Cheers to that: Craft breweries proliferate around Wichita

Hopping Gnome co-owner Stacy Ward Lattin serves up a jug of beer for customers in early February.
Hopping Gnome co-owner Stacy Ward Lattin serves up a jug of beer for customers in early February. The Wichita Eagle

There was a time when Dan Norton had a singular job in Wichita.

Sixteen years ago, he started brewing beer for River City Brewing Co. in Old Town. Now, the head brewer is preparing to start his own brewery, which will join a spate of new craft breweries in Wichita.

“They’re sprouting up everywhere,” Norton said. “The more the merrier, though.”

In addition to River City Brewing and the brewery Norton is planning, Wichita Brewing Co. & Pizzeria has two sites and a production facility that’s almost ready.

There’s also Central Standard Brewing, Hopping Gnome Brewing and Hungry Heart Gastro Pub and Brewery in and around the core of the city.

Aero Plains Brewing is in the works in Delano, as is Third Place Brewing downtown. Then there’s Walnut River Brewing Co. in El Dorado and Hank Is Wiser Brewery in Cheney, both of which are popular with Wichitans.

Augustino Brewing could happen in west or north Wichita by next year.

“We’re still very young and in the infantile stages … but it’s getting there,” Norton said.

“Once you go craft, you really never go back,” he said. “There’s a huge demand for local craft beer.”

He said there’s a collegial attitude among brewers, who share information and don’t necessarily think of each other as competition.

For instance, Norton said of Central Standard Brewing: “Those boys are rocking it.”

And Walnut River:

“They’re getting ready to blow up all over the state,” Norton said of the brewery’s distribution, adding that Wichita Brewing isn’t far behind.

“There’s a demand for local craft beer that nobody’s been able to really fill yet, especially the distribution side,” Norton said.

Steven Haines, the craft beer manager at House of Schwan, said he’s working on that as the distributor for most of Wichita’s breweries.

“There’s always been craft fans, but with all the new local craft brewers … a huge wave is starting to hit,” Haines said. “It’s only going to get more people into the category and get people more excited about the products.”

Haines said there’s room for many breweries.

“They all have their own unique stories, and that’s the fun part – taking that journey along with them,” he said.

“They all have their own ideas about what they want to do. That’s the beautiful part about craft beer. They all have their own story to tell, and they do that a lot through the beers that they make.”

Anchor and Fork & Fennel owner Schane Gross, a beer aficionado, said she saw Wichita’s craft beer movement years ago in the homes where it started.

“I’ve seen this transition happen slowly,” she said.

Gross said she wonders about the average drinker who may try craft beer at chains such as Granite City Food & Brewery and BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse.

“Do people know the difference between people who are actually brewing and not brewing?”

Gross said breweries are always on the radar of home brewers.

“The competition forces people to make a product that sells,” she said.

“There’s more and more craft beer drinkers coming around, so everybody’s stepping their game up to make as much quality beer as possible,” Norton said. “Wichita’s getting there as a beer city.”

One of the area’s original brewery operators, Hank Sanford of Hank Is Wiser in Cheney, has offered advice to some of the newer brewers around Wichita.

“Start with the biggest equipment you can afford,” he said. “We’re having trouble keeping up with demand ourselves.”

He added, “It’s been tough to make beer in such small quantities and make a living doing it.”

Rob Miller of Goebel Liquor, who has been called the patriarch of the local beer scene with his Rob’s World of Beers, said the trend took longer to start here than he thought it would but then caught up quickly.

“I didn’t know it would ever be as big as it is now,” he said. “It’s been kind of a fun run to watch.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers