This story of craft beer and baseball begins on Opening Day three years ago at Kauffman Stadium. Neil Witte, a training and technical support manager with the Boulevard Brewing Company, made his way through the parking lot as tailgaiting Kansas City Royals fans hoped that the fat grey clouds overhead didn’t put on a damper on the start of the baseball season.
He was headed to the underground labyrinth, where vendors would get their first taste of Witte’s latest innovation: a backpack that could dispense draft beer in the stands.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Boulevard had piloted a backpack system at The K. But the challenge of kegs that were too small to be filled on the keg line meant the then-fledgling brewery scrapped the idea after the 1994 season. But the growing popularity of craft brews and Witte’s experience with designing custom tap lines led Boulevard to resurrect the concept.
Witte’s prototypes were tested on camping trips, walks around the brewery, and at Sporting KC games. The end result was a 50-pound backpack with an insulated pocket for a small keg (it holds enough beer for 26 16-ounce pours), a sleeve that holds a cup dispenser and a faucet with a clip that can fit on a vendor’s belt. The key for Witte, who retrofitted a backpack typically used to dispense hot chocolate, was an insulated line and regulator that controls the carbon-dioxide pressure to ensure that the beer has head, but isn’t foamy.
While bratwursts sizzled on grills in the parking lot above, Witte held a brief training session and shadowed the six vendors that had opted to pour Boulevard Wheat out of backpacks. The vendors and managers jokingly called the backpacks “proton packs.” As they headed out to the stands, they passed the two Boulevard-branded grills and the new pub in the area behind home plate.
The 2012 season marked a new direction for both Boulevard and the Royals. The brewery had a larger presence at the stadium and the core of today’s Royals lineup (names like Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas, Perez and Escobar) took the field daily. By 2013, the fortunes of Boulevard and the Royals had changed dramatically. Duvel Moortgat acquired a majority stake in the Kansas City brewery, which set them on a path for major expansion, and the hometown team posted its first winning record in a decade.
All of which laid the foundation for what’s happening right now. Kauffman Stadium has Craft & Draft – a craft brewery-centric lounge concept that debuted this year – and a team that just captured the first American League Central title in this city’s history. Whether it’s correlation or causation is for the fans ultimately to decide. But for Witte, this season’s story has a happy ending. As he noted in this week’s episode of Today’s Special, “October baseball and craft beer, there’s nothing better.”
— Follow “Today’s Special,” a five-part digital-first series, on Mondays at Flatland and on Thursdays at KCPT. Next week (Oct. 12 | TV Oct. 15) it’s a peek at The Rieger Hotel Bar & Exchange.