Homebrew: Craft beer before craft beer was cool

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

The mustachioed 20-something sips away at his IPA of the week as he peers around the bar. All around him, people drink beers of all styles, colors and creeds. “Craft beer” is the buzz term of the 2010s thanks to a beer-drinking public that has increasingly demanded more and more from its beer than a 12-ounce, ice-cold bottle of “Corporate Light” can muster.

But good beer has been around for centuries. And it’s been around Louisville since the city was settled in the late 1700s and even after the fall of commercial brewing here in 1978. Home brewers kept the boilers burning in small batches during Prohibition, and they kept them burning even when light beers became the American fancy and the boilers at Falls City were turned off. At that point, the only beer Louisvillians — and most Americans — had available to drink was what many beer enthusiasts now call “corporate swill.”

So it was that a group of brewing enthusiasts came together in 1989, before the first microbrewery would open in Louisville, to form the Louisville Area Grain & Extract Research Society, or LAGERS. The founding members were making “craft beer” back when it was still just called “beer.” In other words, they were making craft beer before craft beer was cool.

Bob Capshew was a founding member of LAGERS, and he’d been brewing at home for several years prior, having been a member of homebrew clubs in Houston (The Foam Rangers) and Salt Lake City, a club which he and wife Maureen illegally founded in their living room. The name? ZZ Hops. He would come to Louisville in the late 1980s with a mind to brew, but no homebrew club existed then.

He attended an American Homebrew Association meeting at the now defunct Oldenburg Brewery near Cincinnati and met some homebrewers from Louisville, which is how the kernel of LAGERS was formed. He began talking with brewers such as Eileen Martin (who brewed for Silo Microbrewery and Browning’s), David Pierce (Silo, Bluegrass Brewing Company and New Albanian), Deneen Hooper (a past LAGERS president), Brian Kolb (Silo) and Rick Buckman, among others.

“We just started talking,” Capshew said.

Pierce had been brewing for a number of years after learning the craft from his father while using a book called “The Beginner’s Home Brew Book,” by Lee Coe, which was published in 1972.

“It was your typical, you know, three-pound-can-of-malt-and-10-pounds-of-sugar homebrew recipes,” Pierce said in a 2014 interview. “But Lee got into some different styles. Back then there were no styles of swill.”

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

The small group had been meeting at a restaurant in Portland called Toll Bridge Inn, but Pierce was one of several interested in forming an official homebrew organization. Capshew sent out a notice to the homebrewers he knew, and so it was that Robin Garr (long before he was LEO’s food writer) wrote a blurb in The Courier-Journal’s Scene magazine inviting brewers to meet and potentially form a club.

A restaurant owner named Martin Twist saw the ad as well and offered the group a meeting and brewing space. It was at Charley’s Restaurant, located at Sixth and Main Street (today it is Los Aztecas), that the LAGERS began regularly meeting and brewing. One of the beers brewed was even sold to customers, as Charley’s had a brewing license.

“You don’t hear much mention of [Charley’s] because we only brewed about 15 gallons of beer,” Pierce said. But among the homebrews LAGERS created was that small batch that was sold on draft at the restaurant for a short time.

The beer that was brewed, Pierce said, was basically a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone that he, Capshew and a brewer named Herb Roderick made; Pierce had found a recipe in a Compuserve beer forum, cultivated some yeast from a bottle of Sierra Nevada, and the LAGERS created the beer. Oddly, he said, it was sold under the name “Charley’s Cream Ale.”

Not long after, another homebrew club formed in New Albany, Indiana, called Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS) and it would make its home at what is now New Albanian Brewing Co. The club started with just seven members primarily as a beer appreciation group, but grew to as many as 200 members and crossed over with the LAGERS group. FOSSILS still meets at New Albanian and will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a cookout in September. Capshew was and is an active member, along with Roger Baylor, co-founder of New Albanian and, as it was known then, Rich O’s Public House.

“We have about a half dozen folks who are still members that were original members 25 years ago,” current FOSSILS president Richard Rush said. “I’ve got to imagine that 25 years ago when those guys were getting started it was hard to go somewhere and get anything but Budweiser or Bud Light. They were definitely ahead of the curve; Bob has probably forgotten more about homebrewing than most people know about it.”

