Sterling Beer owners have confidence in future of ‘heritage’ brand

Sterling Six Pack

Todd Jackson is the first to admit he’s still finding his way in the beer business. After buying the more than century-old Sterling brand with his brother Ken in 2012, he’s had three different brewing partners and a packaging concept that was well received but ill-fated.

But Sterling has high hopes for a bright future. Recently, it was reported that the Sterling owners and its investor group, Louisville Sterling LLC, had a contract to purchase a pair of currently empty buildings in the Highlands at 1300 and 1306 Bardstown Road, with the intent to open a taphouse and brewery operation.

Sterling’s launch nearly four years ago went from local draft releases to unique 16-ounce, wide-mouth cans, and more recently to standard 12-ounce cans. Along the way, Jackson talked briefly with Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin about contract brewing the pilsner, ended up partnering with Upland Brewery in Bloomington, followed by a short partnership with Capital Brewing in Madison, Wisc., and then back to Stevens Point, where Sterling is brewed currently.

“It was really, really well received,” Jackson says, “but we started learning a lot about the beer business. The trickiest thing is how much beer to brew, and where is it going to go?”

He then found the 16-ounce cans weren’t treating the beer well, and the taste was being altered by the time it reached the consumer. And with the rising popularity of everything from craft beer to energy drinks, they soon came across another hurdle: a nationwide shortage of 16-ounce cans.

Sterling Taphouse Rendering MAIN

Another issue was price; he says at some bars, the 16-ounce cans went for as high as $6, which is pricey no matter what’s inside the container. Reverting to 12-ounce cans brought the price down to the $3 range in bars, and $7.99-$8.99 for retail six-packs.

And so, the Jacksons decided to pursue a taproom to help push the brand forward.

Still, there is another hurdle, which is perception. Much like with Falls City Beer when it returned to the market several years ago, Sterling is an unknown commodity to young beer enthusiasts and is remembered as cheap swill by older beer drinkers. But it was a brand Jackson grew up with, which is why he resurrected it to begin with.

“I love craft beer,” he says, “but this was about the brand when this started.”

Falls City CEO Cezary Wlodarczyk has taken a strategy of making the best of the lingering perception of Falls City beer that many Louisville grandparents and great-grandparents drank. Falls City has adopted marketing slogans that identify it as “craft beer before craft beer was cool,” while focusing on the future of the brand when talking to distributors, bar owners and retailers. Of course, Falls City has a big portfolio of beers.

Jackson’s job is similar, but for now he has one beer, a pilsner, which is very similar to what many remember Sterling being, but made with higher quality ingredients. It’s crisp and drinkable, but with a flavor profile leaning more toward a traditional Czech pilsner. It is being packaged and marketed in throw-back design.

When Jackson talks about the brand he loves — he has a growing collection of Sterling breweriana and studies the brewery’s history — he uses the word “heritage” repeatedly. His idea for the taphouse is to maintain the familiar Sterling pilsner is a heritage brand, while utilizing a small brewing operation, likely in the 10- to 15-barrel range, to brew other beer styles to be served on site. Those beers are yet to be determined, he says.

Sterling can“People are drinking more of this beer,” says Jackson. “We’re very happy with the flavor; it’s something you can count on. We would love for it to be the heritage brand, the go-to brand like what people’s grandfather drank. I have no problem with that.”

In fact, looking back at Sterling’s history, it wasn’t just grandparents and great-grandparents in Louisville; Sterling was based in Evansville, Ind., and was distributed around the Southeast. It was an important brand in its day before being ultimately stomped on by larger breweries like Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller.

The Louisville connection is complex — the beginnings of Sterling Beer date back to the Civil War era, and a version of the Sterling brand was brewed here as early as the mid-1860s. The brewery was purchased in 1873 by brothers John and Charles Hartmetz, but the brothers soon decided one would relocate to Evansville to run another brewery. The younger John legendarily lost a coin toss and moved to Evansville, where he ran the operation that would ultimately make Sterling a highly successful brand.

Meanwhile, the Hartmetz brewery in Louisville continued to use the superlative “sterling” in describing some of its beers, but Charles died in 1891, which is when John F. Oertel purchased it from Charles’ widow, leading to the popular Louisville brand Oertel’s. Years later, Sterling and Oertel’s ’92 would become popular competing brands.

Jackson hopes to pay tribute to that legacy with a taproom that doubles as a Sterling Museum. He hopes the spot will eventually become a destination for locals and tourists with multiple beers on tap — and a steady supply of original Sterling pilsner. He even hopes there is space for a canning line in the roughly 2,400 square feet of space. Renovation on the buildings is not expected to begin until at least fall 2016, and there is no timeline for opening.

“We’re still researching the building,” Jackson admits. “There’s always that chance we get into that building and it’s too overwhelming to do.”

He hopes luck will be with Sterling this time. Jackson wants to figure out a way to erase past perception and bring Sterling back to its former glory, both here and around the region. He believes that starts by giving beer drinkers a place where they can meet with friends and drink the beer, learn about its history, and also have other craft beer available to them.

“We got lot of kickback when we had the four packs out and people were like, ‘Sterling?’” he says. “That’s a huge hurdle. I know Falls City has gone through the same thing. I don’t know what else to do but get it in people’s hands and let them try it. … My biggest goal would be to walk into every pub in the city and people are drinking Sterling. I don’t care if they call it ‘craft’ — I don’t care what they call it. It’s a man’s beer. And it’s too good of a brand to lay dormant.”

This post was originally published by Insider Louisville.

