Happy Hour at the Belfry in Downtown/Crossroads

Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).

Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.

To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.

Don’t let the “Are you sure this isn’t an affordable Health Care clinic?” look from the outside fool you.

As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…

Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).

So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.

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The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.

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In addition to glorifying Chelsea FC (woof…rough year last season), the Belfry also showcases all kinds of whiskey and beer (notice the 20 taps).

What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.

The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.

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Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).

But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.

And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.

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Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”

But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.

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The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.

But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads  that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.

That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.

Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.

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FPP NBA Free Agency Chronicle: Day 1 Hipster Beer Edition

So it’s July 1st, which means (other than it being 3 days from July 4th holiday) that it’s the official start of the NBA free agency period. Much like any NBA Blog or Web site, I will be doing my own ratings with a “Flannel, PBR and PER” spin. I will categorize the free agency signings from Day 1 into 4 “Hipster” beer choices as follows:

Miller High Life: The champagne of beers meaning that these are the best of the best signings. They make sense for the team and will have great long-term value down the road.

Pabst Blue Ribbon: These solid deals are worth a blue ribbon and overall are more positive than negative. They aren’t quite elite deals, but it’s hard to argue with the signings (i.e. like PBR, which is great, but doesn’t really touch Miller High Life).

Rolling Rock: The deals are meh. They have serious warts with them, but if you had to weigh it on a positive to negative basis, it’s probably like 55-51 percent positive. Just enough to be worthwhile, but certainly not the No. 1 or 2 choice. These deals, just like Rolling Rock, are ones that you settle for when choices 1 or 2 are off the board.

Natural Light: These deals, much like Natural Light and the Budweiser company in general, suck. We don’t know what these teams were thinking.

So now that we have the categories set let’s get started.

(Note: a lot of the linked articles come from SB Nation, since I have been primarily following Twitter and SB Nation’s Free Agency stream. Gotta love Tom Ziller and crew).

High Life Signings

  • Kawhi Leonard, 5-year, $90 Million deal with the Spurs: This was probably expected. After all, Leonard in all seriousness embodies what it means to be a Spurs player. He was undervalued (ala Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker), he’s a quiet leader (ala Tim Duncan) and he holds a ton of position flexibility thanks to his offensive and defensive skill set (ala Boris Diaw). Leonard was the Finals MVP in 2014, and he improved across the board last season, posting career highs in PER (22.0), usage rate (23.0), rebounding percentage (12.9) and defensive rating (he allowed only 0.96 points per possession which was best in the league). It is obvious that Leonard is one of the most complete players in the league and is a budding star that looks prime to take the mantle as the Spurs’ franchise player when Duncan finally retires. Furthermore, the deal is mostly back-loaded, with his contract only counting $7.2 million against the cap this year (he will supposedly earn up to $16.5 million in the final year of his deal), which gives the Spurs flexibility to sign other guys both currently on the roster (they have already signed Danny Green) as well as other potential Free Agents (LeMarcus Aldridge is apparently a target). Both financially and for the future competitiveness of this team, this deal fires on all cylinders and should be seen as the toast of the early free agency period.
  • Anthony Davis, 5-year, $145 Million extension with the Pelicans: This is a deal that just makes sense and he’s worth every penny. Davis led the league in PER at 30.8 and he is only in his 3rd year. His 3rd year people! He is a two-time All-Star, was a dark horse MVP candidate last year, and will be a more serious MVP candidate this year because he’ll have a better head coach in Alvin Gentry. Gentry will bring an offensive system that will make it not only easier on the Pelicans in general, but Davis, and that is scary. $145 Million over 5 years seems like a steal when you think about what impact Davis will have in the next half-decade, and by then, he will still only be 26 at the end of his deal.
  • Danny Green, 4-year, $45 Million deal with the Spurs: Green pretty much is what he is: a sharpshooter in the Kyle Korver mold that fits well with the Spurs “Pace and Space” system (62 percent of his shots last season were 3-point attempts, and he’s been over 60 percent the past 3 seasons with the Spurs). But, at an average of about $12-13 million per year, and considering the hot market for players of such caliber after the success of the Golden State Warriors last year, Green really comes as a value. Khris Middleton, a similar kind of player for the Bucks, earned another year and $25 million more total than Green. Again, I know the Spurs had bargaining power because Green has not had success beyond San Antonio, but he’s still a valuable fit that keeps the Spurs’ future bright when the sun finally sets on the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker trio.
  • Paul Millsap, 3 years, $58 million with the Hawks: Millsap has always been vastly underrated over his career. But, he’s finally getting some love in Atlanta and rightfully so. He’s a two-time All-Star, he is coming off a season where he put up a 20.0 PER and a 56.5 true shooting percentage, and he accumulated a career high 8.3 win shares. He has thrived under Mike Budenholzer in all aspects of his game, as he has improved defensively in Budenholzer’s sytem, and he has been more prone to shoot the 3-ball, as his 3 point attempt rate has been 20.2 and 23.2 percent the last two years with the Hawks (his career 3 pt attempt rate in Utah was 2.2 percent). And, with a 35.7 3-pt percentage in Atlanta, Millsap has made the more attempts worthwhile. He is really a versatile weapon that can hurt teams in a variety of ways, and his contract is cheaper than Brook Lopez, even though Millsap is infinitely a more flexible and versatile player than Lopez, especially these past couple of years. The Hawks know the Cavs will be the team to beat, but like last season (when they snagged the East’s top seed), they are looking to make it a dog fight for the top spot. Millsap will be the prime reason they do so, as long as he is healthy.

