During the latter part of the 20th century, attempts to rejuvenate the city’s commercial night-life scene lacked a glutinous ingredient that could sustain diversity and long-term growth.
Lexington flirted with local micro-brews, including Lexington City Brewery’s Smiley Pete Stout and Lexington Brewing Company’s Limestone Ale, but as Brady Barlow of West Sixth Brewery explains, these businesses failed because the craft beer industry hadn’t matured and there wasn’t enough focus on the quality of the beer.
Kevin Patterson, beer connoisseur and manager of the Beer Trappe, broke it down a bit further, explaining that 10 years ago, banks were less likely to invest in an industry with high risk; many of these breweries were more interested in profiteering and more willing to compromise quality with second-grade ingredients. But in a sense, that was good for those independents that focused on quality; American independent brewers such as Goose Island or Sierra Nevada have a loyal consumer base and are the veterans of the American beer revival that started in the eighties.
Now that the city’s palette has been whetted with micro-breweries, tap-rooms and retail beer bars, while mobile food carts complement the scene with a cosmopolitan flair, skeptical Lexingtonians have relinquished the fetters of yore and have begun to absorb this new era of passionate taste and social abundance.
Will the current excitement and curiosity continue to ferment and brim over into a long-lasting tradition? It would seem this uncertain future is only as relevant as the passion, perseverance and visionary mindset of those master-brewers and craft beer entrepreneurs currently reshaping the way consumers think about beer choices and the manner in which beer is consumed.
Daniel Harrison prides the accomplishment of Country Boy Brewing on the ability to make “beer decisions instead of business decisions.”
“We use locally grown, organic ingredients and use every opportunity to use local resources. As an example, our Barreled Pumpkin Porter is made with local, organic butternut squash, roasted on-site by a local food vendor, mixed in with locally purchased grains and fermented in locally attained bourbon barrels,” Harrison said.
Harrison spent three years in Japan mastering the alchemy art of craft beer. Why Japan of all places? The Japanese are well-renowned artisan masters of such products as sushi, tea, gardening and tempered steel. As Harrison explains it, the Japanese word “shokunin” translates literally to “master craftsman” in English, but it is the deeper, implied meaning he appreciates, denoting a social consciousness that builds a reciprocal relationship with the community in order to create wealth for everyone. That’s the proactive posture that Harrison, brew-master Evan Coppage and partner Jeff Beagle are building the Country Boy reputation upon.
Urban infill projects have rejuvenated the city’s outlying brownstone areas such as the Distillery District and the Limestone corridor. Those investments are paying off as West Sixth Brewery, having celebrated its one-year anniversary, continues to grow as a distributor, a beer bar and a catalyst for economic growth.
The spacious tasting area is filled with packed crowds every week, enjoying tap favorites such as Snakes in a Barrel, a bourbon-barrel porter that is robust yet smooth and acclimates well to room temperature over a good chat with friends.
When partners Barlow, Joe Kuosman and Ben Self found the location for West Sixth Brewery, they had 90,000 square feet to occupy. Now this former Rainbo Bread factory is home to several businesses and nonprofits, including The Broke Spoke, Roller Girls of Central Kentucky, Magic Beans and the newest addition, Foodchain Inc., a nonprofit that grows tilapia fed by spent grains donated by West Sixth.
West Sixth Brewery recognizes a lot of growth potential for craft beer distribution. As a licensed distributor West Sixth distributes their two flagship beers, West Sixth IPA and West Sixth Amber, in 12-ounce cans to local restaurants, bars and markets.
“Canning supports our sustainable business model, plus canning is making a comeback with brands like Sam Adams and Oskar Blues,” said Kuosman. Currently West Sixth’s production is 105 barrels per week, and half of the production goes into cans, which amounts to 700 cases of beer produced each week.
The future of craft beer in Lexington depends largely on what is happening abroad as the industry grows and faces new challenges. For one, there is consumer concern that quality will be compromised as the smaller independents are bought by bigger companies, such as the purchase of Goose Island Brewery by Anheuser-Busch In-Bev earlier this year.
Second, the domestic tax and trade policies, which were designed to regulate commerce between the traditional, three-tier distribution system — brewer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer — are not relevant to the unique beer-pub and tap-room phenomenon, which didn’t exist 30-plus years ago, when policies were first mandated.
The Kentucky Brewers Guild has been lobbying state legislators to amend regulations regarding taxation of on-site beer sales. Kentucky House Bill 440, which would provide microbrewers more leverage to sell their beer independently, was passed in the House and the Senate in late March.
Kore Donnelly of Blue Stallion Brewing said, “Brewing beer is not a high-margin business; it simply makes sense to allow a brewery to be able to sell its products to on-site customers without the requirement that the beer first be transferred off-site to a distributor's warehouse and back.”
And why shouldn’t it be? Trappist Monks have been brewing pilsner beers for centuries without regard for profit, and their beers are world renown. American craft brewers are philanthropists, entrepreneurs and preservationists; they inspire collaboration within communities. Starting a brewery requires major capital investment, and high costs associated with production, raw materials, packaging and market entry deter upstarts from being able to expand in order to keep up with demand. As the market segment becomes corporatized, the craft-beer populace, which has always been a grass-roots movement, is lobbying for more legislative latitude, enabling micro-brewers to form direct relationships with the community. Developing this more informal, two-tier relationship will help build local and regional reputation, which in turn will strengthen local and regional competition and will preserve a long-lasting tradition of brewing in the Bluegrass.