Beer here: How Wichita's growing craft beer scene is creating 'pockets of fun'

Take a quick tour of Wichita breweries

We show you inside the ten breweries making beer in Wichita.
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We show you inside the ten breweries making beer in Wichita.

When Tara Nolen wants to relax and take a break from urban life, she heads to a converted garage in a residential neighborhood east of downtown Wichita.

There are no televisions here, no blaring traffic passing by Central Standard Brewing. There's not even coordinated furniture.

"It's just such a laid-back atmosphere," Nolen said as she sipped on a Gose beer late on a summer afternoon. "I love Wichita, but this feels like a different hideaway."

Folks like Nolen are fueling a boom in the development of craft breweries across the country. The number has nearly tripled over the past six years, according to the Brewers Association.

Wichita has seen the number of local craft breweries jump from two in 2013 to 10 by early this year. More than one has multiple locations.

"They each have their own atmospheres," Kim Neufeld of Wichita said. "Not just flavors of beer, but style — and that's fun."

Breweries pack economic punch

The growing number of microbreweries is more than just a trendy statistic.

"There are indicators that do prove microbreweries are economic drivers," said Paul Thares, a community vitality field specialist for the South Dakota State University Extension Service.

Breweries help fuel growth in areas where they open because of the customers they attract, industry observers say.

Writer James Fallows, who spent three years working on a cover story for The Atlantic about how American communities have fared since The Great Recession, wrote that "perhaps the most reliable marker" of a successful town was the presence of one or more craft breweries.

Kansas breweries.jpg
Kansas has seen the number of breweries double over the past several years, but the state still ranks in the lower third nationally. Brewers Association

That comes as no surprise to Wichita's brewers.

Making craft beer takes a lot of space and equipment, so brewers typically find themselves opening in economically depressed parts of town — often in or near downtown.

"That was definitely a driving decision on us picking our location," said Andy Boyd, co-owner of Central Standard Brewing near Douglas and Hydraulic. "We got the building real cheap.

"It's off the beaten path," he said.

But that proved no obstacle for customers, who have packed the brewery since the day it opened.

"Breweries are kind of destination locations," Boyd said. "People come from out of town and seek it out, so it doesn't have to necessarily be on a main street. People will still find a way there."

'A unique vibe'

A thriving craft brewery scene is good news for economic development officials, because millennials — the demographic cities crave most — are drawn to authentic experiences they can't get anywhere else.

"It's got a unique vibe," Felipe Carlos said as he sipped on a beer at Central Standard. "I think bars are old school. Breweries are the new thing."

River City Brewery was Wichita's only microbrewery for ages, and residents questioned whether the city would support more. But then Wichita Brewing Company opened in 2011 and was an immediate hit.

"People started thinking, 'If they can do it, why can't we?'" said Stacy Ward Lattin, co-owner of Hopping Gnome, which opened just east of Douglas and Hydraulic in 2015.

"We thought we would reach a mostly younger crowd — 25 to 40 or so," Lattin said. "But any given day, you can come in and see ages 21 to 80.

"We were pleasantly surprised with the range of people who are coming in."

Anchor businesses

Supporting the craft breweries is significant, Boyd said, because "it's putting money back into the community instead of the national chains."

Craft breweries had a $67 billion impact on the U.S. economy in 2016, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. The number of breweries reached an all-time high in 2017, topping 6,300.

U.S. Brewery Count.jpg
Brewers Association

"We have seen they can play a role in revitalizing parts of town," Watson said. "They bring a lot of foot traffic into parts of town that are on the rebound.

"Those can be anchor businesses for other people to come into a neighborhood."

That's exactly what happened after Hopping Gnome opened.

"When we came in, nobody really came to this area a lot" — especially at night, Lattin said.

"We've grown the neighborhood," she said. "We brought this different crowd. We got way more foot traffic than we thought we would."

Other businesses have opened on the block, and existing businesses have expanded their hours. Similar dynamics have emerged elsewhere in town, creating what Lattin called "little pockets of fun."

"I think we're seeing people exploring more," she said. "I think breweries have helped with that, because people are trying new things."

Central Standard's owners dealt with neighborhood opposition and had to get a zoning change to convert the garage into a brewery.

"In the three years we've been around in this neighborhood, people have been renovating properties," Boyd said. "The demographics have changed a little bit."

'It's about time'

If anything, local residents say, Wichita has been slow to tap into the trend.

"It's about time, Wichita," Brody Latham said as he sipped a beer with his friend Levi Fitzmier at Nortons Brewing Company one recent weekday evening.

Kansas City will see 10 to 12 new breweries open this year alone, said Kyle Banick of the Wichita Brewing Company.

"You go to Denver and Portland, there's a brewery on every corner," Boyd said.

Kansas now has 36 craft breweries operating in the state, including the Hank is Wiser brewery in Cheney and Walnut River Brewing in El Dorado. Ten brewers produce beer locally, while another offers beers made elsewhere and brought to Wichita. Two local brewers — Bricktown and Wichita Brewing — have two locations each.

Kansas ranks just 36th in the nation in the number of breweries, according to the Brewers Association. There's plenty of room for more in Wichita, local brewmasters say.

"We're nowhere close" to the ceiling, said Becky Norton, who opened Nortons Brewing Company downtown earlier this year.

"There's a huge untapped consumer base for craft beer," she said. "Craft beer is changing, and there's something for everyone."

What makes craft breweries so popular is the variety of their beers, residents said. They each keep a handful of popular regular varieties on tap and then craft new beers as the seasons change.

'Very good beer'

Quality — not novelty — is driving the surge in popularity.

"It's very good beer," Latham said of what he's sampled locally.

Others concurred.

"I have been waiting for, like, two months for this beer," Eric Rankin said, gazing at a glass of Delano Imperial Dunkelweizen, a rich, dark beer with hints of banana bread in its flavor, as he relaxed with a group of friends at Aero Plains Brewing Company in the Delano neighborhood. "It’s amazingly smooth, and they took the time to craft it."

Rankin said he enjoys hanging out with other military veterans at Aero Plains, but he also likes Central Standard.

"The neat thing about them is they have no TVs," he said. "They encourage you to talk to each other."

Regulars at craft breweries around Wichita talk often about the sense of community — not just among the customers but among the beer makers as well.

"We're not competitive," Becky Norton said. "We think the more the merrier. The more great beer we have the more people will notice it — and the more people will want to come and try it out."

Just north of Douglas and St. Francis, Nortons is literally just around the corner from Third Place Brewing on Douglas, just as Hopping Gnome is only a couple of blocks from Central Standard.

Brewers and industry watchers say close proximity is actually a bonus because consumers like to be able to have one type of beer at one brewery and then walk to a second location for a different beer.

Craft beer fans have taken to using the Q Line trolleys to come downtown from College Hill and other neighborhoods, Lattin said.

Norton said the proximity to another brewery — and being within walking distance of Intrust Bank Arena — were not even on their minds when she and her husband chose their location.

"Honestly, we looked at all kinds of places," she said. "We just needed a space to express ourselves the proper way.

"We didn't even realize how perfect a location it was until we fell in love with the space."

Wichita's love affair with craft breweries is just beginning, Lattin and others say. Optimists say the city could support 30 to 40 microbreweries.

"The more local breweries that open, you kind of wonder if we're getting too big and going after all the same customers," said Andy Boyd, a co-owner of Central Standard Brewing.

"But it seems like there's still room for more," he said. "The more that open, the more people get exposed to it and want to try something new."