WHAT’S IN A HOMEBREW CLUB?

Homebrew clubs don’t just sit around and brew (and drink) beer. Sure, that’s part of it, and sharing one’s fermented concoctions is a big part of the fun, because brewers can then exchange secrets, tips, ingredients and general knowledge.

But it’s also about camaraderie, education, competition and charity. LAGERS is a supporter of the Kentucky Humane Society, and has raised more than $6,000 through recent fundraisers such as Yappy Hour at Apocalypse Brew Works, which is owned by LAGERS members Leah Dienes, Bill Krauth and Paul Grignon.

Current LAGERS president Christopher Owen said the members get together roughly twice a month, once for a regular monthly meeting and usually once for some sort of event, be it a fundraiser, a holiday party or a competition. He said the membership now is around 120, and he expects it to grow. He said there are roughly 1.2 million homebrewers in the United States now, and noted that there are 45,000 members in the American Homebrewers Association, a number that is increasing by 10 to 15 percent each year.

“It’s definitely still growing,” Owen said. “A lot of people are starting their own commercial breweries, but people have been coming into the hobby just as quickly. Homebrewing is very strong.”

Owen, who has been brewing since 2010, took over as president three years ago. He said every meeting features some sort of education — along with good beer.

“Whether it’s a tasting, an experiment, a comparison or a basic how-to,” he said, LAGERS members can expect to learn something at a meeting. “Everything else we do is pretty well balanced between learning to brew for competition, or brewing in a competition to get your own beer served somewhere around town.”

Yes, that’s one of the great features of a homebrew club like LAGERS; the club often does competitions in cooperation with local breweries (it is doing one currently with Bluegrass Brewing Company), with the winner getting to work with the commercial brewer to create a large batch of his or her beer that will be sold on draft. It’s like an amateur writer getting an article published or an aspiring singer getting her song on the radio.

“You get experience brewing on professional systems,” Owen said. “I think we’ve done five of those now. Basically, the idea was … the winner got to go to a brewery and brew with the professional brewer to brew their recipe. When we had the tapping event, the proceeds from that day went to charity.

“But it’s bragging rights. You get to tell your friends and family, ‘My beer is being served on tap in three or four restaurants in the city; get it while it’s around, there’s just one batch.’ It’s fun, plus it’s good exposure for the club.”

LAGERS also fosters brewers who want to compete at the Kentucky State Fair’s homebrew competition. The group is also heavily involved as organizers and judges. Owen said there were around 500 entries last year from across the state and southern Indiana. LAGERS also recently participated in a national competition that featured 3,800 brewers and 8,000 total beers judged.

In fact, LAGERS boasts five nationally certified beer judges in its ranks, including Owen and Dienes, and offers classes to train members to become judges. In fact, perhaps one of the most prominent beer judges in the world lives near Louisville in Pekin, Indiana, Dibs Harting, a member of FOSSILS, who was one of the early members of the Beer Judge Certification Program. He, Dienes and brewer/beer historian Conrad Selle recently collaborated on the style guidelines for Kentucky Common, a beer that was invented in Louisville in the 1800s and which is now an internationally recognized beer style.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about a homebrew club is the personalities — brewers are a balance of scientist and artist, which usually makes them interesting and sometimes quirky people — not to mention a lot of fun. The FOSSILS and LAGERS used to hold an annual picnic on the property Capshew and his wife Maureen own, and they were the stuff of legend. The Capshews later built a “barn” on the property which is basically a private bar that includes a walk-in cooler and a production space for not just beer but cider, wine and other products. It is often a gathering place for area brewers.

And the soft-spoken Dienes is not only a nationally-certified judge and co-owner of Apocalypse Brew Works, but she also is a multiple-award homebrew winner both at the state and national level, taking best of show at the Kentucky State Fair in 2003 and 2010, and earning a medal in the national homebrew competition in 2010 as well. She recalls her first LAGERS meeting, which she attended with her father in the early 1990s, with humor. She was in her 20s and had recently moved back to Louisville from Boston.

