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Going Head to Head

beer

Local brewers join the movement
to build better beers

By Steve Coomes | Photos by E.S. Bruhmann

R
oger Baylor never set out to be the unofficial spokesman for the craft beer movement in the Louisville area. But in the 19 years since he, ex-wife Amy Baylor and Kate Lewison opened Rich O’s Public House in New Albany, the role sort of found him.

The trio’s “Spanish Civil War moment,” as Baylor calls it, was to refuse the sale of “industrial swill” (a.k.a. mass-produced beers) at Rich O’s and instead build a following by sourcing unique and well-made beers from U.S. microbrewers and overseas. Over time, and despite the establishment of microbreweries in the Louisville area, Rich O’s became the favored local haunt for beer geeks eager for new finds.

In 2002, the owners “went legit,” in Baylor’s words, by joining the ranks of Louisville brewers (Bluegrass Brewing Co., Cumberland Brewery and Browning’s Brewery) by making their own beer under the New Albanian Brewing Co. name. That success flowed into the creation of Bank Street Brewhouse, a modern gastropub, also in New Albany, in 2009.

Baylor is not only a champion of his own causes but a cheerleader for other brewers — especially his nearest competitors. That Louisville-made beers (Baylor considers NABC a Louisville-area brewer) aren’t better appreciated by locals perplexes and frustrates him. Not only does he believe those products are of the highest quality, he feels there should be more civic pride in locally produced goods.

Here’s a piece of a conversation with Baylor, a few of his thoughts on the local beer scene.

RB: What I see often in Louisville is some people think what’s coming from a thousand miles away is still better. I can’t agree with that attitude. Brewers in Indianapolis have done a really good job of marketing the message, “You know us, our beer is made right here and by us. This is about Indianapolis.” Yet here we’re still talking about how good it is to bring in beer from another place.

SC: But it’s all come a long way from where it was in 1992, when Rich O’s started, don’t you think?

RB: And that time wasn’t so bad either. Silo Brewing opened that year, then BBC in 1993 and then the short-lived Oertel’s Beer in 1994, I think. Part of the problem was there wasn’t much (craft beer) awareness then.

SC: Why do you think Silo and Oertel’s died off so quickly?

RB: It’s kind of hard to say exactly. A lot of owners back then got into brewing for the wrong reasons, or, even if they got into it for the right reasons, they expanded too quickly and couldn’t maintain it. Plus, the major breweries kicked back hard because they were surprised anyone would question their hegemony. … Silo was huge and I think the owners saw that space as another Hofbräuhaus like in Munich. It was just too big. Oertel’s was in Butchertown before its time; the neighborhood wasn’t right. What’s good now is the growth in craft brewing is much more sustainable than the growth we saw in the 1990s.

SC: You’ve mentioned that there’s so much microbrewery growth in Indianapolis and Indiana in general, but not in the Louisville area or Kentucky. Why do you think that is?

RB: In Louisville we were ahead of Indianapolis for a long time, and now we’re behind, and I don’t know why that is. But the same breweries that have been here for years have expanded: BBC is brewing in three places and Cumberland at two and then there’s us with two. … . Why has it stopped growing here? I don’t know what happened. What’s amazing is Indianapolis is maturing in spectacular fashion. They’ve doubled their number of breweries in the past few years to about 10 or 11, and they’ll have another one open in next six months. In the entire state I think there are 40 breweries, but in Kentucky you have those in Louisville and one (Alltech) in Lexington. …

SC: Could local beer ever be made from ingredients grown nearby?

RB: Growing hops here could be problematic, and if you did, would they be any good for brewing? And if they were, could we produce enough to make it the mass endeavor needed for brewing? I’m not an expert in cereal grains, but I think you could grow barley here. … Still, it doesn’t make sense to have 10,000 acres of barley and then have no place to malt it, to grow it here and then ship it to Minnesota to have it malted.

But here’s what’s really crazy with the local idea: Some of the most famous bourbon barrel beers are coming from somewhere other than Kentucky! When Paul Hummer was running Pipkin Brewing, which is what became BBC’s production facility (at Clay and Main), the best beer he ever did was bourbon barrel beer. David Pierce (Silo’s first brewer, now director of brewing operations at Bank Street Brewhouse) and I told him, “Make this whole thing about bourbon barrel beer,” but he didn’t do it and he went broke. “Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Aged Beer made in Kentucky!” Blows my mind that no one has taken advantage of that on a truly big scale.

SC: You’ve said better-educated and better-traveled people gave rise to craft beer consumption here in the 1990s. Now we see younger people drinking them, too. Are they getting onto the good stuff at a younger age and bypassing the industrial beer?

RB: I have noticed young people are becoming the enthusiastic backers of it, but they’re also less ideologically attached to it than my generation was. When we started Rich O’s, we picked a side in saying “We’re for good beer. We’re not going to drink that s%#* anymore.” … Today the same guy you see drinking $5 pints here one night is down the street drinking $1 swill the next. The attitude is, “I want what I want when I want it. Tonight I don’t have any money, so I’m drinking Pabst.” But me, if I don’t have any money for good beer, I’m not drinking beer. Steve Coomes is a former chef and Louisville freelance writer who loves to fill up a growler now and then.

 

Summer Sips

Here are some of Baylor’s recommendations for cool brews to drink during summer heat:

  • Focus on “session beers” (brews with 3% to 5% alcohol) if you’re outside in the heat.
  • Drink beers that quench the thirst and renew — rather than deaden — the palate like high-alcohol, fullbodied beers can do.
  • “Any wheat will do,” he said, because of wheat beer’s lighter body. But medium-body hoppy beers, such as NABC’s Beak’s Best, make good summer drinking.

 

Baylor’s Picks

Outside of NABC’s 12-brew rotation, here’s what Baylor sips when visiting local breweries:

  • Bluegrass Brewing Co.: “I’m still an APA [American pale ale] fan, but I always swear by what they do in seasonals,” meaning small-batch brews made seasonally.
  • Browning’s Brewery: “They make great lagers, especially the Helles, and of course the She Devil for those who like a little more oomph.”
  • Cumberland Brewing: “The Goat Boy Bock is just great and I love the Nitro Porter for year round.”
 

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