciate college basketball. While I feel the NBA is head and shoulders a better product than the college game these days, I still enjoy a lot of the nuances of the college game as well as the diversity of teams across the nation. In the Midwest, the college game remains supreme with the number of established programs (Kansas, Indiana, etc.) and lack of big-time NBA franchises (the major ones reside in the coast with the exception of Chicago; Milwaukee, Indiana, Minnesota are small-town Midwest NBA franchises).

So, it is important to focus on the college game every now and then here at Flannel, PBR and PER. And it’s also important to impart some of the college game into Kansas City culture, especially craft brewery culture, which continues its boom and recognition on a national basis. One of the best craft breweries in the nation has to be Boulevard, which resides here in the heart of Kansas City, near the Liberty Memorial and World War I Museum. Founded in 1989, Boulevard has grown to not only be a major player in the crowded Kansas City and Midwest brewery scene, but on a national level as well. In fact, it seems Boulevard is on its way to becoming the Midwestern “Samuel Adams”, a boon for Midwesterners who have typically been thought of as the “American Light Lager”-drinking community (typical because Budweiser was founded in St. Louis and Miller in Milwaukee). But with Boulevard’s excellent variety of quality craft selections (their Smokestack Series really is phenomenal), they are proving that you don’t need to resort to the coasts for great, quality beer.

I could spend this whole post just talking about every single Boulevard Beer from the Year-Round collection to the Smokestack Series. That being said, that post would be like 10,000 words, so I’ll keep it short and just focus on the Year-Round selection. So, let’s take a look at Boulevard seven-beer collection as Midwestern College Basketball teams.

(Also, I’ll be ranking them in order of preference, so the first listed will be my favorite and the last one will be my least-favorite.)

80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer: Butler Bulldogs

80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer is Boulevard’s most complete beer out of their year-round selection. The beer is an innovative mix between an IPA and a Wheat and is a classic Midwest (known for Wheat Beers) meets Coastal (which is known for IPAs, especially on the West Coast). The result is a beverage that will satisfy IPA fans while also catering to those who typically don’t have the palate for the Hoppy-ness of IPAs and Pale Ales. When beers go hybrid and try to satisfy multiple tastes, it can fall flat on its face. 80-Acre not only avoids such a pitfall, but actually rises to the top as the brewery’s best-tasting year-round beer.

I compare 80-Acre to the Butler Bulldogs because the Bulldogs have been one of the best basketball teams in the Midwest the past decade. Since 2007, they have only missed the NCAA Tournament twice and have been to the National Title game twice (2010 and 2011). They are also one of the more innovative teams in basketball (much like 80-Acre is one of the more innovative beers of the year-rounds and at Boulevard in general) as former coach Brad Stevens eschewed traditional coaching techniques (i.e. always yelling at refs or players) and employed advanced statistics in helping develop game strategies and player development. Though Butler certainly has had their share of moments against my alma mater (i.e. Gonzaga), the Bulldogs have been one of my favorite college basketball teams to follow in the Midwest as of late.

80-Acre doesn’t seem to get the distribution or publicity like other Boulevard selections such as Boulevard Wheat, Pale Ale or even Tank 7, and Butler may not roll across the tongues of Midwest college basketball fans like Kansas, Indiana or Iowa State. However, both have proven that they are quality and are probably the better in their respective venues than most people would give them credit for.

Boulevard Wheat: Kansas Jayhawks

Boulevard’s best-selling and most popular is exactly what you would expect from a Midwestern beer. It is refreshing, light, with a cool finish and hints of citrus and it is the perfect beer to drink with barbecue either at a restaurant, a festival or just your own backyard. Wheat beer, in my opinion, exemplifies Midwest living and flavor (easy, laid back and not fancy, but still of strong quality), and Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat proves to be the epitome of what Wheat Beer should be from the Midwest.