“We walked in and there was a whole room full of people,” Dienes said. “Here are these crazy women, Eileen and Deneen, with jars of pickles and smoking cigars. They were sharing beer and smoking cigars, and I thought, ‘What kind of people are these?’”

Owen has an answer to that question: “A lot of times, it’s a do-it-yourself crowd. People like crafting with their own hands; they like experimenting with whatever ingredients they’re into in at the moment. You take pride in your own beer and make it the way you want it.”

And while local homebrewing and, to an extent, LAGERS, was born of a lack of good beer, the massive availability of such beer today hasn’t turned off homebrewers. If previously the Pierces and Capshews of the world brewed out of a desire for something other than Bud Light, now it’s a deeper commitment to craft. As Owen noted, it’s a DIY mindset.

“I would consider myself a foodie,” FOSSILS president Rush said. “I love to go to new restaurants and I love to cook. The fact is that in Louisville we’re blessed with an abundance of awesome restaurants, and I enjoy patronizing them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy cooking at home.”

Similarly, he said, “There’s no shortage of places where I can go find very unique beers. But that doesn’t change the fact I still want to make my own.”

THE ADVANCES OF HOMEBREWING

It doesn’t hurt that homebrewers these days have many more options than when LAGERS and FOSSILS began. Ingredients in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t easy to come by, so creativity was limited. As beer’s popularity grew in the 1990s and into the 2000s, however, that began to change.

“Our homebrew wasn’t that great at the time, but it got better and better,” Capshew said, recalling the early days of LAGERS and FOSSILS. “It was nothing compared to what people are doing nowadays. There were maybe three or four types of hops. We did the best we could.”

And that’s an important point. Owen pointed out that the economics of brewing dictate that homebrewers can have more fun than commercial brewers these days, and that’s a big factor in keeping the homebrewing craft growing. For one thing, it’s cheaper to make your own beer as a homebrewer, in part because you don’t have to brand or share profits with a distributor or retailer.

But ingredients are a key, too. Owen points out that there are dozens of malting companies around the world that will sell their products to homebrewers directly. If you’re a commercial brewery, you’re buying large amounts of grains because you are making big batches, because buying in quantity saves money, and profit is necessary to stay alive. But the homebrewer can often buy in single-batch quantities.

“We have a wider range of styles we can play with because we buy smaller scale,” Owen said. “There’s a lot of flexibility; you can really dial into styles. We’re buying malts from Patagonia now that have a really interesting flavor; you can’t always s get that at the local beer store. [Commercial breweries are] bound by a lot more market forces than we are.”

He likened it to making wine — since grapes are basically the sole ingredient in making wine, it’s extremely important where the grapes are grown and what the soil is like. It’s the same for grains and hops. That offers an advantage to homebrewers when it comes to experimentation and creativity.

“At the same time, you can go down to Liquor Barn and they have 2,000 beers,” Owen said. “So it’s good all around.”

Bill Krauth. Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Bill Krauth. Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

But even commercial brewers have to start somewhere, and that is typically at home. That’s why most breweries are operated by former (or current) homebrewers. Some join clubs, but some simply learn the craft on their own. However, the art of brewing translates from home to brewery differently than one might think. To open a commercial brewery, the homebrewer must keep in mind the palate of the public and the price of the aforementioned specialized malts and hops.

And so it is that when a homebrewer opens a brewery, he or she begins chasing a different drinker. It becomes a necessity to sell beer, not just impress friends and family. If a brewery wants to expand, it is necessary to find a way into the limited number of taps around their home city, and that means going through a distributor that is contractually bound to other established breweries.

Apocalypse’s Krauth started off with a brewing kit in the early 1990s and his interest grew from there.

“I think everybody starts off with a kit,” he said. “Looking back on it, it probably tasted like shit, but everybody else said it tasted good.”

But at the time, even the commercial breweries didn’t have the same standards to live up to, he said. There were fewer varieties in the U.S., fewer expectations. Commercial brewing and homebrewing alike are advancing because of heightened expectations. And moving from the homebrew realm into commercial brewing necessitates sacrifice. Why?

