Mt. Sunflower is the highest natural point in Kansas. At a towering 4,039 ft above sea level, this natural wonder is actually located on private land adjacent to the Colorado border. There's a plaque at Mt. Sunflower, if you care to visit, that reads "nothing happened here since 1897". We never actually bothered to look up what happened there in 1897, but you should check it out if you're into that kind of thing and let us know. We're actually in Kansas because we're chatting with the great folks at Tallgrass Brewing Company (which is nowhere near Mt. Sunflower...for the record), a craft brewery located in Manhattan, Kansas. Home to K-State University, the nation's first land grant institution, it just makes sense that they're brewing great beer in America's heartland, surrounded by those fabled golden waves of grain and all. Go Wildcats.
Just like our last featured brewery in Mississippi, Kansas hasn't really splashed into the national craft beer scene in a significant way. With the notable exception of Boulevard Brewing Company (which is actually in Missouri, if you're checking), Kansas's breweries, more than 20 at this point, have flown well below the radar, making great local beer for some time now without much fuss or media attention. Maybe that's how they want it to be, but no longer. It's time they ducked onto center stage, and Tallgrass Brewing is a great intro to great Kansas beer.
Address - 5960 Dry Hop Circle, Manhattan, KS 66503
Founding date - April 8th, 2007
# of Employees - 41-60
Where can I find their beer? - 13 states! Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, and Mississippi. We also are planning to begin shipping to Tennessee later this summer!
Tasting Room Hours - Some Kansas beer laws are stupid, so they can't open a tasting room right now. Go drink at their brand new taphouse in downtown Manhattan, opening June 15th!
Naming a brewery after the natural features of your local environment is a branding formula that works pretty well. See Long Trail Brewing Company (the "Long Trail" is a hiking trail running the length of Vermont), or Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company (Magnolia trees are everywhere in Mississippi), or Gun Hill Brewing Company (named after the area in The Bronx where they're located)...etc etc. We think that Jeff Gill, founder and CEO of Tallgrass Brewing Company, takes the literal cake when it comes to naming conventions. Tall, swaying grasslands are the hallmark of a good Kansas landscape, so you'll never be confused where this beer comes from, and nor should you.
A native Kansan and natural born entrepreneur, staying true to his roots is what Jeff is all about. He remembers when the idea first hit him to start a brewery; a product of an existentially unhappy moment he had while on a date with his wife Tricia in 2006. To be clear, the date wasn't making him unhappy, but his job was. He mentioned it to Tricia and she asked him a deceptively simple question, "What would make you happy"? Exactly one year later, Jeff started his first day of work at Tallgrass Brewing Company.
It wasn't that easy, of course, but much like a lot of brewery pioneers we've spoken with, he comes across as a motivated guy. He chose Manhattan as the location for the brewery because of its proximity to his home, and proceeded to build most of the brewery himself. Tallgrass opened its doors for business in August of 2007, and shortly after that Jeff proceeded to make every mistake in the book on his way to success, expanding his distribution and bottling capacity much too quickly, and noticeably before the market was ready. He will readily admit that he almost sold himself right out of business. Without the requisite experience and judgment necessary to make good decisions around expansion, he become susceptible to well-intentioned and ostensibly bad advice from almost anyone with an opinion. After a quick withdrawal from the Philadelphia and Virginia markets, he took a deep breath and refocused his efforts on more regionally appropriate areas in the heartland.
The growth of the national craft beer scene has given many writers like us an opportunity to examine quirky regional beer laws, both at the municipal and state levels. Kansas, for example, does not allow breweries to have a tap room, or sell beer directly to customers (an archaic and antiquated law, to say the least). While the ability to open tap rooms has catalyzed hundreds of small breweries to open in states like Colorado and Virginia, it fundamentally changes the business model around craft beer in Kansas, and Tallgrass was forced to sell outside of their immediate locality in order to keep their business viable. That's a shame too, because there's room for more craft beer in Kansas...a lot more. An estimated 4-5% of all beer consumed in Kansas being craft beer, which is half the national production average.
Silly consumption laws aside, Tallgrass does a great job with their branding and their beer. In 2010, they moved their entire packaging setup to 16 oz cans, doubted by some during a time just 5 years ago when bottles were king, but let's be honest...who wouldn't want to drink 16 oz of Buffalo Sweat? What about a cold pint of Zombie Monkie or Velvet Rooster? Canned beer, now considered a norm, was clearly the right move for the brewery, and Tallgrass gets the entire outside of the can to show off its frankly amazing artwork, a credit Jeff was quick to lay on the brewery's in-house artistic director Neil Camera. Have no fear about the liquid either, because it's high quality, unique in its approach, and truly delicious. It's a trope to say that it's reflective of the area, but we think it's a terribly apropos descriptor, all things considered. We'd recommend the Buffalo Sweat, Tallgrass Pub Ale, or 8-bit if we had to choose, but count us in for all of it.
It's a tribute to their continued hard work to see a beautiful new Tallgrass brewing taphouse opening in downtown Manhattan (June 15th, if you're counting). Kansas is a state where arguably parochial politics still hold sway, and we'd like to think that craft beer pioneers like Jeff Gill are doing their part to help infuse a new energy and perspective on local business ownership and community development. The entire crew at the brewery impart a solid sense of pride and ownership in the work their doing, which is clearly considered some of the noblest work out there in our book. Check out Tallgrass when you can, and let us know what you think.
Kansas is thirsty folks...let's get back to work.