Kansas could've had great beer history
Kansas. The Wheat State. The Sunflower State. The Beer State? It might have been if it weren't for those teetotaling, busybodied, fun-hating killjoys who led the charge toward Prohibition. Kansas as "The Beer State" might be a stretch, but had we not been forced off the road to perdition there's no doubt that, in addition to being closer to eternal damnation, we would be much further along in our brewing history.
Prior to Prohibition, there were no fewer than 90 breweries operating in pre-statehood Kansas and, by 1860, brewing was the fourth largest industry in the territory. An overwhelming number of those in the trade were German immigrants who brought their brewing traditions with them from their homeland.
Due, in part, to its dense German population, Leavenworth was a bit of a beer hub in the mid-1800s.
During this time, there were at least six breweries operating concurrently in Leavenworth, including the very first brewery to open in the territory, the Kansas Brewing Company, which opened in 1854.
With a thriving brewing industry and its role as one of the key supply bases for the settlement of the American West, Leavenworth could have become the cradle of the American beer tradition.
That was not to be. Instead of taking the helm of a burgeoning beer trade, Kansas steered things in the opposite direction becoming the first to enact statewide prohibition in 1881. In an effort to curb violence from so-called "cowboy culture," voters approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating liquors."
A number of breweries initially continued to operate in spite of the new law, but eventually all (legal) breweries in the state extinguished their kettle fires and closed their doors.
Of course, it wasn't enough that Kansas was the first to enact Prohibition, we also maintained it the longest. Anti-alcohol laws remained on the books for another 15 years after the nationwide repeal in 1933. Additionally, it would be another four decades before the state allowed on-premise alcohol sales. Not exactly conducive to opening a brewery.
Finally, several years after a change in these restrictive laws, the first licensed post-Prohibition brewery opened its doors. By the time Lawrence's Free State brewed their first beer in 1989, Kansas was at least a decade behind in the emerging American craft beer scene that was flourishing in other parts of the country. To think, we could be home to several 150-year-old breweries while in reality our oldest just celebrated its 26th anniversary.
These days, Kansas is no longer dry and a flood of breweries are forging a new path across the prairie. With over 20 breweries churning out beer across the state and several more slated to open this year, we're poised to regain some of the ground lost to the "noble experiment."
Though, Kansas' opportunity to be an industry leader was stymied by some sticks-in-the-mud, we are making up for it in short order. Now it's time to celebrate those Plains-produced beers with the second annual Kansas Craft Beer Week. Throughout the week of March 30 to April 5, area bars, breweries and restaurants will host tappings and tastings featuring the state's finest ales. Details for all of the week's events can be found on the Kansas Craft Beer Week Facebook page.