“Because of the customers demanding better quality beers,” Krauth said. “Homebrewers are broadening the horizons in the craft industry. In the commercial world, there’s no such thing as a good and a bad beer. They consider everything, if it’s sellable and marketable, as a good beer. If you can’t market it and sell it, it’s a bad beer. On the homebrew side, everything has to meet the BJCP style guidelines. And if it doesn’t meet the style guidelines, it’s a bad beer.”

That’s not to say commercial beer is homogenized because of these constraints. There’s plenty of experimentation going on, from barrel-aging to ingredients to usage of exotic hops. If Apocalypse can make watermelon beer and peanut butter beer, it’s clear brewing is not lacking creativity. And just take a look at the beer list at Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse on any given day — there’s certainly no shortage of creativity going on there.

In addition to more ingredients, the availability of information now versus the late 1980s when LAGERS and FOSSILS began is important. It gives homebrewers options and empowers them with knowledge. It offers aspirations of commercial brewing. Of course, the BJCP guidelines are ever present, but perhaps unnecessarily so in the pro ranks. Dienes is a multiple award winner, but most of the beers she brews for Apocalypse are accessible, sessionable (lower alcohol content) beers.

“The bottom line is does it taste good when you drink it?” she said.

The LAGERS slogan is, “We brew it, we drink it, we talk about it.” These are people who take beer seriously, and yet don’t. They do it because they love it.

“We love all parts of beer,” Owen said. “It’s a fun group of like-minded individuals and craft beer lovers.”

This post was originally published by LEO Weekly.

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Taste Bud: Sergio’s has way more than just beer

If you’re going to Sergio’s World Beers in Butchertown, chances are you are going for one (or several) of the 1,500 or so beers owner Sergio Ribenhoim keeps in coolers and on draft.

Maybe you want a nice Victory Brewing DirtWolf or that elusive Schneider Aventinus Doppelbock, or perhaps the tart tastiness of my current favorite, Duchesse de Bourgogne. Heck, maybe you just want to search for that single Bud Light that hides in the many coolers at Sergio’s. Hey, it’s only $47 — someone needs to buy it one day. (Speaking of which, on a recent visit, my girlfriend Cynthia asked Sergio for water, and he handed her a Bud Light.)

But lately, I have been heading to Sergio’s for one of my favorite seafood treats in town: ceviche.

When I first saw it on the eclectic menu at Sergio’s, I was skeptical. Could a place that specializes in hard-to-find beers from around the world make a decent ceviche? Then I remembered: Oh yeah, it’s Sergio. The world-traveling, quirky, affable beer authority also knows his way around a menu, not to mention a good pairing.

Besides, you gotta love a menu that has its own preamble. Especially when it includes lines like, “His food menu is valid during our pre-grand opening period, which could be forever.”

The ceviche is also conspicuous on the appetizer menu, joined by pub grub staples like hot wings, beer cheese, big pretzels, jalapeno poppers and fried mushrooms. To be fair, Sergio’s also offers traditional Mexican favorites like menudo and huevos con chorizo, so I guess I really should never have been surprised.

All I will say is that I’m damn glad I tried it. Hell, I get it pretty much every time I visit Sergio’s these days.

The menu description goes like this: “Humungous bowl of world famous freshly made shrimp ceviche served with warm homemade chips. Allow 15 minutes for preparation.”

OK, I don’t think it’s really world famous, but it certainly should be. It begins with the word “humongous.” The first time I ordered it, with Cynthia by my side, we figured we would nibble on it as a snack before ordering something else. It ended up satisfying us both on its own. We were immediately hooked, in part because it is delicious and in part because it’s only $10 for a light meal that will take care of the both of us.

Seriously, it’s a huge mound of ceviche, and Sergio’s does not hold back on the shrimp — or the big, fresh chunks of avocado, for that matter. The diced tomatoes, peppers and onions are also always fresh and crisp, and the dish carries the perfect amount of citrusy bite.

One other aspect I love about Sergio’s ceviche is that it is plenty spicy. I don’t know if that is an added ingredient or if the chefs simply use spicy peppers rather than mild, but I am all in on the toastiness of the dish. A cool, crisp summertime treat that also has a heated spice kick? Count me in.

And the lightly salty and crisp white corn tortillas that come on the side are a perfect vehicle for getting the tender baby shrimp and veggies from bowl to mouth. Not only do they hold their own under the weight of a big pile of the stuff, but the light flavor never gets in the way of the ceviche itself.

