Being Beer In A Bourbon Town

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“The spirit of the city.”

In just five, short words, that catchphrase from the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau explains how vital bourbon has become to Louisville. Yet, it was just a little over five years ago when Mayor Greg Fischer first publicly used the word “Bourbonism” to help explain how the city would take advantage of the bourbon boom that was beginning to drive tourism around the state.

And it wasn’t that long ago that bourbon was an afterthought in Louisville, at least in terms of tourism. The phrase “Whiskey Row” was a forgotten term from long ago, unearthed by the tourism bureau, with the help of local historians, to put an extra splash on purposeful efforts to take advantage of Kentucky’s native brown liquid and the long history associated with it.

But now, the Urban Bourbon Trail, founded in 2008, has grown to more than 40 stops, distilleries and bourbon attractions have reopened downtown, and historic Whiskey Row has begun its ascent to a thriving, new hospitality and business district.

And, then, there’s beer…

If bourbon has become a hurricane in Louisville, beer has been barely a drizzle, at least in terms of the city’s identity. But what has been forgotten is that Louisville’s history in brewing is rich in its own right; the city was one of the 10 largest beer producers in the Southeast by the late 1800s, and nationally it was in competition with Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Miller into the 1950s, led by Falls City Brewing Co., Frank Fehr Brewing Co. and Oertel Brewing Co.

Like the bourbon industry, Louisville and Southern Indiana’s brewers have been reborn —  more than 20 have opened, and the beer scene is thriving, including world-class festivals and internationally recognized beers.

Yet, the tourism bureau devotes only a couple of pages to beer in its tourist guide, and has a page listing the city’s breweries, with a bit of history attached. Otherwise, the brewing profile in Louisville has remained well behind that of bourbon.

That is slowly changing as the the city — and even distilleries — begin to recognize the value of promoting Louisville’s beer scene, and they are now working more with breweries.

“It’s no secret, and I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that bourbon and Bourbonism are king in Kentucky,” said Sam Cruz, co-owner of Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse. “It is what it is. Instead of competing with it, we kind of use it as our gateway to get out there and grow our business as well. They’ve laid the pathway for how it’s done. We’ve learned a lot from that.”

A Snub Started It All

Go back to 2013 when the city organized a “work group” of representatives from distilleries, restaurants and bars to help make Louisville a destination for bourbon and dining — to make Louisville synonymous with bourbon as a way to attract more tourists.

“They think of Napa Valley for wine,” Fischer said at the time, referring to tourists. “We want them to think of Louisville for bourbon.”

Even local coffee shops were part of this group — but no breweries.

At that time, there were nine breweries in Louisville. While craft beer was booming nationwide, Louisville lagged. City officials grabbed onto bourbon simply because it made the most sense at the time.

“How Louisville tourism got into the bourbon marketing was out of pure need for a differentiating factor for our promotion of the city as a whole,” Stacey Yates, vice president of trade show sales for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, recalled. “In 2006, we were just simply trying to be everything to everybody. It wasn’t gaining any traction.”

She likened the approach to promoting tourism in the city to a “giant grocery store ad,” wherein dozens of products, from eggs to paper towels, are displayed with small photos and sale prices. In other words, the city’s tourism promotions were all over the place, lacking focus. Bourbon offered that focus.

By 2008, the Urban Bourbon Trail was a thing, and by 2013, it was clear the asset of bourbon was perhaps more valuable than anyone knew.

At the time, bourbon also was gaining on a national level, stretching to modern pop culture. This led the bureau to dig into bourbon’s Kentucky roots to uncover the true flavors of the heritage that exists in Louisville. “We just happened to hone in on bourbon through storytelling,” Yates said, calling the history a “treasure.”

Whither Beer?

The beer scene was indeed young by the time Bourbonism became a thing. Now popular spots including Gravely Brewing Co., Mile Wide Beer Co. and 3rd Turn Brewing were years from opening. Monnik Beer Co. was being built but still using the name Beer Engine. Nevertheless, many in the scene felt slighted by not being included in the work group and spoke up.