Sterling releases 1863 Session IPA

sterling IPA handleA few years ago, Sterling was a strong, pseudo-local brand here in Louisville, going head to head with the “big three” of Falls City, Fehr’s and Oertel’s in the fight for space in our grandparents’ refrigerators and livers. Sterling was a product of the Evansville Brewing Company, which had ties to Louisville by way of an Oertel’s connection; John F. Oertel would purchase his brewery from the widow of a man named Charles Hartzmetz, whose brother, Charles, moved to Evansville to open Evansville Brewing Company.

But I’m not here to tell you that.

The Sterling Brand, all these years later, is owned locally these days, and they debuted a pilsner beer a couple of years back that now comes in a super-cool, wide-mouth can. It isn’t bad, even if at times the price points have been a little steep.

The other day I was watching football with my pal the Bar Belle at Diorio’s in the Highlands and noticed Sterling was on special for $3 a pint. And then I noticed that it was not the pilsner, but something called 1863 Session IPA. My first thought was, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a session IPA in 1863.” Later, however, I looked it up and realized that Sterling was established in 1863.

Anyway, I ordered one. It was served very cold, and it was clearly highly carbonated. In fact, had I not watched her pour it, I would have sworn it came from the Miller Lite tap right next door. I tried the nose and found nothing there. Heck, it even smelled like a light beer. And then I tasted it, and what I found was that it is very much in the neigborhood of beers like Founder’s All Day IPA. Very light in body, which caters to the Corporate Light drinkers, but with a nice, sharp hop bite at the very back of the palate.

I can’t sit here and tell you it’s a great beer or even that I’ll order another one. But I do think it will serve a purpose, or at least it can. It wasn’t bad, just nothing terribly special. But for $3, at least you’re helping a local business owner (even if the beer is actually brewed up north). And hey, the green tap handle is pretty cool looking too.

Sterling to Return in Cans

sterling - louisville beerMy pal Steve Coomes at Insider Louisville reports today that Sterling Beer is going to return in cans.

Here’s what Steve wrote:

Sterling Beer is coming back to retailers’ shelves. Seriously, Baby Boomers, I’m not kidding. It really is.

The once truly dreadful but irresistibly affordable Sterling began appearing locally on tap about a year ago, and now “The King of Hangovers,” as it was known in the ’70s, is beginning to populate local liquor store shelves.

But here’s the good news: As happened with the formerly awful Falls City Beer, which we only drank during quarter bounce games ‘cause it was free, Sterling’s new owners gave the beer an all-new recipe that actually tastes good and capitalizes on the brand’s heritage. According to a Business First piece, Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington, Ind. (I loves me some Upland brews!) is making the beer and canning it in one-pint cans. In a nod to the old Sterling Big Mouth bottles, the new cans have unusually large openings.

I’m now on record as being fairly happy about this. I wonder how much those pint cans will cost?

No Fanfare for Sterling?

sterling - louisville beerWhen Falls City Beer made its triumphant return three years ago, much was written in the local media, and there was some mild scuttlebutt among confused beer drinkers who expected it to taste like the vapid, watery dreck their grandfathers used to drink from cans in their kitchens.

We all know how that turned out. Louisville beer purists know a good beer when they taste one, and that English-style pale ale with which Falls City returned has now given way to four more new brews and a slick new brewery with a tasting room at 545 E. Barrett Ave.

But another local favorite from your grandfather’s days, Sterling, has made a similar return with a smooth American pilsner, and I’m kind of surprised I haven’t heard more about it. I haven’t seen it around town all that much either. Heck, at one point during the ’70s, both Sterling and Falls City were owned by G. Heileman Brewing, and both brands were cranking out very similar products, which are often called “American pilsners” (which is what most beer snobs would refer to as “American swill”). It seems Sterling would be poised – from a brand perspective, at least – to make a similar splash.

However, using the “Find Our Beer” feature on the Sterling website, I found only a dozen or so places around town that currently sell the new version. I enjoyed a pint of Sterling recently at Spring Street Bar & Grill, and it was a good experience, but it left me wondering if there might be a slight stumble here.

sterling beer can louisville

“Yo, Pappaw. Pass me another one before my buzz wears off.”

What I mean is that while the new Sterling is a pretty solid Pilsner beer – smooth and sessionable, but with a nice (if understated) bitterness at the back end of the palate – it also looks very much like the aforementioned stuff grandpa drank from cans, which is to say that it’s fizzy and yellow. Unlike Falls City’s return, which set itself apart with an amber ale with a body to it that distinguished itself from the canned stuff from the ’70s, Sterling may not have differentiated itself quite enough.

What I fear might happen to folks who aren’t in the know is that they will expect a ’70s, watered-down pilsner experience, and will get a bitterness for which they aren’t ready. Meanwhile, folks who prefer a bit more flavor and body might come to the wrong conclusion when they see the yellow brew spew out of the tap, and may make a negative assumption.

The thing is, drinking a modern Sterling beer is a pretty good experience, all in all. There’s enough going on that it won’t offend a discriminating palate, but it’s also smooth enough that your grandfather wouldn’t turn up his nose at it either. It has a nice balance.

The question is, will it ultimately be a ‘tweener? Will ’70s purists balk at paying $4.50 a pint for stuff they expect to get at a $4-per-six-pack clip? That remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether the Sterling brand will branch out and ultimately catch on the way Falls City has in its big resurgence. For my taste, I think it’s a great thing to have this brand back in our midst, and I also believe there is plenty of room for it in the beer scene. We’ll see how it shakes out.

What are your thoughts about the new Sterling? Leave your comments below.