When Alltech purchased the Lexington Brewing Company in 1999, the Kentucky Ale it produced was used mostly as a promotional item to be handed out at corporate events, according to Hal Gervis, global operations manager for Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co.
That’s changed. Their beer is now available in 13 states; Alberta, Canada; Ireland; and in Beijing and Shanghai, and the company is in the process of shifting much of its production from its cramped brewery on Maxwell and Cross streets to the former Kentucky Eagle distribution facility on Angliana Avenue.
On May 11, they’ll release their newest beer, an India Pale Ale (IPA), as a part of the inaugural Lexington Craft Beer Week. The week culminates with Alltech’s seventh annual home brewers competition, with the winner getting a commercial batch of their beer produced and distributed in Lexington as well as being entered in the Pro/Am category at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver this October.
The IPA will be Alltech’s first canned beer, to be followed closely by a rebranded Kentucky Kölsch, currently called Kentucky Light. The IPA will be sold in four-packs of 16-ounce cans, as well as limited bottles. The Kölsch will also be sold in the pint-sized aluminum cans.
The IPA will join the Light/Kölsch, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout and the original, Kentucky Ale, in the group’s full-time lineup of products.
Since starting off with Kentucky Ale, Gervis and Nathan Canavera, beer and spirits brand manager, said the tastes of the public have evolved from “the yellow fizzy water.”
And, that is one of the reasons the company is rebranding the Kölsch, a crisp German-style beer that is popular among beer enthusiasts. It is made by many craft breweries that must follow stringent brewing standards similar to the laws that declare what can be called bourbon.
“The consumer is smart enough to know what a Kölsch is, shame on us for calling it a ‘Light’ so long,” Canavera said.
The IPA and Kölsch will be available thanks to the addition of a canning line that has recently been installed at the company’s facility on Angliana, part of a $20 million investment. In addition to cans, soon the beer will be placed in kegs on Angliana as beer is trucked from the Cross St. brewery, and in increasing amounts, brewed on site. By this time next year, Gervis said the company will have a new bottling line operating on Angliana, too, as the vintage bottler on Cross Street will be decommissioned. That brewery will be scaled back to small amounts to demonstrate the brewing process for those on tours of the adjacent Town Branch Distillery.
To get to this point, Gervis said it took a lot of pounding the pavement.
“The way we got traction was making sure we were intrinsically a part of all the local events and out there banging the drum. Everything from the Humane Society to when Thursday Night Live was three men and a lawn chair, we were there and we’re still there,” Gervis said of the company’s local approach.
And in doing that, they produced what he called “gateway” beers that would be palatable to most beer drinkers.
“You’re not going to get people to go from Bud Light to [Bell’s] Two Hearted IPA. So what’s happened is guys who are making beer have made gateway beers, beers that are accessible, and [it’s made] a great amount of beer accessible,” Gervis said.
Gervis said Alltech took a similar approach with the IPA, which he said might not score high on beer critics’ reviews but will with consumers who won’t find it too harsh.
“The beer aficionados are going to say, ‘You need to hop the hell out of me.’ And we’re not going to do it,” Gervis said. “The IPAs I like are the ones I can have one, and I can have another. So if I don’t get 2,000 points on a hops score, I don’t really mind.”
While the production continues to expand, as do its distribution territories, Canavera said the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. is not a major player on the national beer market.
“The best-known craft breweries in the country you can think of off the top of your head, New Belgium who makes Fat Tire or Sierra Nevada, those guys are over a million barrels [of beer produced per year], and last year we did 30,000,” he said. “We feel big here in our hometown, but when I step foot in the Great American Beer Fest, we’re a small fish.”
But Gervis said while the Angliana expansion phases in, the company is soon to lose one aspect of being a small fish as an improvement will be made to its existing bottling line on Cross Street in advance of the new one being in place on Angliana. New labelers will be added, which will keep the paper labels from peeling off bottles, or at least make them harder to peel off on their own.