By Lindsay Toler
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A few rounds into their night, a trio of men slump on stools around the expansive white bar at the Cashew. It's happy hour on a Tuesday. Vernon Rice, Dan Pavlich and Dan's uncle, Jim a computer tech, a bank services salesman and trucking company owner, respectively have met up to blow off some steam. A warm breeze blows through the open windows behind them. The popular Kansas City watering hole is shoulder-bumping packed.
Squinting toward a row of eight tap handles, the guys have no idea that they're in the middle of a bar fight. It's not a fistfight, but more of a territorial pissing match.
The combatants are listed on the taps in front of them: Skinny Dip, Blue Moon, Peroni, Stella Artois, Guinness and three beers from hometown favorite Boulevard Brewing Company: Wheat, Pale Ale and Lunar. The tap handle that brings in the least money over the next few months will get bounced from the bar in favor of a new beer.
The crowd favorite tonight is Boulevard Wheat. Lindsey Vannoi, a curvy, blonde bartender with purple nail polish, has poured more than seventeen glasses of it over the past hour. Some have been accented with orange or lemon slices. Others she has topped off with vodka and lemonade, a mixture that has become the Cashew's bankable signature drink, "Summertime Beer."
The hands-down loser in tonight's royal rumble of booze consumption also belongs to Boulevard. It's Lunar, the microbrewery's latest release. Lunar debuted in April as the first new beer offered year-round by Boulevard since the company concocted its Dry Stout in 1996. For more than an hour, not one person has ordered the brown-ale-style Lunar.
The jovial men lean forward, eyeballing their options for the next round. The tap handles before them are topped with attractive images: a pair of sandals for Skinny Dip, a night forest scene for Blue Moon, a bucolic rolling farm for Wheat. They've been drinking mostly light beer tonight, but Vannoi pours three samples of the Lunar into chilled whiskey glasses and slides them across the bar. The brew coats the glasses like chocolate milk.
She offers it with a warning: "I get strong feelings on Lunar. People either love it or they hate it."
Rice sips the dark brew and makes a sour face at the lingering, syrupy flavor. "It tastes like pop," he says.
Dan sips and pauses. "I don't like it," he declares.
Jim raises his glass and takes it in one shot, like cough medicine. His ruddy face grows redder. "It's got an aftertaste to where you can't drink and hit on women!" he shouts. He exhales, as though spraying dragon fire.
Lunar has provoked similar reactions all across the Kansas City area. And Boulevard owner John McDonald knows it.
But McDonald believes that quaffers are divided into two constituencies. One is worth courting, the other isn't. To McDonald, Rice and his pals represent "social drinkers." Beer, he says, is just a "social lubricant" to the majority of beer drinkers. "It's ubiquitous in American life," McDonald says.
McDonald is more interested in what he calls "real beer drinkers." They distinguish subtle aromas and flavors in beer, like members of a poor man's wine club. These guys thrill that Lunar is a German-style dunkelweizen with a Belgium yeast, billed on the company's Web site as "a cloudy, russet brown beer with subtle aromatic notes... a uniquely rounded mellow flavor crowned by a crisp, dry finish."
At the Cashew, the only "real beer drinkers" appear to be a crew in their early thirties huddled around a high-top table on the other side of the bar. Dressed in business casual, Doug Adams, Mike Major and Jason Koch, old friends from Baker University, have tasted all over the beer spectrum tonight gold-tinted Boulevard Wheat, sun-burned Fat Tire, mud-puddle-colored Guinness.
Koch notices for the first time that Lunar is on tap. He decides to order one. Adams warns against it. He tells Koch he's tried it before and found it oddly spicy. Koch flags down a waitress and orders one anyway. When the beer arrives, he grabs it and drinks gingerly.
"It's all right," he proclaims. He passes the pint to Adams and Major.
"Actually, I like it more than I remember," Adams says.
"Like any beer, it grows on you," Major adds.
McDonald has built his reputation on re-training taste buds. In 1989, believing that Kansas City was suffering from light-beer fatigue, he launched his brewery with two more robust choices, Pale Ale and Bully Porter. In 1992 he introduced Unfiltered Wheat. The Wheat now makes up more than half of Boulevard's business, helping the company become the fifth-largest specialty brewery in the nation. Boulevard has now colonized an eleven-state territory that stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas, Indiana to Kansas.
Last August Boulevard completed a $25 million expansion, ramping up production from the equivalent of 38 million bottles to as much as 46 million in 2007. When Boulevard opened the new facility, it also launched Lunar. The expanded facility and the new beer should have signaled good times for Boulevard. Until Lunar, the KC brewer has had nothing but success. Its Wheat and Pale Ale hold their own against anything produced by microbrewers or giants elsewhere, and its seasonal beers have loyal followings.