That led Fischer’s office to create the Mayor’s Local Brewery Workgroup, drawing from local breweries from both sides of the Ohio River, plus beer aficionados and beer historians.

Initiatives included creating a beer trail, similar to the Urban Bourbon Trail, working toward making state laws more brewery friendly, involving breweries in city events and creating an annual event that would tie bourbon to beer locally.

Maps of the city’s breweries were designed and distributed to said breweries. The brewery scene was promoted at the Louisville Visitor Center downtown.

Clearly, however, there’s no visible “Beer-ism” in Louisville. And maybe that’s OK — maybe it’s less a situation of beer being overshadowed as it is beer finding its role.

Derek Selznick, executive director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers, bristled at the notion that the city of Louisville doesn’t support local breweries: “I fundamentally disagree,” he said, adding, however, “I can understand from an optics standpoint how it might feel that way.”

He believes the beer scene is looking up like never before. With more breweries opening including Gallant Fox Brewing Co., Wild Hops Brewery and Noble Funk Brewery, Selznick said, there will be more than 20 breweries in the city by the end of 2020.

He also said he has recently met with Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm, to discuss how the growing brewing scene and the city can help each other. For Selznick and the breweries, the question isn’t whether they should compete with the bourbon industry — it’s how they can work with the bourbon industry.

“To say we are in bourbon’s shadow is appropriate,” Selznick said. “They are a larger industry than we are, by a lot. But the quality of what we do is incredible. I think actually what we have here is one of the most unique opportunities in the nation as a state and locally.”

Big Beer News

Indeed, more is going on in Louisville’s beer scene than might appear.

Louisville Craft Beer Week, once a notable event that involved bars and breweries all over the city, dwindled to a trickle two years ago. Last year, however, it began to return thanks to Kentucky Beer Network, which then was essentially a one-man effort to revitalize the event and to refocus it more on the local breweries.

If the original version of Louisville Craft Beer Week essentially was a for-profit endeavor, David Satterly saw an opportunity in that iteration’s wake to create something more inclusive.

Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse’s beer in cans.

This year, the event has been rebooted as Louisville Beer Week — sans “Craft” — by Satterly and a team of others who want to see the city’s breweries thrive. The people behind “Boy Meets Wort,” a local video series about beer and breweries and “Building Breweries: A Beer Podcast” have joined Satterly’s quest to reimagine not just Louisville Beer Week but how local beer is promoted.

“Louisville is a great bourbon town,” said Ricky Burdette, who partners with John Ronayne in “Boy Meets Wort.” “But Louisville Beer Week is about bringing craft beer enthusiasts together to spotlight the great makers who have turned this bourbon town into a legitimate beer city.”

A new aspect to the week of events and beer collaborations this year is a pitcher promotion wherein participating breweries will have $10 pitchers of approachable beers available all during Louisville Beer Week. The strategy is to not cater to just hardcore beer geeks but to anyone who is curious about local beer and isn’t sure where to begin.

“We’re kind of demystifying ‘craft,’” Satterly said. “We’re just saying, ‘It’s a local beer, and that’s what you should care about.’”

Satterly and his colleagues see this as a step toward making local beer more approachable, which in turn will make it easier to promote. Whereas so-called “craft beer” is seen as having a culture of exclusion, Louisville Beer Week this year will work to turn that perspective on its head.

“It’s geared toward inviting the crowd who may be worried that craft is too pretentious,” Satterly said. “It’s local. Some people may still not want to label themselves as a craft beer drinker, but it’s easier for someone to label themselves as a local beer drinker.”

The week’s activities will also include promotions such as collaboration brews and a look at Louisville’s brewing history.

The city is on board. The kickoff event is Oct. 26 at Highlands Beer Festival, at which Fischer is expected to make a proclamation commemorating Louisville Beer Week. The week’s activities and specials then continue through Nov. 3.

Local breweries are taking further forward steps, with a new initiative being announced soon in the form of the Louisville Ale Trail. Whereas the beer trail maps created in cooperation with the city five years ago not only are outdated but probably no longer exist, the Louisville Ale Trail aspires to be a living, breathing thing that will remain up to date.

