BEAVER - This town has seen better days.
Drive far enough down the dusty Barton County highway, past the landscape of crop fields, and you’ll find it — a near ghost town on the Kansas prairie. Like most small towns, it has a towering elevator, along with a population of 18 residents and nothing much else.
But there is beer and plenty of it.
Beaver is the smallest town in Kansas — and maybe even the country — with its own microbrewery. And, despite being more than 30 miles from the nearest cities, Great Bend and Russell, Beaver Brewery at Mo’s Place is becoming a destination for pub crawlers.
It was all of this that caused Austin Bell and friend Dale Kaiser to uproot from Kansas City a year-and-a half-ago and buy a shuttered brewery in a town that doesn’t make most road maps. The 39-year-old Bell tells the story of his journey to the little town as he stood behind the bar, sipping a glass of Wildcat Pale Ale he recently brewed.
It started with having a beer here with his grandma about a dozen years before he and Kaiser, 52, left Kansas City one December night in 2015 and followed one another down the country roads to Beaver. They began to work to reopen Beaver Brewery — without even knowing how to brew beer.
Now, people are again coming from across the region for a meal and refreshments — hoisting pint-sized glasses of liquid brewed here weekly.
Far from their big-city life, these two have found their calling.
“I like the place,” said Bell. “The first time I ever came in I thought it was a cool place with charm it was in the middle of nowhere. It was unusual. You can go to all kind of bars in Kansas City and they are kind of all the same. They all have the same feel - sometimes they feel - sometimes they have the same menu items. Out here was totally different. And when I brought Dale out here, he fell in love with it, too.”
“That’s really how it happened.”
The dream started because of grandma.
Bell’s father, a retired Kansas newspaper publisher, grew up in Hoisington. Bell himself graduated from Chanute High School, went to Kansas State University, then ventured to Kansas City where he first worked in radio and then as a freelancer for the Kansas City Star. Around 2010, Bell began teaching.
Throughout his time in Kansas City, however, Bell always worked at restaurants. Dale, meanwhile, has 28 years of bartending experience.
The dream of brewing beer began around 2004, when Bell went to visit his Grandma Loretta Morgenstern in Hoisington.
“She told me to meet her at this brewery in the middle of nowhere," Bell said. " I thought my grandma must be crazy, because she said a brewery in Beaver, Kansas. I figured she just meant a bar or something. I walked in and sure enough, there is my grandma with a flight of beers in front of her at one of these booths.”
Bell left mesmerized by the beer, which was brewed by Len and Linda Moeder - a couple who were tired of corporate America and wanted to relocate to a smaller community. Leonard grew up in Hoisington, so the Moeders left California and moved to Beaver where the bar was for sale, along with a home. They opened Mo’s Place Grill and Brewpub in 1999 and began serving their brew in 2004.
About a decade later, the Moeders decided to retire and put the brewery up for sale. It sat closed for more than a year.
“Every once in a while, I’d daydream about it and I’d see this ad (that it was for sale), and I’d think ‘wouldn’t it be fun to move out to the country and buy this place, open it, make it ours?’” Bell said.
Bell told Kaiser, a friend who was a bartender at a favorite bar in Kansas City, about the Beaver brewery. Kaiser grew up in Great Bend and his grandparents and an aunt and uncle lived for a time in Beaver.
“He was coming back from his family reunion at Lake Wilson,” said Kaiser. “He came to my house and we set outside and he started telling me about this place.”
Kaiser recalled going into the establishment once when it was just a bar while visiting his family. While that was years ago, he could tell from Bell’s passion that the place was special.
He told Bell if he wanted to do it, he’d go with him.
Everything clicked. Kaiser’s friend from high school was selling the property. They drove out to take a look at it.
Bell and Kaiser have been “winging it” ever since.
“We did buy a brewery and then learned how to brew beer,” Bell said with a chuckle.
They didn’t even have a place to live in Beaver at first, either.
“We were living in (Bell’s) parents’ RV during the winter,” Kaiser said. “The heater didn’t work we had a little electric heater.”
For eight weeks that winter, the two cleaned. Beaver Brewery had collected a fine layer of dust during the year it sat closed.
They also learned to brew beer. Part of the deal of the sale was Leonard would give Bell and Kaiser lessons.
“He gave us two lessons for each beer - 16 lessons total,” Bell said.
They have been continuing to hone the craft ever since.
Beaver Brewery at Mo’s Place opened in February 2016. They received their state license to brew beer five months later.
Meanwhile, they found a home in the country to live in. They also have a routine of cleaning and brewing on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, Bell heads to Hoisington to pick up produce from the market and meat from a packing plant in Ellinwood. Kaiser goes to the brewery to meet the food truck and prepare for the week’s opening.
They see a steady stream of customers from a 60-mile radius and from as far as Hutchinson and Wichita.
Richard Thompson is one of the weekly regulars. He started coming to Beaver Brewery when the Moeders operated it. He was driving as far as Pratt for a while, until he moved back closer to Claflin this year.
“When the guys bought it and started brewing again, myself and my friends would travel up there, take our growlers and refill them so we could take them home to have later," Thompson said.
Barton County is fortunate to have a brewery - especially in a town as small as Beaver, Thompson said, adding Bell and Kaiser are doing a good job.
“They are consistent on flavor and the beer is always fresh,” he said. They take the time to get to know their customers.
“There are people who travel from great distances to get there," Thompson added.
With more breweries firing up in the state, Bell said more people are taking brewery tours - sometimes hitting three or four in a day.
“It’s a country cruise; it’s a destination,” Bell said. “People are like ‘let’s go to Mo’s Place.’”
Their dreams continue. They brew 40 gallons of beer, serving up seven or eight different beers on tap. But maybe someday they will expand - and perhaps have their beer in bottles or cans.
“I think that would be cool,” Bell said.
It’s a lot of work, Kaiser said, but they love being their own boss, learning the trade and meeting new people. He also enjoys being closer to family.
“I like the pass of life out here,” he said. “Kansas City was getting rushed. We just wanted to make it ours. And it just feels like ours more all the time.”