A pioneer of the Wichita area’s craft brew scene has died at age 80

A founding member of the Wichita area’s craft brew movement has died.

Hank Sanford, the onetime salesman and homebrewer who fulfilled his dream of owning a brewpub when he opened Hank is Wiser Brewery in Cheney 18 years ago, died on Saturday. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday in March, said his son, Steve Sanford.

“We had a huge party for him at the brewery,” Steve said, adding that the small building at 213 N. Main St. was packed with well wishers. “That was the last time he was there. He had a great time.”

Sanford had been ill for a while, Steve said, and he hadn’t been in the brewery but a handful of times after it reopened from an 18-month COVID-19 closure in June 2021. Steve has been the head brewer of the “nano” brewery for most of its existence and had been running the place mostly on his own for some time.

He’s closed it to process his father’s death, he said, and he’s not sure exactly how long it will remain closed.

Sanford had worked a long career in a travel-heavy sales job when he decided to retire and pursue his dream of opening a brew pub. He lived in Wichita, but Sanford — a member of the area’s amateur brewing community — couldn’t find an affordable building, so he began looking in nearby towns.

Hank Sanford is pictured in 2015, the year he celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Hank is Wiser Brewing in Cheney.
Hank Sanford is pictured in 2015, the year he celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Hank is Wiser Brewing in Cheney.

In 2005, he found a 115 year-old-building on Cheney’s main drag that had once been a drugstore with a lodge hall upstairs. He moved in and started making beer.

At the time, River City Brewing Company in Old Town Wichita was the only craft brewery in the area.

Steve worked side-by-side with his father, and as the craft brew scene began to grow, they participated in area beer festivals, where Sanford would revel in talking with other brewers. He was treated like royalty among them, his son said.

Nortons Brewing Company owner Dan Norton, who employed Steve Sanford back when Norton brewed for River City, said that he was saddened to hear of Sanford’s death.

“Hank was a champion for craft beer,” Norton said. “He believed in family, friends and sharing good beer and conversation. He will be missed by many.”

Hanks is Wiser, which also started serving barbecue about a decade ago, is Kansas’ smallest brewery, Steve said. It’s open only on the weekends and makes only about 100 barrels a year, but it still managed to find a following.

Sanford was a big part of that, he said.

“He was way more personable than me: I like to be behind the scenes,” Steve said. “. . . Everyone who met Hank liked Hank — unless he kicked them out of the bar for being too rowdy.”

His father was an educated man who had a master’s degree in business from Michigan State University. He loved beer more than almost anything, and not just drinking it, Steve said. He liked learning about it and talking about it and just being around it. He loved the camaraderie of the craft beer community.

“He had the best personality and the biggest smile,” Steve said. “He would talk about beer with anyone.”

Sanford leaves behind several children and his wife, Jane, who helped run the brewery when it opened. They had been married for 48 years.