During prohibition, Chuck Magerl’s grandfather bootlegged in Kansas, which earned him a jail cell in Leavenworth.
Now, all these years later, Magerl has honored his grandfather’s dedication to the cause - helping to pave the way for beer to flow freely in a state that had been dry for decades.
Opening in 1989, Magerl’s Free State Brewery in Lawrence became Kansas’ first legal brewery in about a century.
Twenty-five years later, Kansas is bustling with breweries. Nearly 40 have opened - many in the past five years. In 2008, there were only nine.
“It’s been certainly quite a transition,” said Magerl.
For beer enthusiasts, it has been a rugged road making Kansas a wet state - one hurdled by the Temperance Movement and hatchet-wielding Carry Nation - who smashed her first saloon in Kiowa, Kansas, in 1900.
Yet Kansas does have a rich history of beer, said Magerl. There were number of breweries in the 1870s in little towns - especially with the high number of German settlers.
In 1880, Kansas became the first state to write prohibition into the constitution, banning the manufacturing and sale of intoxicating liquors, according to the Kansas Legislative Research. Kansas had statewide prohibition from 1881 to 1948 — longer than any other state. National prohibition was from 1919 to 1933.
Even after 1948, Kansas continued to prohibit liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants until 1987.
At that time, microbreweries were created as a category of licensee. Brewers could manufacture 5,000 or fewer barrels of beer a year with 8 percent alcohol or less content. Microbreweries manufacture beer with 8 percent or less alcohol content and have capacities of 5,000 or fewer barrels per year.
“That was vestiges of Kansas’ long flirtation with prohibition,” Magerl said. “We had to change laws."
Paving the way
“I believe we were around the 112th brewery in the state of Kansas,” said Magerl, noting the number of pre-prohibition era breweries before him. “When we opened, there was no one doing what we were doing between Chicago and Denver. You could take a map - the entire middle strip out of a map, and there was no one else from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico - no one else in this business.”
The amount of barrels has grown since then, as well as the number of breweries.
Free State has become an iconic staple of Lawrence - brewing now around 12,000 barrels a year - some of which is sold on tap at the restaurant and some being bottled and canned and sold across the state.
Many passionate home brewers at taking the next step and opening restaurants and tap rooms.
Ian Smith, a Moundridge man able to trace his beer-making genes back some 12 generations to Germany, collaborated with his father, Brian, to open a Three Rings Brewery in McPherson.
While only two years into the business - and it’s not big enough yet to quit his day job, Ian said the brewery’s growth is already two years ahead of where he projected in his business plan. He and his dad recently purchased a canning line, which will arrive next month. Then, customers will be able to purchase Three RIngs beers from additional restaurants and bars, as well as liquor stores - something that could happen as soon as October.
Three Rings has six beers on tap. Last year, the Smiths made about 125 barrels of beer. They anticipate that amount to double this year.
“I think we're surprised at how popular it is so quickly,” he said of his beer. “I think as the amount of breweries grow across the state the demand and popularity increases. We see people branching out of their comfort zone and trying new things because we are the local place, which is great for all of us.”
Torrey Lattin and his wife, Stacy Ward Lattin, opened Hopping Gnome in Wichita in May 2015 - among a wave of breweries to open in the city. Previously, the only brewery in the area was River City Brewing, which opened in 1993.
After visiting Colorado breweries, the couple got the idea to create a brewery with a relaxed, beer-focused atmosphere - where people could get together, play games, order pizza from the neighboring restaurant - and just hang out.
“We thought it was a cool vibe that we could bring to Wichita,” Stacy said.
The beers have been so popular, they are planning to expand, she said. It’s also going well enough that both have left their full-time jobs - Torrey from a engineering firm and Stacy a marketing job.
Hopping Gnome was the first tap room in Wichita. Now there are seven Wichita breweries and two more in the works, she said.
Prohibition was not the state’s shining moment, said Magerl, calling his grandfather a “vivacious, active old Czech guy who never lost his spirit.”
It’s great to see others with the same passion, he said.
“It’s fun to see people embracing new flavors, new experiences,” said Magerl, noting his family’s long pioneering spirit. “There is a sense of gratitude to see people in Sylvan Grove or Beaver who are trying to bring a little bit of that spirit to different areas.”