(I know some people are on the fence with this one, as many say a lot of imported Wheat or “Wit” beers are better or other craft breweries have produced better quality Wheats; I think Boulevard deserves some credit for being the first to really push Wheat beer’s popularity in a primarily Pilsner or Lager territory, and while it may not have the “flash” or “boldness” of some modern Wheats or Imported Wheats, it’s contribution to Wheat beer popularity in the Midwest and its still strong flavor after all these years to me merit the high praise.)

When I think of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, I think of the best qualities of the Midwest. Kansas Jayhawks basketball represents the best qualities of Midwest college basketball: consistency, success, strong history of talent, dedicated talent, and all kinds of strong roots in tradition (i.e Allen Fieldhouse, James Naismith, etc.). With the exception of perhaps Indiana, the Jayhawks seem to be the “Midwest’s Team” and this has earned them all kinds of praise and derision from people all over the nation (much like the mixed feelings I spoke of about Unfiltered Wheat in comparison to Wheat beers above). As a newer resident of the Midwest, I can appreciate what Kansas (and Unfiltered Wheat) has to offer, but they are a little bit too-mainstream and “traditional” for my tastes. I can appreciate quality and history, but I will take the more innovative flavors (in both beer and basketball) in the end, and that is why Kansas and Unfiltered Wheat don’t match 80-Acre and Butler.

Single-Wide IPA: Marquette Golden Eagles

When you think of the Midwest, you don’t think of IPAs. Maybe that is just me growing up in California and the Pacific Northwest, where there are many breweries that specialize in crafting hoppy India Pale Ale varieties (such as Sierra Nevada in Chico and Bridgeport in Portland), so I am a little hesitant to think that the Midwest can produce quality IPAs like the ones that I have been exposed to back in my original home states. While I jumped on board on the 80-Acre and Unfiltered Wheat’s immediately, it took me some time to warm up to Boulevard’s Single Wide IPA, out of fear that I would be disappointed.

Surprisingly though, Single Wide is a great representation of what a “Midwest” IPA should beer. There’s a great hoppy flavor to it, thought it is not as strong as the more traditional IPAs that I have had before. There is a lot to admire in the boldness of what Boulevard tried to do here with Single Wide. They knew it would be tough to cater to the “IPA Crowd” (especially transplants like myself coming from more “IPA-Heavy” states) but they created one anyways in a fashion that pays tribute to the traditional IPA, while still maintaining that “easy drink-ability” that caters more to Midwestern beer drinkers’ tastes. It’s not quite the balanced hybrid that 80-Acre is, but Single Wide is a surprising tribute to the IPA created by Boulevard.

Single Wide is ambitious, different (for the Midwest) and of pretty solid (though a shade below the 80-Acre excellent) quality. Marquette echoes a lot of similar characteristics in the college basketball world. They are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is as Midwest as it can get (Liberal Midwest, but Midwest nonetheless). And yet, Marquette feels more like an East Coast team with their bold uniforms (I have always loved their racing stripes down the sides and they are a Jordan-Brand team, which always is a nice little honor in basketball style circles), history of producing NBA players (Dewayne Wade, Jae Crowder, Steve Novak, Jimmy Butler, just to name most recent…I could go on forever with the ones who played for Al McGuire), and tough, physical play which has resulted in frequent NCAA Tournament appearances (though last year was an off-year in Wojo’s rookie campaign as head coach). Marquette doesn’t rank up there with the Midwest blue bloods, but they certainly are a shade below and have the kind of “cool” factor that one normally doesn’t associate with Midwest traditional Blue Blood programs.

Much like Single Wide won’t make people forget about Sierra Nevada IPA anytime soon, Marquette will not be replacing the elite of Midwest College basketball any time soon. They still are overshadowed by Kansas, Indiana and even in-state neighbor Wisconsin as of late. However, much like Single Wide IPA with beers, they get fan points and respect for their boldness in bucking the trend of what is expected from a Midwest college basketball team, even if they don’t completely succeed compared to the other “established” programs in the Midwest.