Pabst Blue Ribbon Signings

  • DeMarre Carroll, 4-year $60 million with the Raptors: I don’t make this a High Life signing because it is really risky. Carroll has always been a defensive force, but he was always a one-trick pony prior to his arrival in Atlanta. But once he played in Mike Budenholzer’s system, his offensive game improved, as his true shooting improved to 57.5 and 60.3 percent in his two seasons with the Hawks. Consequently, he averaged double figures PPG also (11.1 and 12.6, his first and second year respectively) and combined for 7.4 offensive win shares, over triple what he generated in Utah (2.3), where he played two seasons and was most effective prior to coming to Atlanta. And thus, I worry about his offense going south, because while I like Dwane Casey, I do not think he’s as talented or creative a coach as Budenholzer, and the Raptors are filled with high-usage guys who need the ball (Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, etc.). But, the Raptors were woeful defensively last year, ranking 25th in the league in defensive rating. Carroll’s energetic and versatile defensive play will improve that. Furthermore, Carroll also provides good insurance for the Raptors should Terrence Ross not work out, who is coming off a woeful season where he ranked 10th on the team in Win Shares (2.4). Carroll will bring either defensive punch to the starting lineup or be a force off the bench and take the pressure off of Ross, who needs to rebound after a bad year. I think it was a lot of money for a guy who still has a lot to prove, especially offensively, but I liked the idea of Toronto improving themselves immediately on the wing and defensively with Carroll.
  • Goran Dragic, 5-year, $90-million with the Heat: What I like about this deal? Dragic is one of the more under-appreciated point guards in the league. Two seasons ago he had a PER of 21.4 and when he moved to Miami, his PER was 18.8 (up from 16.7 in Phoenix, which demonstrated the dysfunction with the three point guards had an effect on his performances). Dragic is an effective playmaker (career 28 percent assist rate) with a great ability to get to the rim (41.4 percent of his shots came from 0-3 ft). And lastly, Pat Riley once again used his psychological skills to the Heat’s advantage, as Dragic was eligible to make up to $110 million on the open market, and he settled for $20 million less to stay in Miami. What I don’t like? Dragic really didn’t help the Heat all that much when he arrived (they actually fell out of playoff contention in his time there, though a certain share of that has to be attributed to Chris Bosh missing most of the time when Dragic arrived due to a blood clot in his lungs) and Dragic’s deal only looks great if Wade comes back. If he doesn’t, the deal probably goes to Rolling Rock status. (Though it seems as if Wade is likely to re-sign with Miami).