When you get about two-thirds of the way through your giant bowl of ceviche, you get to the juicy underbelly, which is when the flavor takes a turn for the more citrusy, and the bites get juicier as you dig deeper. Heck, I could finish off the juice with a straw if I thought Sergio had any.

Anyway, I highly recommend Sergio’s in general, and this dish in particular. And while you’re there, maybe have a beer or two. Or 1,500. Just don’t ask for water.

This post was originally published by LEO Weekly.

What’s on tap for Louisville’s beer scene?

louisville beer - leo weeklyMatt Fuller, Vince Cain and Zach Barnes are working their butts off these days. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Fuller and Cain, along with a couple other helpers, were busy building out a 3,000-square-foot space in the Highlands in preparation for opening Great Flood Brewing, their new craft brewery.

They were hoisting a roof piece they’d put together themselves onto what will soon be a walk-in cooler where precious kegs of their beer will be tapped. And even though the space, which is just a few doors down from Twig and Leaf, looked like so many piles of lumber mixed with a few ladders on that Saturday, they remain confident they’ll be open sometime in late February.

Such work is going on all around town. Red Yeti Brewing is building out a space in downtown Jeffersonville and hopes to open by late January; another local brewer, Cory Riley, is eyeing April 1 as an opening date for his Bannerman Brewing in the Clifton area. And Beer Engine, based in Danville, Ky., has been working furiously to open a location in Germantown. In addition, five more breweries are planning to open in 2014 in and around the area.

Add those to six established local breweries and brew pubs — Bluegrass Brewing Company, Cumberland Brews, New Albanian Brewing Company, Falls City Beer, Apocalypse Brew Works and Against the Grain Brewery — and the supply of local craft beer is about to more than double. And that doesn’t even include Gordon Biersch and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, two chain breweries with locations in Louisville. Nor does that include craft beer destinations such as Sergio’s World Beers, Louisville Beer Store, Buckhead Mountain Grill, Tony Boombozz Tap Room and plenty of others that offer craft brews from around the region and the world.

So how much craft beer can Louisville consume? Sure, there are a lot of hipsters here, but even they spend a ton of their drinking money on PBR. How will a new brewery survive? In talking to a few of them, they express varying levels of confidence.

Barnes, of Great Flood Brewing, says, “We think the demand is going to be great. If (the market for craft beer) grows, the demand will be so great we won’t have to force it. The general market for craft beer is still growing, and that’s fantastic considering the economic market.”

The national Brewers Association reports that there are just fewer than 2,500 craft breweries — which are defined in part as having an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less — currently operating in the United States. But consider this: There are another 1,500 or so lined up and preparing to begin operations. So, Louisville is not an exception. In fact, Louisville is outpacing the overall trend.

Will the market hold?
The good news is that growth of the craft-brewing industry in 2012 was 15 percent by volume and 17 percent by retail dollars; 13.2 million barrels of craft beer got brewed in 2012, compared with just fewer than 11.5 million in 2011.

Craft beer now represents 10.2 percent of the domestic beer market, according to a recent story by Business Insider; meanwhile, a study by IBIS World predicts the craft beer market will grow to $3.9 billion this year.

A few recent studies have shown a decline in beer consumption as wine and mixed drinks grow in popularity, but it’s the Big Suds breweries — Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors — that seem to be losing favor in the market.

That’s all good news, right? Local brewers feel confident, despite the inherent challenges. In the case of Red Yeti, Paul and Brandi Ronau ran into problems with the building at 256 Spring Street that delayed the opening. If and when it does open at the end of this month, head brewer Paul Ronau says the beer on tap will be guest crafts. Original beers probably won’t be ready until spring, but still they move forward.

At Great Flood Brewing, much research was done to ensure a good chance of success. “We hope we’re not close to a saturation point,” says Cain.

But how will they differentiate from other brewers around town or, heck, just down the street?

“We have such a small capacity size,” he says of Great Flood Brewing’s two-barrel system, “and we’re going to brew so frequently that we’re going to have something new all the time.”

