Lot's Brewing in The Bluegrass
Lexington and Louisville are enjoying a surge in craft brewery openings
Ben Self is a tall man short on interview time. Always friendly, but not loquacious, the cofounder of West Sixth Brewing in Lexington talks like a man fully aware his business is growing even during a 15-minute call.
Because it is. Faster than he and his three business partners ever imagined. Its flagship IPA has become so commonplace on taps at Kentucky restaurants and bars that West Sixth has had to add brewing capacity twice since opening less than three years ago.
“Never in a million years did our plans have us making as much beer as we are now—not even for 10 years,” said Self. “We’re scrambling to keep up with demand and barely meeting needs.”
Same great problem at Against the Grain in Louisville. Known for its innovative and rarely repeated creations, the microbrewery-restaurant has maxed out the capacity of its gleaming copper brewing ensemble housed behind a glass wall two stories above its dining area. ATG, as it’s commonly called, also plans to fire up new mash tuns soon at a production facility a few miles away in the city’s Portland neighborhood. That plant will help meet surging demand for off-premises ATG sales.
“It’s great to see what’s happening in Kentucky, and we’re proud to be a part of that,” said Sam Cruz, one of four partners behind ATG. “But craft brewing is a global thing, which makes us proud again to represent Kentucky in some markets in Europe. Being there and in a few places across the country is good for our business.” The pace at Great Flood Brewing is just as hectic. After opening its taproom in the spring, crowds filling the sizeable space required the air conditioning be doubled. Same for its beer production. Vince Cain, one of three partners in the business, quit his full-time job to join Matt Fuller as a second brewer.
“Business has more than exceeded our expectations; we’ve been blown away,” said Cain.
Great Flood opened with five taps, but couldn’t keep thirsts slaked, so it increased the lineup to eight by adding three Kentucky- made beers. Soon after it added eight more taps for guest beers—this at a taproom open only Thursday through Sunday.
“When the Kentucky Brewers Guild gets together, the subject of market saturation never comes up. We’re all that busy.”
Currently there are 14 microbreweries in Kentucky, more than double the total two years ago. (Indiana boasts nearly 100 while Tennessee has 24.) Depending on whom you ask, there are eight to 10 in the works: four in Louisville and six others scattered about the state in towns like Danville, Ashland and Prestonsburg.
Much of the recent growth has happened in Lexington, where there were no microbreweries until Country B o y Brewing opened in 2012. West Sixth followed soon after, and in its wake came Blue Stallion Brewing in 2013.
In nearby Danville, Beer Engine opened in 2011 (and it’s hoping to open a Louisville brewery in 2014 in Germantown), followed by Lore Brewing Co. (which closed this year). A jaunt northwest to Paris is where Rooster Brewing opened this year.
Truth is, you can’t talk about Lexington’s craft beer explosion without mentioning Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. (ALBDC), maker of the Kentucky Ale line and Kentucky’s largest brewery. That operation opened 15 years ago after its parent company, Alltech, a manufacturer of animal feeds and fermentation yeast, decided to create its own beer instead of using others’ beers at trade shows.
“The intention of buying a brewery back then was a continuation of using beer as a promotion for a company based on fermentation and yeast,” says Hal Gervis, global operations manager for ALBDC.
While leading a tour through the company’s massive refrigerated aging warehouse, home to 5,000 barrels of its Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout, Gervis recalled how he asked founder Dr. Pearse Lyons why he wanted to buy the old Lexington Brewing Co.
“He said, ‘Hal, I want to be able to brew slightly more beer than my employees can drink.’ But seriously, having beer at our [yeast and animal feed] trade shows allowed us to tell a story in a social environment. But now that’s become our own beer.” Plus, arguably, the nexus of Lexington’s craft beer boom. To grow interest in local brewing, Kentucky Ale created a competition three years ago that placed local homebrewers’ works before a panel of beer judges. One of those homebrewers was Jeff Beagle, who won the contest and later cofounded Country Boy Brewing.
“That’s kind of how craft beer begins for some,” Gervis begins. “People get into making it and their friends like it. They ask if they can buy it, and that sometimes leads to a brewery starting.”
According to the Lexington Herald- Leader, Kentucky’s microbreweries make a $277 million economic impact on the state’s economy, a bit more than half the revenue bump made by Tennessee breweries. Both are dwarfed by the $4.7 billion tally rung up by California’s microbreweries, and they’re also well below the $2 billion annual impact of the Kentucky bourbon industry.
Brewers would like grow their numbers by extending their reach both in Kentucky and in distant markets. While Alltech sends products to about 25 states and China, most local brewers service just a handful of markets outside the Bluegrass. Kentucky brewers also want more penetration into segments traditionally dominated by well-heeled macrobrewers, says Cain. In San Diego’s Petco Park, home of the Padres, “You’ll see an entire section of concessions dedicated to local craft beer. It’s part of their culture to have local beer at a place like that, but for now we’re far from that.”
Craft brewers are also relentless marketers, able to spread their brands far and wide at tastings around the country, and beer-centered dinners and large festivals. At last September’s Louisville BrewFest and this May’s Alltech Craft Brews and Food Fest in Lexington, crowds of 4,500 turned out at each event to taste what amounted to more than 200 beers. Both festivals serve as codas to each city’s annual craft beer week.
Founded in 2013, the Kentucky Brewers Guild is the latest outgrowth of an already cooperative group that routinely helps each other with ingredient shortages and brewery problems. The group wants to influence beer laws in the state and grab a slice of the Kentucky tourism dollars. In response to a restaurant and bourbon tourism group founded in Louisville last year, local brewers there have partnered with the Mayor’s office to form a similar committee to focus on growing its craft beer scene.
Among the most ambitious efforts to improve beer making on a commercial level both here and abroad is Alltech’s upcoming beer school. Not yet named, the school’s classroom space is already under construction, and brewing experts from around the globe are being recruited to serve as instructors.
“Dr. Lyons strongly believes in education at many levels, but he sees a big opportunity for brewing with this school,” Gervis says.
Nico Schultz, brewer and co-founder of Blue Stallion Brewing in Lexington, sees big opportunities in a city where too many taps are dominated by large players.
“When my business partners and I saw what Country Boy and West Sixth were doing, we knew we could do the same, too,” said Schultz, a 26-year-old German immigrant whose core styles draw on the standards of his homeland. “There’s a lot of potential for new breweries here; we see it in the demand for what’s already here. With Alltech opening the school, that’s another impact. It can be so big here."
Against the Grain Brewery
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Bluegrass Brewing Co.
Production Facility & Taproom
Falls City Brewing
Great Flood Brewing
Blue Stallion Brewing
Country Boy Brewing
West Sixth Brewing
More Kentucky Microbreweries
Ei8ht Ball Brewing (Newport)
Beer Engine (Danville and Louisville)
Rooster Brewing (Paris)