I researched and wrote about Kansas City’s hop-infused history and more than sixty breweries from the frontier era to the twenty-first century. Published by The History Press as part of its American Palate Series, this book is a look at a slice of the city’s growth through the brewing industry over a nearly 170-year period through stories and color and b/w photos.
Westbound immigrants, pioneers and entrepreneurs alike arrived in Kansas City with a thirst for progress and beer. Breweries both small and mighty seized opportunity in a climate of ceaseless social change and fierce regional competition. Muehlebach Brewing Company commanded the market, operating in Kansas City for more than eighty years. Built in 1902, the iconic brick warehouse of Imperial Brewing still stands today. Prohibition made times tough for brewers and citizens in the Paris of the Plains, but political “Boss” Tom Pendergast kept the taps running. In 1989, Boulevard Brewing kicked off the local craft beer renaissance, and a bevy of breweries soon formed a flourishing community.
EXCERPT – Chapter 1: Early Brewing in Kansas City
A walk east along Third Street behind the City Market leads past the River Market North stop on the Kansas City Streetcar line. Asphalt on side streets covers brick cobblestones and layers of dirt, rock and limestone bedrock far below. The Metrobus line stops at Third and Grand Streets, where passengers board and take the 103, 110 or 142 routes. Today, the densely populated River Market neighborhood could pack a brewery’s taproom within walking distance of home and work. Roughly 160 years ago, Kansas City’s first known brewery was located one block east at Third and Oak and served the city’s growing populace.
Kansas City’s population grew from 700 residents in 1846 to 5,185 people by the end of 1857. The city had two unidentified breweries, based on records cited in C.C. Spalding’s Annals of the City of Kansas and the Great Western Plains.
By comparison, St. Louis was home to twenty-four breweries by 1854 and reached forty breweries six years later with a collective annual output of 189,400 gallons of beer. These breweries employed hundreds of German immigrants, beer gardens flourished and lager became the emerging beer style of choice. To the west, brewing in Kansas City would not fully get underway until the mid- to late 1850s.
Late 1850s: Kansas City Brewery, Third Street Brewery
Peter John Schwitzgebel opened the oldest known brewery in Kansas City sometime in the late 1850s. Schwitzgebel, a native of Germany, and his wife, Wilhelmina, moved from St. Louis to Kansas City in 1855. By 1860, he operated Kansas City Brewery at the corner of Third and Oak Streets near the East Levee. Schwitzgebel placed an advertisement in the Kansas City Daily Journal dated August 8, 1865, that boldly declared, “I am prepared to furnish the public with the best lager beer made west of St. Louis; also white beer, ale, and porter,” having “secured the services of a Pittsburg brewer.” By 1869, the business was called Third Street Brewery.
The 1870 Kansas City Business Directory recorded that by the end of the previous year, proprietor Peter Schwitzgable [sic] had manufactured five thousand barrels of beer, valued at $65,000, and employed eight workers. The entry stated, “This brewery is the oldest in the city, its lager is famous for its fine flavor and rich taste. It stands in high reputation among the connoisseurs of this agreeable beverage.”
According to a report in the Daily Journal of Commerce of Kansas City dated February 26, 1870, Schwitzgebel employed ten men and three wagons. He had about $50,000 invested in the brewery, which had a capacity of forty-five barrels per day, one-third of which was consumed in the city. The daily production capacity of the expanded brewery’s malt house was one hundred bushels. The same issue of the journal lists an advertisement for P. Schwitzgebel, Proprietor of Kansas City Brewery, for beer and lager.
In 1871, Schwitzgebel changed the brewery’s name back to Kansas City Brewery. He lost his property in 1872 in advance of the Panic of 1873. This national financial crisis was instigated when Jay Cooke and Co., a banking firm that led U.S. government investment in railroad construction, closed its doors on September 18, 1873. Schwitzgebel’s loss was one of many casualties as a major economic panic swept the United States. The brewery’s listing in the 1875 city directory shows a name change to Kansas City Brewing Company with Clark and Kump as proprietors.