Experimentation will be the order of the day. They are even tossing around ideas of ways to get customers involved in helping out with recipes.

Leah Dienes, co-owner and head brewer at Apocalypse Brew Works, believes there is room in the market for more breweries. Bannerman will open just down the street in April, but she fully believes the two breweries can co-exist.

“As long as beer is coming in from out of state, there is room for more local breweries,” Dienes says. “Buying local is a growing trend across many cities in the U.S. And we are part of that trend.”

Dienes keeps overhead down by operating a taproom that opens only on Friday and Saturday. Many of her sales come in the form of growlers, often to regulars who live in the neighborhood. Apocalypse also brings in food trucks every weekend and hosts special events, creating foot traffic. Poorcastle, a daylong concert series in July, and Yappy Hour, a Kentucky Humane Society benefit as part of Louisville Craft Beer Week, were two events that brought in big crowds in 2013.

Speaking of Louisville Craft Beer Week, it’s also a positive sign that such events and efforts not only exist, but that they keep growing; there are more and more craft beer events popping up each year and enjoying success, from Brew at the Zoo to the Highlands Beer Festival to the forthcoming debut of Tailspin Ale Fest, set for Feb. 22 at Bowman Field. Louisville even has its own website dedicated to the local beer scene in LouisvilleBeer.com.

But all that still doesn’t mean the market couldn’t top out.

Dave Stacy, the head brewer at Gordon Biersch on Fourth Street, believes a saturation point is ahead. Still, if a customer comes to his place and can’t find a beer he likes, Stacy will direct that person to BBC, Apocalypse or Against the Grain. Will there come a time when there is too much of a good thing?

“Beer being the product that it is, I think we’re getting close to that (saturation) point,” Stacy says. “But I still think it’s better to keep that door open.”

It’s a good point. Why panic when the market is still growing? Stacy points out that differentiation is an important factor. Gordon Biersch specializes in German-style beers, and there is no other brewery in Louisville doing that specifically. If you want a Marzen-style beer, well, Gordon Biersch is a good place to look for one.

At the same time, Blue Stallion opened last year in Lexington and also specializes in German lager-style beers. Sure, it’s a good 70 miles down the road, but it’s still down the road. How long before another brewer follows that lead? And for Gordon Biersch, there is also the specter of how beer snobs eschew chains.

“Our challenge is how people view us,” he admits.

Bubble in the beer market?
Roger Baylor, owner of New Albanian Brewing Company, has been in the business of craft beer for quite a few years; his business model with Rich O’s Public House and Sportstime Pizza hinged on it from the word “go” when those side-by-side concepts launched in 1990. Later, he was the first one in town to eliminate sales of corporate beers like Bud Light. New Albanian as a craft brewing entity was founded in 2002.

“Saturation point depends on the capacity of the new breweries, their level of debt service and what size territory they need to get by,” Baylor explains. “What happens when everyone decides to play the game the same way?”

He added that if the amount of beer local breweries need to produce to stay ahead is more than a local market can absorb, then it must be bottled or canned and shipped further and further away, “which tilts the advantage toward larger and better capitalized entities.”

Pat Hagan has been in the craft-brewing business for more than 20 years as owner-operator of Bluegrass Brewing Company. BBC survived a 1990s market that claimed local breweries such as Pipkin and Silo, and also outlasted Ft. Mitchell-based Oldenburg.

“Where is the bubble in the beer market?” he says. “I don’t know whether it’s a saturation point. There are just so many (new breweries) popping up all over country. Somewhere along the line, something has got to give.”

Hagan wonders aloud what the new brewers’ aspirations are. BBC, like NABC, bottles and distributes outside the Louisville market and has a presence in taps around the area. Breweries like Apocalypse can also be found tapped around town. But how big is too big?

“I guess everybody would like to get as big as they could,” he says. “Apocalypse Brews makes good beer and is getting some distribution out. You take small ones like that, (and) I think we can handle a few more. I keep looking at (the demand) and wondering, but it keeps going.”

Like others, however, he’s simply happy the demand has become so big. That has created room for all these craft brewers’ aspirations and promises plenty of new beer in 2014 and beyond.

“At least consumers are more aware of it and more willing to try it,” Hagan says.