  • Brook Lopez, 3-year $60 Million with the Nets: I know Lopez isn’t the dominant post he was a few years ago. But Lopez had a bounce back last year after missing most of the 2013-2014 season due to injury. He played 72 games and posted a career best rebounding rate (14.3 percent) and his PER was once again solid at 22.7. Furthermore, with Mason Plumlee now gone (in a trade to Portland), Lopez will be the center of the Nets’ offense in the post, which is likely since Lionel Hollins is the kind of coach who earned his chops getting the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post in Memphis. What I like the most about this deal? The fact that it is only 3 years. Lopez is certainly a lot more valuable in my mind than Tyson Chandler, and Chandler got a 4-year deal from Phoenix. If Lopez can continue to come back from his All-Star form from three seasons ago, this deal could be a lot more valuable than the experts think.
  • Khris Middleton, 5-year, $70 million with the Bucks: I like the Green signing more, but don’t get me wrong: I love Middleton and think he’s going to form a great young combo with Giannis, MCW and Jabari in the years to come. Middleton posted career bests last season in win shares (6.7), PER (15.6), PP36 (16.0) and true shooting percentage (56.3 percent). Also, Khris was widely known for his play in the clutch (with buzzer beaters being a common occurrence) and his impact in helping the young Milwaukee Bucks make the playoffs and give the Bulls an entertaining six-game series. Middleton was a second-round pick whom the Bucks received along with Brandon Knight in the Brandon Jennings a couple of years back, and has been a pleasant surprise for a guy who was imagined as contract fodder in the deal.
  • Paul Pierce, 3-year, $10.5 million with the Clippers: No question Pierce is over the hill. He’s going to be 38 years old next season and his All-Star days are behind him. But Pierce put up a surprisingly effective campaign as support to John Wall and Bradley Beal last year. His 16.3 PER was his best mark since 2010-2011. He also developed into a 3-point specialist, with 46.2 percent of his shots being 3-point attempts (he shot 38.7 percent on threes). Pierce is not the same kind of game-changing superstar he once was in Boston, and Washington knew that and put him in a role that helped him mentor the younger stars and incorporated a system that allowed him to succeed individually despite his limitations (something Brooklyn didn’t do two years ago; they wanted him and Garnett to be 2008-2010 Pierce and Garnett and it failed miserably). I can see Los Angeles doing the same. Doc Rivers knows Pierce, and Pierce will bring instant leadership and production in a more limited role. He is Matt Barnes but with more consistency and less headaches (though he won’t match Barnes’ athleticism). What keeps this from being a High Life pick though? I just don’t know how he’ll mesh with the Clippers more temper mental talent. If things don’t go well initially with Pierce’s arrival, I could see him clashing with the younger stars, especially DeAndre Jordan (if he’s back) and Blake Griffin (I think Chris Paul is temperamental as well but Paul’s a bit more of a vet that will have instant respect for Pierce). I know Doc is all about team chemistry, but he hasn’t reached the kind of “ubuntu” in LA that he had in Boston. Will Pierce be the difference or will he fall into the anti-“ubuntu” that has kept the Clippers from going further in the playoffs?

