Mug Shots: Simple times called for Phoenix Kommon

Apr 17, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Thunder Over Louisville, our annual celebration of steroidal fireworks, pirouetting jet aircraft and impossibly loud over-indulgence, is the sort of exuberant exercise at which Americans typically excel.

    Thunder’s popularity seems perfectly fitting given our proclivity for hyperbole, which in terms of ubiquitous marketing-driven culture, always must be expressed in escalating, superlative terms: bigger, better, super-sized and new & improved.

    But there were more peaceful and less intrusive times, when the loudest show in town was John Philip Sousa’s touring marching band, and Louisville’s unique local fermented libation was the unassuming and delightfully understated “common” or “kommon” beer.

    It was brewed with barley malt, caramel or roasted malt to make it dark, and as much as 30 percent corn, which often came directly from the same batch of sour mash used to distill bourbon. After a vigorous fermentation, the beer was transferred to wooden barrels and permitted to continue bubbling before being bunged and delivered to taverns by horse-drawn wagons.

    Common beer was widely brewed, only lightly alcoholic, unfiltered, aggressively carbonated, thirst-quenching, inexpensive and described by the “American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades” as being “mainly consumed by the laboring classes.”

    When passing Acme Auto Electric on Baxter Avenue, note the colorful murals that decorate the exterior of what was once a stable, attached to the long-forgotten Phoenix Brewery — proud maker of Phoenix Kommon.
    Adjacent to the brewery was the wooded Phoenix Hill Park, site of a beer garden, bandstand, dance hall, bicycle track and bowling alley. The brewery and park, both widely renowned, were situated on a hilltop that was leveled in the late 1930s, along with most of the rest of the complex.

    There may have been fireworks there, but only on the Fourth of July.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. He writes about beer for Food & Dining magazine. Visit for more beer.