“Kids drank it, everyone drank beer,” says author Kevin Gibson. “You drank it with breakfast, you drank it with lunch. You drank it just to drink it.”
Gibson is the author of the new book “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft,” available now, and published by the History Press. Gibson also is a regular IL contributor.
The book allows Gibson to expound on some longstanding passions, including beer, beer history, and where the two intersect. Even better, he gets to tell these stories as they relate to his native city, Louisville.
Some readers might be surprised to learn Louisville was once a beer-making powerhouse, competing with the likes of St. Louis and Milwaukee. Its signature beers–including Falls City, Frank Fehr’s Brewing Co., and the Oertel Brewery–not only satisfied the thirst of the River City at one time, but had fans well beyond Louisville’s borders, too.
A book on beer history was a perfect project for Gibson, who was already the author of the 502 Brews blog. It’s clearly a subject he’s spent many hours drinking about.
“I found it a fascinating topic,” he says. The book, he adds, allowed him to quit his day job in corporate marketing. “Also known as hell. I hated it.”
He got his contract last November, and finished his final draft, so to speak, this past April. Now he’s embarking on a series of book signings, starting at Carmichael’s on Frankfort Avenue during the Aug. 29 FAT Friday Trolley Hop.
One thing that surprised Gibson was how closely the rise of Louisville brewing coincided with a huge influx of German immigrants to the city in the 1840s. Before that there had been relatively little brewing, though the city already had transplanted Irish and English immigrants, both cultures known to hoist a sudsy mug.
But it was the Germans that really kicked off Louisville beer life. The climate, they found, was not too different from back home, and they could grow most of the ingredients they needed here. Whatever else they needed, like hops, could travel by river or train, and many breweries were by train tracks for this reason. By the late 1880s there were local breweries, mash houses, and silos everywhere, as Germans did what they always do, make and drink beer.
“About one-third of the population (of Louisville) was German, and they were making probably 90 percent of the beer, and probably drinking about 90 percent of the beer,” Gibson says.
They not only upped the quantity of beer, they also changed the style. Prior to the Germans the predominant beers here were heavy British-style ales, but the Germans changed that. Instead, they imported the recipes for lagers, which are lighter, and crisper. Perfect for hot Kentucky days.
Gibson adds he also was surprised to learn Louisville is where one of the two kinds of indigenous American beers was invented. Back in the 19th century it was simply called “common” beer, and was a dark-colored beer, but light in body. At the same time it also was creamy and lightly carbonated. In time it came to be known as Kentucky common. “It’s really good,” Gibson says.
How can he know? Because Louisville’s own Apocalypse Brew Works makes a modern version of one, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
As the city grew and the German immigrants thrived, Gibson says breweries popped up on nearly every Louisville street corner, with there being anywhere from 50 to 75 operating at a time during the late 1800s. There were reasons for this. One is that neighborhoods were a central part of peoples’ lives before the invention of mass transportation, he says. Also, water could be less safe to drink than beer.
The German immigrants also brought over their brewery culture. Entire families would come over to work in breweries, with the men enduring brutal 16 hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week, often in scorching hot conditions inside the breweries.
“The wife of the brewery owner was making lunch for everybody,” Gibson says, “and making dinner for everybody. It might’ve been 15 workers in this small family.” The workers often slept in cots at the actual brewery.
They would drink on the job, sometimes as much as 25 10-ounce glasses of beer a day. These were big, beefy guys, the kind of guys who could lift full beer barrels, working in blazing hot boiler rooms. They rarely got even tipsy on the job, Gibson says.
The late Victorian-era in Louisville also saw the city import some beer-centric traditions from Germany, including one bacchanal called Bock Day.
Bock beer is a hearty, robust brew, would be stored underground all winter, and was unearthed and consumed to coincide with the start of Lent, when people fasted. This was a big deal back then, and people took off work across the city to celebrate. It was its era’s Oaks Day.
The theory, Gibson says, was this thick brew would provide some nutritional value to fasters. That was the theory, at least. “What it really did was get people drunk, and people acted like idiots on Bock Day,” he says.
In his book Gibson recounts one choice anecdote about blitzed Bock Day revelers harassing a local pig, but I won’t ruin it for you.
Suffice to say, Gibson is trying to revive the dormant Bock Day tradition, in his role as a history consultant for Mayor Greg Fischer’s beer-related work group. He claims the mayor is interested.
Prohibition killed most of Louisville’s local breweries, and after its repeal a comparative handful soldiered on. Still, for several decades these brands mentioned above–Oertel’s, Falls City, and Fehr’s–thrived and defined Louisville’s brewing culture.
Yet in time even they proved unable to compete with the challenges posed by Anheuser-Busch and Miller, which flexed their mighty marketing dollars.
One by one the breweries closed, with a pathetic footnote coming in 1978 when Falls City teamed up with Billy Carter to produce Billy Beer. As with so many things related to both Billy and Jimmy Carter, it initially succeeded but was eventually doomed to fail.
Today, Gibson says, Louisville’s craft-brewing scene is healthy and growing, with more variety than was ever available back during the early Golden Age of Louisville brewing.
Gibson, however, also likes it when the local brewers crank up the Wayback Machine and recapture some of the old beers flavors of yesteryear, giving tipplers a literal taste of Louisville’s past.
As noted, Apocalypse makes its own Kentucky common, but they’re not the only one.
The Bluegrass Brewing Company is another, having recently released its Louisville Lager, deliberately made to harken back to what those early German immigrants made and loved. “I’ve tasted it, it’s really good, really drinkable, and people are going to like it,” he says.
It might be a simple brew, but Gibson, a fan of all things beer, says that’s OK. “People love this kind of beer. Why do we have to be snobs, and make everything super-hoppy or barrel aged? he asks. “It can just be beer!”
Kevin Gibson will speak about his new book, and Louisville beer in general, at these upcoming events:
Aug. 29: Carmichael’s on Frankfort Ave., 7 p.m. as part of the Trolley Hop. This event will feature snacks, beers and brats.
Sept. 2: Bluegrass Brewing Company in St. Matthews, 6 p.m.
For more of his events, and to learn more about Kevin Gibson, you can check here.