September 2011 Featured Brewery
Location: Lawrence, KS
Distribution: Kansas & Missouri
Contact: (785) 843-4555
By Barry Grass
Did you know that the world’s best beer in the American Barleywine style is brewed in Kansas? It’s true, by one measurement anyway. Go to BeerAdvocate.com, click on the styles page, find ‘American Barleywine’ and then go to the ‘View Top Beers’ link. You will be taken to a list of the top 50 American Barleywines by aggregate ranking on BA’s system. That top spot? It isn’t held by Old Ruffian. It isn’t held by Bigfoot. It isn’t held by Behemoth. It isn’t held by Doggie Claws. It isn’t even held by Gratitude. No, sitting pretty at that number one spot is Old Backus Barleywine, a winter seasonal from Free State Brewing Company out of Lawrence, Kansas. Two questions typically enter the mind of the Beer Advocate user who stumbles upon this discovery. The first question is “A Kansas brewery makes America’s best Barleywine?” The second, no less surprising, question is “Wait, they make beer in Kansas?”
They do indeed make beer in the Sunflower State. The most visible confirmation of the fact lies in the colorful 16oz. cans from Manhattan, KS’s Tallgrass Brewing, who are enjoying a surge in distribution reach. But the state hasn’t been brewing for very long. The state legislature took until 1987 to allow small breweries and brewpubs to operate legally. That new law was a sharp change of direction for a state that so thoroughly embraced the proscriptions of the Drys and teetotalers, that so embraced Prohibition. After all, Carrie Nation, whose free-swinging hatchet destroyed plenty of barrels of beer, founded and ran her temperance movement out of the state of Kansas. 1987 was a landmark year in the state. Until 1987 you not only couldn’t run a brewpub or microbrewery in KS, you couldn’t even run a bar. It was illegal to serve alcohol by the drink in the state until 1987. Even to this day the subject of alcohol in Kansas is a tricky one. Most communities still prohibit alcohol sales on Sundays, and grocery stores are still unable to sell any sort of beer beyond the interminable 3.2 % ABV beer. Kansas is one of eight states that have never officially ratified the 21st Amendment (which repealed Prohibition).
But as anyone who has stopped into a liquor store or brewpub in Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan or Lawrence can tell you, Kansas is no longer suffering from a dearth of craft beer. Lawrence’s Free State was the very first business to take the legislature up on their 1987 invitation, opening the doors to its brewpub in 1989. Located in an old trolley station, Free State’s interior speaks to elegant simplicity. There’s lots of blonde woodgrain and brass poles, giving the place an old-style charm that fits perfectly with Mass St.’s hip, retro-chic atmosphere that students at the University of Kansas flock to. The food is simply prepared but always fresh and bold. Perhaps the most obvious way that Free State speaks to simplicity is in the transparency of their brewery; diners & drinkers both see brew kettles from the dining room & the bar.
The décor may be simple, but the lineup of beers at Free State is anything but. Sure, they have a core lineup of year-round beers that, yes, come straight out of a brewpub that flourished in the 1990’s craft boom: a pale ale, an unfiltered wheat beer, an oatmeal stout, etc. But they also make a dizzying amount of seasonal beers throughout the year: steam beers, imperial stouts, experiments with rye, helles lagers, quadruples. The taps rotate frequently – and I mean frequently; when their Twitter account announces that Josiah Miller IPA (which Mark Starr gave a score of 7,000/100) is on-tap then you’d better get over to Mass St. immediately – which keeps customers coming back and allows the brewery to make expensive behemoths like the aforementioned Old Backus. Oh, Old Backus. Flavors of vanilla, caramel, cinnamon roll dough, cookie dough, sourdough bread crusts, prune, brown sugar, blackberry jam. It’s like MaltSlam! And it’s worth every single penny it’d take to trade for a growler. I’ve never had a better American Barleywine.
While Old Backus and its 2,000 pounds of malt per batch gets beer nerds in a tizzy, it is Free State’s lighter, more sessionable offerings that the brewery truly specializes in. Their flagship beer, Ad Astra Ale (named after Kansas’ state motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera”), is an altbier. How many breweries hang their hat on an altbier? Ad Astra is full of caramel and tobacco, orange peel & oolong tea.
After over twenty years of serving the Lawrence community with fresh beer, Free State is starting to expand their reach. They’ve installed a small bottling line, and are currently distributing six-packs of their Ad Astra Ale, Copperhead Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout and Wheat State Golden throughout Kansas and in the Western area of Missouri. Their distribution deals also allow them to send kegs of their beers to bars in their distribution network, allowing consumers in Kansas City to drink a fresh pint of a seasonal beer like Brinkley’s Maibock without having to drive into Lawrence.
It took so long after Prohibition for Kansas’ brewing scene to get back on its feet, but the future is on the up-and-up. Free State Brewing Company started it all, a textbook example of how just one brewery, just one place taking time to make excellent craft beer, can be the catalyst for creating an entire beer culture.
Popular Beers: Old Backus Barleywine, Copperhead Pale Ale, Ad Astra Ale, Josiah Miller IPA