Cory Riley of Bannerman Brewing noted that Michigan Brewing Company entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier this year; it is a mid-size craft brewery. A handful of other craft-brewing companies have suffered similar fates over the last year and a half. Is that evidence of saturation in that market, or are these isolated situations?

“In the next couple of years, we’ll hit that saturation point,” Riley says. What will happen then? “The beer will get better.”

Once again, differentiation may be key. Riley says he plans to feature sour beers and Belgian-style beers at Bannerman, which is different than a BBC, a Cumberland or a New Albanian. He also believes people who drink local craft beer will drill down in their support of local products.

“You’ll find that people who live in certain neighborhoods will go to their local brewpub,” he says. Also, he points out that many will avoid drinking and driving by walking to their local brewery for beer.

Of course, that notion takes us back to the days when distribution channels were smaller and refrigeration wasn’t as advanced as it is today. It wasn’t all that long ago that buying a six-pack of Corporate Light at the liquor store wasn’t even an option, so you went to the corner pub with a bucket and got it filled up with whatever was on tap. The return of the local brewer and the growler is obviously a good sign, both economically and socially.

Baylor believes one of the keys may be to remain as local as possible. Five years ago, New Albanian began brewing beer for bottling and distribution outside the Louisville area. But he believes broader isn’t necessarily better.

“It has been a success, but just barely,” he says, “and NABC’s ‘export’ growth is slowing.”

While that doesn’t mean NABC will stop bottling and distributing, what it does mean is a re-focus on maximizing what’s happening in-house, “and be even more ‘local’ than before,” Baylor says.

The problem is that with more small breweries trying to distribute, that means more craft brands for liquor stores to put on their shelves. “But the shelves don’t get any bigger, do they?” Baylor says. “If craft beer is 10 percent or 15 percent (of the market), it still means much of the shelf space has to go to mass market (stock).”

Additionally, the local and regional craft brewers are still competing for that space with established brands like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and even pseudo-craft beers like Blue Moon, he says, and at price points the smaller breweries can’t hope to match.

“So, where’s the market?” Baylor asks. “It’s there, I think, but in places that get ignored. We know they’ll come to our buildings and drink our beer there, and because of that and deep roots, we’ll be OK. But who is our customer elsewhere? And will the new start-ups have time to grow roots?”

All good questions, with unknown answers.

Meanwhile, however, the beer boom is on, and how big the bubble can manage to get is still anyone’s guess. It sure isn’t going to stop those who believe the market has plenty of room to expand.

“You don’t know where a lot of food you eat comes from,” says Barnes of Great Flood Brewing, “or the clothes you wear. I know where (local beer) comes from. It’s a social activity brought down to a natural scale. As long as we keep that dynamic as we’re brewing, I think it’s a permanent trend, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Drink up, Louisville.

This post was originally published in LEO Weekly.

Unearthing Whiskey’s Women (via LEO Weekly)

fred minnick - whiskey womenYeah, this is a beer blog, but if you live in Kentucky and you like cocktails, there’s a fair chance you also like bourbon. This is the cover story I wrote for this week’s edition of LEO Weekly about local bourbon writer and Wall Street Journal best-seller Fred Minnick and his new book, “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.” Enjoy.

Fred Minnick, clad in a blazer and signature ascot, holds up the glass of bourbon and peers through it.

“What you have in this glass,” he says, “is something that no other category of spirits does. They’re using new barrels every time; it’s all American. Most of it is made here in Kentucky. And it’s just got …”

He trails off for a moment, gathers his thoughts and continues, bringing the glass of caramel-brown bourbon back down to eye level.

“I mean, what’s not to love about it?”

He sniffs the bourbon deeply, and then takes a small sip.

“It has this sweet caramel, praline; it’s smooth,” he says. “There are so many good characteristics about bourbon that anybody who likes a distilled product, I feel like I could sell them on it.”

Minnick’s rise in the world of bourbon as a writer, author and all-around authority has a lot to do with his enthusiasm and energy, and not just when it comes to bourbon specifically. Minnick is always animated, has an infectious laugh like a sinister clown who has decided to turn good, and he often wears an impish grin that makes him come forth like a happy, precocious kid. …

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