Pale Ale: Missouri Tigers

Boulevard Pale Ale is one of the other major-selling year-round beers next to Unfiltered Wheat. In fact, it is quite common to see the Pale Ale variety always tagging along with Wheat in some way. Farmland has Boulevard flavored Brats in Wheat and Pale Ale varieties. Unfiltered Wheat and Pale Ale are the only Boulevard varieties that come in 20 bottle packs. It seems like Pale Ale is always attached to the hip of Unfiltered Wheat, and for good reason. Pale Ale is a quality beer. It’s quality crafted, English style ale with a nice balance of hoppyness and deep, dark flavor and it really is a good complement to the lighter, crisper Unfiltered Wheat.

But, I just can’t help but feel that Pale Ale is the “little brother” to Unfiltered Wheat, much like Mizzou basketball is to Kansas. I’m not trying to knock Mizzou or the university itself by any means, but it’s obvious football matters more at Mizzou and basketball means more at KU. And no matter what Missouri tries to do, even during years where there teams are competitive (not last year that’s for sure), they still seem to always pale (another PUN!) in comparison to their neighbors west of the Kansas border in Lawrence. There were some great seasons under Norm Stewart, and I enjoyed the Mike Anderson/Demarre Carroll era quite a bit. But in terms of basketball, relevance? The Tigers just cannot match what the Jayhawks do on an annual basis.

I know that’s tough to stomach for a lot of Mizzou fans. But, just like Pale Ale will always be in the shadow of Unfiltered Wheat, the Tigers just seems to always be the “little brother” to KU Hoops. That is not to say that Mizzou or Pale Ale aren’t good. However, that stigma of unfortunate attachment prevents either from being taken more seriously in their respective circles.

Pop-Up Session IPA: Iowa State Cyclones

Session IPA’s seem to be the new “Big Thing” in craft brewery fandom circles. And, it makes sense, as Session IPAs seems to be a nice introduction for those who don’t like the bitterness of traditional IPAs. That is an understandable and completely fine thing. But, I don’t know. I just can’t get into Session IPA’s, despite their boldness in trying to cater to their target of beer drinking palates (i.e. traditional pilsner beer drinkers who think hoppyness is bitterness). It obviously tastes better than a traditional lager, but it surprises me that they categorize them as IPAs, since to me it just doesn’t have that taste or finish of what makes IPAs so enjoyable to consume.

Pop-Up is Boulevard’s bold take on it, and while I appreciate it’s ambitiousness in taking on crafting a Session IPA for Midwest beer drinkers, it falls flat with me in comparison to other Pop-Up Session IPAs. It’s got kitsch factor, and some nice colors and some interesting flavors, but it just really pales (PUN ALERT) in comparison to the other beers Boulevard offers from their year-round lineup. I want to like it. Logic tells me I should like Boulevard’s take on the Session IPA. But in the end, I just end up disappointed (though not completely dissatisfied; after all, it’s still comes in 5 out of 7).

Iowa State, at least under Fred Hoiberg, were the “hip” team to like in the Midwest and college basketball the past few seasons. Hoiberg ran an “NBA” offense. He got the most out of transfers looking for a second chance. The Cyclones became a relevant team again in the Big 12 and the best team in the state of Iowa (any chance to better the Hawkeyes was welcome in Ames). Hoiberg’s nickname was “The Mayor” for chrissakes! That’s the best nickname for a college player/coach in all of college basketball!

And yet, the Cyclones never seemed to grasp with me as much as other Midwest basketball fans. Their squads never really endeared to me, even though I liked the freedom Hoiberg gave his team. They always underachieved in the Tournament, and they seemed to be a hard team to predict, as they had periods of inconsistency during the year where they would beat Kansas, but then lose to a Texas Tech or TCU.

The Cyclones and Session IPA have garnered a lot of bandwagoners as of late. In fact, when I go to concerts, it’s common to see Session IPA on tap, which displays the surge in the popularity of Session IPAs in KC. But, for both ISU and Boulevard, I just can’t swing on either of those bandwagons with any kind of eagerness.

Bully Porter: Kansas State Wildcats

Bully Porter probably has the coolest label of all the Boulevard Year-Round varieties. I mean, it’s a Bulldog, in a tuxedo, with a monacle. How there isn’t a gold medal on the bottle saying “Bottle Design of the Year” to me is one of the great mysteries of our time. If the beer was just average, I would think it would be the greatest beer ever just because of the label. In fact, if I could have a poster of that and put it on my wall, I would.