Rolling Rock signings

  • Kevin Love, 5-year, $110 million with the Cavs and Tristian Thompson, 5-year, $80 million with the CavsI am glad for Cleveland and LeBron’s sake that Love re-signed with Cleveland. It would have been devastating for him to leave in free agency considering not only did they not even get a healthy playoff season with him and they lost out on the reigning rookie of the year (Andrew Wiggins) in the process (seriously…imagine LeBron and Wiggins running the floor…I think LeBron would have won the Finals with Wiggins if the Love trade never happened). However, I just don’t know if Love fits in this team. He really emerged as more of a spot-up corner 3 player on this Cavs team (his corner 3 percentage was 32.1 percent; his previous high in this category was 13.2 percent his sophomore season), and there are guys who can come a lot more affordable than Love. And furthermore, this leads to Thompson, who earned an $80 million extension. With Love, Thompson and Mozgov, one post is going to be the odd-man out. And while Love is the more established player, it was obvious that the combo of Mozgov and Thompson was very effective in the playoffs for Cleveland, probably more so than with Love supposedly because Thompson and Mozgove are both upgrades defensively over Love. In fact, if I was Cleveland, I would have simply gone forward with Mozgov and Thompson, even if it meant the Wiggins trade was all for naught. I think the former Longhorn and the big Russian just have more long-term upside than Love, who I am not sure is the dominant post presence that he was in Minnesota (though he certainly has diversified his game). If they re-signed just one, I would credit that to them committing to a certain style of play (either more wide open with Love or more post-oriented with Thompson). But both? It just smells like a recipe for disaster in year 2 of the James era 2.0.
  • Brandon Knight, 5-year, $70 million and Tyson Chandler, 4-year, $52 million with the Suns: Phoenix confuses me. Last year, they signed Isaiah Thomas to a multiple year deal though they already had three point guards on the roster (Dragic, Bledsoe and Tyler Ennis, their first round pick). Then they traded Dragic for Brandon Knight, and much like the deal for the Heat, it really didn’t help their playoff chances. Knight just seemed like a better fit in Milwaukee and he doesn’t have the ballhandling or playmaking ability that complements Eric Bledsoe like Dragic did. In his 11 games, Knight stopped going to the rim (29.1 percent of his shots came from 0-3 in Milwaukee; that fell to 15.4 in Phoenix) and settled to being an outside shooter (46.9 3-point attempt rate), which is fine if that’s from your wing specialist, but not a guy who’s allegedly taking over for Dragic at the point. Maybe Phoenix likes this version of Knight. Maybe they see Bledsoe taking over more point opportunities. But $70 million seems a lot for a guy who didn’t perform well and is suspect when it comes to the running the point. As for Chandler? Can he fit into Coach Hornacek’s run and gun system? I watched Phoenix live against Sacramento and they can push the pace. It was common to see one of the Morris twins play small-ball center. Can Chandler handle it? I know, he’s there for defense and maybe leadership, but I have trouble seeing Chandler as a fit with this squad and their style of play. And four years? Maybe Phoenix is just holding him as a trade asset to eventually trade back to Dallas in a year or two?
  • Jimmy Butler, 5-year, $95 million with the Bulls: On paper, it really is a pretty solid deal. Butler is coming off his best season yet in his career, posting a PER of 21.3 and a true shooting percentage of 58.3 percent while accumulating 11.2 win shares last season. Butler is an athletic guard who really assumed the mantle as one of the go-to perimeter scorers for the Bulls as Derrick Rose struggled through injury. The fact that they got him for only 5 million more than Dragic and Kawhi Leonard seems like a good deal, especially when you consider how much he meant to the Bulls last year. However, Butler’s breakout seemed random (never posted a PER above the 15 range in his 3 previous seasons), and he seemed to rely heavily on the mid-range last year, shooting 12.1 percent of his shots from 10-16 ft and 21.2 percent of his shots from 16 to the 3 point line. This was a big increase from two years ago where he shot only 8.5 percent and 19.8 percent of his shots from those spots respectively. And likewise, his 3-point shooting percentage went down from 34.6 percent in 2013-2014 to 21.2 percent last year. People may argue that his true shooting went up when he started embracing the mid-range more (his true shooting was 52.2 percent in 2013-2014), but it wasn’t as if his efficiency improved in those shots much better than his 3-point shots. He went up 2 percent in 10-16 range and 1.5 percent in 16 to 3 point shots while his 3-pt percentage improved 9.5 percent. This will be interesting to see how this shot selection will mesh with Fred Hoiberg, who tends to embrace a lot of modern-day NBA principles (i.e. 3 and Key). Butler may be worth the $95 million and I think Butler will fit with the up-tempo style of Hoiberg, but I am a little skeptical to see Butler put together two All-Star campaigns in a row.

