"Wichita? Why on earth would you want to go there?" That's a question I've been asked many times over the years and it came up again when I told people I was going there after the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last week.
They have a point; Wichita is clearly not the world's most exciting place. Stuck in the middle of flat plains surrounded by miles and miles of wheat and cornfields, it's a sleepy city of a mere 380,000 people - tiny by American standards. With a severe climate that oscillates from extremely hot in summer to freezing cold in winter and little in the way of spring and autumn, I'd say Wichita is America's equivalent of Ashburton.
Despite probably being best known as the home of Glen Campbell's famous lineman, Wichita does have a few other claims to fame. Once dubbed "Air Capital of the World", it was the home of aircraft manufacturers such as Cessna, Stearman, Mooney and Beechcraft. Next year Boeing will be leaving the city after 85 years, but even today Wichita remains an engineering and manufacturing base for the likes of Hawker Beechcraft, Airbus, Bombardier (Learjet) and Cessna. Aside from the aviation industry, in 1958 brothers Dan and Frank Carney founded the Pizza Hut restaurant chain in Wichita.
None of which has any relevance to my visit! I was heading to Wichita because I have an elderly uncle and aunt who have lived in the city for almost 60 years. My mother's older brother, Eric, and his Austrian wife, Marianne, shifted there after World War II. Given the flight from Denver to Wichita is just 90 minutes, it seemed an unmissable opportunity to see them again.
Uncle Eric has always enjoyed beer and, being one of the few enthusiastic imbibers in the family, he and I have spent many happy hours together in pubs and bars. I remember back in the early seventies, on one of his frequent return visits to the UK to catch up with the family, he took me to one of his former beer-drinking haunts, a working man's club in Battersea, South London. As a teenager, and barely of legal drinking age, I recall my mother's strict instructions as I left the house that evening: I was allowed only two pints of beer. Later that night, as I faced my umpteenth glass, I recall Eric's words: "Ah yes, but she didn't specify how many halfs!"
Eric is now 87 years old and still visits his favourite bar, Walt's Great American Sports Bar & Grill, every Friday night, where he's regarded as something of an institution. When I last visited, in 2010, licensed premises across Kansas were just about to go smoke-free and I remember Walt's being noisy and very smoky; the food classic American - burgers, hot dogs and the like - and the beer range decidedly average. My uncle always drinks Fat Tire, a sweetish, malty amber ale from Colorado brewers New Belgium, and I recall switching back and forth between that and the drier, crisper Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
I didn't get to Walt's this time - my uncle is a creature of habit and I wasn't there on a Friday evening - neither did I visit either of Wichita's two brewpubs, but I did manage to call in to one of the city's excellent specialist bottle stores, Jacob's Liquor Exchange. After admiring the wonderful range of American and imported craft beers I settled for a six-pack of a comparatively local beer, Double-Wide IPA from Boulevard Brewing Company of Kansas City.
Richly malty and seasoned with a cocktail of American hops (Bravo, Columbus, Cascade, Centennial and Chinook), this beer weighs in at 8.5 per cent alcohol and 71 units of bitterness. It is a suitably robust, perfumy example of the style.
Based in Kansas City - which, confusingly, is just across the state line in Missouri - Boulevard is the largest craft brewer in the Midwest. By coincidence, my hotel room-mate while I was judging in Denver was Neil Witte, who is a field quality manager for the brewery. During our time together Neil, who was a fellow judge at the GABF, gave me a good insight into his company's beers.
My pick of Boulevard's offerings at the festival included two of the brewery's "Smokestack" series; Saison-Brett, a delightfully tart, funky, dry hopped, version of their Tank 7 farmhouse ale, and Reverb, an Imperial Pilsener which was first brewed as a collaboration with Jean-Marie Rock, the famous head brewer at Belgium's Orval brewery.
Named after Boulevard's chimney, a local landmark, the "smokestack" range is described as: "A labour of love, these bold, complex ales include both traditional styles and daring experiments, allowing our brewers to explore some of the more esoteric realms of their craft." From what I tasted they're not joking.
As a parting gift Neil gave me a bottle of Boulevard's Love Child Number 2, one of a series of sour ales in the Smokestack range. Barrel aged with lactobaccillus and brettanomyces cultures and presented in a 750ml champagne bottle complete with cork and wire capsule, this potent (9.6 per cent) amber-reddish coloured brew offers a tart, fruity (cherries), winey aroma and palate along with plenty of wild yeast and barrel-aged funk. I found it a complex and challenging, but immensely enjoyable beer experience. I shared my bottle with Eric while I was in Wichita and although he seemed to approve I have a strong suspicion he'll be back on his Fat Tire at Walt's next Friday night.
- The Marlborough Express