My first taste of handcrafted beer came in a Vermont cousin’s basement back in 1976. Until then, I thought the only reason to drink beer was as a thirst quencher served ice-cold at a baseball game. If the suds were cold enough, the taste wasn’t so bad. But that first sip of Bill’s nut-brown ale was thick, malty, sweet and simply delicious.
These days, in tandem with the explosion of microdistilleries across the country, craft breweries are popping up everywhere, and Kentucky is keeping right in step. Currently, the Louisville area has 17 craft breweries, including four across the Ohio River in Indiana, and the Lexington area features eight on its Brewgrass Trail: six in Lexington, one in Danville and another in Paris. Northern, western and southern Kentucky also boast a few. Following industry growth, these numbers are bound to change soon.
Visiting a brewery is, simply put, fun in a mug. Many offer facility tours and most offer tastings. You can settle yourself down in a taproom and sip handcrafted beers brewed onsite and often, “guest taps” from other breweries. Keep in mind that a hefty number of brewmeisters are a generation or two behind the bourbon industry’s master distillers but are every bit as proud of and enthusiastic about a product they’ve devoted time and sweat to create. Should you have the opportunity to meet the meister, be sure to ask for particulars on how the brewery came to be, a bit about the beers themselves and the origins of the names of the beers and the brewery. You’ll run across great stories waiting to be told.
According to a co-owner of Ethereal Brewing Co. in Lexington, Ethereal’s symbol means “quintessence,” and is the alchemical symbol for “ether.” The name embodies the essence of his brewing philosophy, the taste of the beer and the brewing process itself.
“Ethereal means ‘out of this world,’” says Andrew Bishop, “and that’s a good way to describe our Flemish sours, Belgian farmhouse and American craft beers.”
Alltech Lexington Brewery and Distilling Co. led the way in Lexington, first producing its popular Kentucky Ale in 2000. Described as a wedding of two classics – Irish Red and English Pale ales – this light amber beer is aged for six weeks in bourbon barrels to create the company’s flagship Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Putting a Southern Kentucky twist on the process, White Squirrel Brewery dumps its chocolatey brown ale into whiskey barrels and ages it into a Nut Brown Ale. The Bowling Green establishment also serves food. (Think fried chicken and waffles, and a stout beer float!)
If you like to munch as you sip, a few other breweries offer cooked-in-house menus.
Located in a former train station, Louisville’s Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, for instance, serves barbecue, Kentucky burgoo, ribs and shiitake mushroom patties in its 15-barrel brewhouse. In Lexington, Chase Brewing Co. specializes in stone-baked pizza in addition to rotating food styles, menus and guest chefs in its taproom.
A large number of breweries, however, rely on food trucks to supply nourishment to their customers so the beermakers can do what they do best. Near the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, Country Boy Brewery – which has 24 taps, 12 of which pour their own brews – counts on food trucks for evening fare. In a restored 1880s building in downtown Paris, Rooster Brew specializes in “funky, Belgian-inspired beers,” according to owner Ralph Quillin, and also uses food trucks. Look for a Rooster Brew taproom also opening in Lexington soon.
Beer Engine brewery and beer bar in Danville boasts “12 taps, a vintage bar, beer cheese and a TV” and is adding a Louisville location in the old Zeppelin Café space in the Schnitzelberg community.
Although Braxton Brewing in Covington serves no food, the brewery encourages customers to BYO munchies or to order in from nearby restaurants. As a tribute to its co-founder’s first home-brewed beer location, this taproom has a 1,000-s.f. garage in the middle that can accommodate up to 60 people as a private event space.
Paducah’s old Greyhound Bus Terminal shines these days as Paducah Beer Werks, which along with brews and an extensive pub food menu – handmade pizzas, paninis, brats and burgers – serves up live music by local and touring bands, a comedy night and an open mic night.
Giving back to the community is a growing trend among craft breweries. Anchoring Lexington’s renewed Jefferson Street corridor, West Sixth Brewing Co. and gives 6 percent of its net profits back to charities each year via its Sixth for a Cause outreach. Through a program called Mission Mondays, Blue Stallion Brewing donates 10 percent of taproom sales every Monday to Lexington nonprofits, while Braxton Brewing donates 5 percent of all its Trophy Pale Ale sales to Northern Kentucky community projects.
Pick up a Brewgrass Trail Passport card at any brewery or downtown at the Lexington Visitors Center, get it stamped as you swig a tasty craft beer at each stop, and collect a t-shirt.
Be sure to call a craft brewery before you visit to make sure they’re open and ready with a cool one for you!