Natty Light Signings

  • Brandan Wright, 3-year, $18 million with Grizzlies: This is a weird one because I actually like Brandan Wright and think he is a very good, underrated player in the right situation. Plus, the contract is very friendly, being only about $6 million per year on average. But, I don’t see Wright fitting in on this team. He obviously will come off the bench with Z-Bo and Gasol manning the four, five posts, respectively, but I am not sure how effective he will be in Dave Joerger’s offense. I think this probably also means the end of Kosta Koufos, who I think was a very underrated cog for the Grizzlies and fit their needs better (which was defense from the posts). Maybe they will keep Koufos of course, with Jon Leur now a Phoenix Sun, but if Wright is the primary bench option off the bench for Memphis, I think that isn’t a good sign, because I don’t know if he can play the style (i.e. Grit and Grind) that is demanded of a post player in Memphis.
  • Thaddeus Young, 4-year, $50 million with the Nets: Thaddeus Young is the king of tweener player that in my mind seems enticing on paper, but ends up being disappointing. He is like a Natty Light bottle. It looks cool. The design is somewhat cool. You pop it open though, take it in and…just disappointment. Young cannot shoot from beyond the arc, as he is a career 32.3 percent 3-pt shooter, and has only taken 14.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his career. And thus, that has kind of limited him in the small and power forward positions, as he is not really big enough to establish himself down low there, and he is not skilled enough to keep defenders honest. Young is pretty much a poor man’s Andre Iguodala, ironic considering they both played for the Sixers to start their careers. I could see Young find a renaissance as a small-ball center, but unfortunately, Lionel Hollins is not the kind of coach to employ that kind of strategy, and the presence of Brook Lopez further hinders it from reality as well. I think Young could have fit in a lot of places in a different kind of role. Unfortunately, that won’t be in Brooklyn, and that’s what makes this deal seems unappealing (like Natty Light).
  • Al-Farouq Aminu, 4-year, $30 million with the Blazers: I don’t get Aminu love by any means. This is a guy who is a poor man’s Thaddeus Young, which is sad because Young is a poor man’s Iguodala (I could continue the cycle here, but I won’t for space sake). Aminu’s career true shooting percentage is 50.5 percent. His career PER average is 12.4. He flamed out of New Orleans even though the organization spent a lottery pick on him, and while he did bounce back in Dallas in a reserve role, he only averaged 18.5 minutes. To spend about an average of $7.5 million per year over FOUR YEARS just seems like way, way too much. I know Portland likes their versatile big guys who can play multiple positions. I am sure that the Blazers wanted to replace former Swiss Army knife Nic Batum in some kind of way. And yes, Aminu can play multiple positions, as he logged in time, according to basketball reference at every position but point. But unlike Batum, Aminu can’t really play any position well, which is the reason why he is not a starting caliber player in the NBA anymore and barely serviceable as a bench player.
  • Iman Shumpert, 4-year, $40 million with the Cavaliers: The Cavs want to keep the band together. And that is understandable as the Cavs were two games away from bringing that elusive title to Cleveland. Signing Love to a massive contract is understandable. He is an All-Star, a big name, and you traded a possible future superstar (Wiggins) for him, so you have to keep face and hope that Love pans out. Thompson was a Cavs draft pick and had a good playoff run, especially in the Finals. You can’t blame them wanting to reward Thompson for the good work (not to mention beat the rush before another team offered him a contract; Thompson was a restricted free agent). But Shumpert? $10 million on average per year for a guy who only scored .98 points per 100 possessions last season? I am all for team chemistry and do believe that Shumpert provides a lot of defensive value to the Cavs (he has accumulated 6.5 defensive win shares in his four-year career). But $10 million per year just sounds like a lot to pay for it. It’ll be interesting to see if Shumpert can find a more refined offensive role in his first full season in Cleveland to help justify this signing.

I will probably create another post in the next day or so to discuss some other signings and extensions, but this is the list so far. It’s only July, but the 2015-2016 NBA season couldn’t start soon enough.

Food Truck BBQ, Growlers and Sour Beer: The Joy of Cinder Block Brewery

Cinder Block is a relaxing place for great, unique beers in Northtown
Cinder Block is a relaxing place for great, unique beers in Northtown

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.