(This is a bad habit of mine, as sometimes I will be swayed a beer is good simply by labeling. This is especially true with lager varieties; for example, I enoyed Sol simply because I loved their “peeking” Sun logo. However, once they changed the logo, and I had it again, I somehow liked it a lot less. Amazing how things like graphic design can actually change your palate in mysterious ways.)

Despite my affinity for the label art, I struggle liking porters in general. Unless a porter really has a special something, it’s difficult for me to really enjoy one. Porters simply toe that line between beer and coffee too much, and not in a way I find satisfying or appetizing. Unfortunately, Boulevard’s Bully Porter doesn’t really excel in the taste department. It lacks that special “boldness” that separates it from the typical porter, and hence, this one simply fall flat and remains a forgettable selection of the Year-Round varieties.

Kansas State basketball falls in the same kind of boat. They have good looking uniforms and colors, a cool arena nickname (“The Octagon of Doom”) and had Frank Martin screaming up and down the sideline for a good while (great entertainment on its own, though he hasn’t been as good or angry in South Carolina). They had Michael Beasley put up one amazing season that got him drafted No. 2 overall in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, everything else about Kansas State, especially in terms of their on-court success, is forgettable. They have had good teams in the past, but if you think about it, to the college basketball fans nationally, Kansas State simply doesn’t stick out or really burn in anyone’s psyche. It’s too bad because they have had some good teams, just like the Porter isn’t bad by Porter standards. It’s just that there is nothing that stands out about either except the gaudy appearances.

KC Pils: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Formerly “Boulevard Pilsner“, KC Pils is Boulevard’s take on the American Domestic Lager. This beer caters to what is typically liked by most Midwest Beer Drinker’s tastes: a refreshing, crisp beer in the mold of traditional domestics like Miller, Budweiser and Coors. Unfortunately, KC Pils, re-branding and all, suffers from two major issues that prevent it from escaping the basement of the Boulevard year-rounds.

First, while KC Pils isn’t bad by any means, it doesn’t really distinguish itself from the typical American Lager varieties. There’s a little bit more body to it than a Budweiser or Bud Light, but it’s not considerably fuller tasting or crisper than anything you generally would get on the market. Second, KC Pils is priced as high as any other Boulevard Year-Round, which makes it difficult when you’re competing with bigger Breweries who can offer the same kind of beer for a lot cheaper. So, Boulevard’s Pilsner variety ends up falling in “No-Man’s” land of sorts, with the price and market (i.e. crowded) being a huge factor in preventing it from being more successful. And to be honest, I really don’t think of Boulevard when it comes to American Lagers. If I want one, I would rather go Coors or PBR, High Life or Rolling Rock if I wanted to save a couple of bucks.

Nebraska Cornhusker basketball suffers from many of the same issues as KC Pils. The product is not very good and hasn’t been traditionally that good in their history (sans a couple of years ago when they made the NCAA Tournament). But worse than that, there is a lukewarm attitude about Cornhusker basketball with Cornhusker and Midwest fans. While Nebraska football is religion, basketball is a side-attraction when the local high school team is not playing. Basketball is just not a priority in the state of Nebraska (heck, high school and college wrestling is more attended than college basketball). Considering that they play in a conference that is a major player in the basketball scene (i.e. Big 10) and in a geographic area near the premiere program of the Midwest (i.e. Kansas), and it makes sense, like KC Pils, how Nebraska basketball gets lost in the shuffle in its relevance.

KC Pils isn’t bad tasting. Nebraska basketball has gotten better under Tim Miles. But, there are just a whole lot of better American Lager and Midwest Basketball options out there than those two…and considerably so.

So that’s the list and the ratings. Agree? Disagree? Think I picked the wrong team? Think I was too hard on K-State? Think Session IPAs are the greatest thing in the history of craft brewing?

Let me know in the comments below!

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