The Ale Trail will be modeled on the Urban Bourbon Trail, with paper passports that people can get stamped with each brewery visit to get prizes. Logos have been developed for what will eventually become a downloadable app.

Perhaps best of all, Louisville Tourism is going to consult on the concept, with a meeting to happen in the coming weeks.

Hand In Hand

Selznick and the breweries see the opportunity to piggyback on the success of bourbon and the rising tide of Bourbonism in Louisville. It only makes sense. The culinary scene has enjoyed success as a hand-in-hand proposition, with restaurants and distilleries teaming up for events and bourbon-themed restaurants pulling in bourbon fans to feed them. Breweries are getting in on the act.

And Selznick pointed out that if Asheville, North Carolina has more breweries than the entire state of Kentucky, well, it doesn’t have a lick of bourbon culture. Beer stands alone in many such craft beer-centric locales, whereas Selznick sees Louisville as having a high-powered partner in a three-pronged attack that includes Louisville’s robust culinary culture. All for one, one for all.

Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse is an example of this kind of creative partnering. When Angel’s Envy Distillery opened across the street, the brewery jumped at the chance to establish a relationship.

“They’ve done a wonderful job working with us,” said AtG’s Cruz. “We agreed to kind of be an overflow and a support system for their tour schedule. They send us business. We benefit from all those folks coming in, and we also we use their barrels. I couldn’t be happier with having that across the street. It’s win-win across the board.”

To Cruz’s point, one high-profile way in which breweries and distilleries have formed a symbiosis is through barrel-aged beer. The Kentucky Guild of Brewers’ annual Kentucky Craft Bash has put bourbon in a prominent position, partnering this year with some 40 breweries around the state aging beer in barrels provided by New Riff Distilling of Newport, Kentucky. The beers were unveiled at the event, where New Riff also had a presence as a sponsor.

Michael Moeller is the creator of “Building Breweries”and is working with Satterly, Ronayne and Burdette to present Louisville Beer Week 2019 as well as the Louisville Ale Trail. He seees an opportunity for local beer to be recognized for what it brings to the city.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said. “We can appreciate bourbon, and we can appreciate baseball bats, but there’s still room to be proud of other creators and other creations in Louisville and beer is one of them.”

Moeller is a defender of Louisville’s breweries, pointing out that if the beer made here is appreciated outside the city, it deserves to be appreciated within Metro Louisville limits. Against the Grain has a brewery operation in Japan. He noted that while in Amsterdam at a bottle shop, he came across a Monnik collaboration beer. Earlier this year, Gravely Brewing won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup, beating out 174 other breweries from around the world.

Settle in at any local brewery on a weekend, and there’s a good chance you’ll meet people from out of town, people who seek out breweries in any city they visit. Some even come to Louisville just to experience the beer scene.

Keith Joy leads tours around the city with his business Derby City Brew Tours. He said he’s seen increased interest in Louisville’s breweries. While many of his bookings are for bachelorette parties or birthday excursions, he said, many of his tours are booked by people from surrounding smaller cities in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.

He has seen a rise in general in the genuine curiosity of those who take his tours. While for some, it’s just a recreational outing that includes beer, more and more people genuinely want to learn, asking probing questions of the brewers.

“There’s a story behind the brewers,” Joy said, “and that’s what people love to hear. Not just how the beer is made, but the craft beer culture as well.”

Selznick is happy to say that much of the success beer has had in Kentucky and across the state “is because of the bourbon industry and not in spite of it.”

He and Satterly both note that through charitable contributions, sponsorships and general community involvement, the breweries are becoming integral to Louisville’s identity. Will bourbon always be beer’s big brother in Kentucky? Sure. But having a big brother can be a pretty cool thing.

Nevertheless, Selznick said the little brother’s importance is getting noticed.

“I think the city is starting to recognize we are creating signature events and signature experiences for people when they come here,” he said. “We are going to have a full blown brewery district that not many cities can boast. I think the city is wise in becoming more inclusive.”