Todd Jackson is the first to admit he’s still finding his way in the beer business. After buying the more than century-old Sterling brand with his brother Ken in 2012, he’s had three different brewing partners and a packaging concept that was well received but ill-fated.
But Sterling has high hopes for a bright future. Recently, it was reported that the Sterling owners and its investor group, Louisville Sterling LLC, had a contract to purchase a pair of currently empty buildings in the Highlands at 1300 and 1306 Bardstown Road, with the intent to open a taphouse and brewery operation.
Sterling’s launch nearly four years ago went from local draft releases to unique 16-ounce, wide-mouth cans, and more recently to standard 12-ounce cans. Along the way, Jackson talked briefly with Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin about contract brewing the pilsner, ended up partnering with Upland Brewery in Bloomington, followed by a short partnership with Capital Brewing in Madison, Wisc., and then back to Stevens Point, where Sterling is brewed currently.
“It was really, really well received,” Jackson says, “but we started learning a lot about the beer business. The trickiest thing is how much beer to brew, and where is it going to go?”
He then found the 16-ounce cans weren’t treating the beer well, and the taste was being altered by the time it reached the consumer. And with the rising popularity of everything from craft beer to energy drinks, they soon came across another hurdle: a nationwide shortage of 16-ounce cans.
Another issue was price; he says at some bars, the 16-ounce cans went for as high as $6, which is pricey no matter what’s inside the container. Reverting to 12-ounce cans brought the price down to the $3 range in bars, and $7.99-$8.99 for retail six-packs.
And so, the Jacksons decided to pursue a taproom to help push the brand forward.
Still, there is another hurdle, which is perception. Much like with Falls City Beer when it returned to the market several years ago, Sterling is an unknown commodity to young beer enthusiasts and is remembered as cheap swill by older beer drinkers. But it was a brand Jackson grew up with, which is why he resurrected it to begin with.
“I love craft beer,” he says, “but this was about the brand when this started.”
Falls City CEO Cezary Wlodarczyk has taken a strategy of making the best of the lingering perception of Falls City beer that many Louisville grandparents and great-grandparents drank. Falls City has adopted marketing slogans that identify it as “craft beer before craft beer was cool,” while focusing on the future of the brand when talking to distributors, bar owners and retailers. Of course, Falls City has a big portfolio of beers.
Jackson’s job is similar, but for now he has one beer, a pilsner, which is very similar to what many remember Sterling being, but made with higher quality ingredients. It’s crisp and drinkable, but with a flavor profile leaning more toward a traditional Czech pilsner. It is being packaged and marketed in throw-back design.
When Jackson talks about the brand he loves — he has a growing collection of Sterling breweriana and studies the brewery’s history — he uses the word “heritage” repeatedly. His idea for the taphouse is to maintain the familiar Sterling pilsner is a heritage brand, while utilizing a small brewing operation, likely in the 10- to 15-barrel range, to brew other beer styles to be served on site. Those beers are yet to be determined, he says.
“People are drinking more of this beer,” says Jackson. “We’re very happy with the flavor; it’s something you can count on. We would love for it to be the heritage brand, the go-to brand like what people’s grandfather drank. I have no problem with that.”
In fact, looking back at Sterling’s history, it wasn’t just grandparents and great-grandparents in Louisville; Sterling was based in Evansville, Ind., and was distributed around the Southeast. It was an important brand in its day before being ultimately stomped on by larger breweries like Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller.
The Louisville connection is complex — the beginnings of Sterling Beer date back to the Civil War era, and a version of the Sterling brand was brewed here as early as the mid-1860s. The brewery was purchased in 1873 by brothers John and Charles Hartmetz, but the brothers soon decided one would relocate to Evansville to run another brewery. The younger John legendarily lost a coin toss and moved to Evansville, where he ran the operation that would ultimately make Sterling a highly successful brand.
Meanwhile, the Hartmetz brewery in Louisville continued to use the superlative “sterling” in describing some of its beers, but Charles died in 1891, which is when John F. Oertel purchased it from Charles’ widow, leading to the popular Louisville brand Oertel’s. Years later, Sterling and Oertel’s ’92 would become popular competing brands.
Jackson hopes to pay tribute to that legacy with a taproom that doubles as a Sterling Museum. He hopes the spot will eventually become a destination for locals and tourists with multiple beers on tap — and a steady supply of original Sterling pilsner. He even hopes there is space for a canning line in the roughly 2,400 square feet of space. Renovation on the buildings is not expected to begin until at least fall 2016, and there is no timeline for opening.
“We’re still researching the building,” Jackson admits. “There’s always that chance we get into that building and it’s too overwhelming to do.”
He hopes luck will be with Sterling this time. Jackson wants to figure out a way to erase past perception and bring Sterling back to its former glory, both here and around the region. He believes that starts by giving beer drinkers a place where they can meet with friends and drink the beer, learn about its history, and also have other craft beer available to them.
“We got lot of kickback when we had the four packs out and people were like, ‘Sterling?’” he says. “That’s a huge hurdle. I know Falls City has gone through the same thing. I don’t know what else to do but get it in people’s hands and let them try it. … My biggest goal would be to walk into every pub in the city and people are drinking Sterling. I don’t care if they call it ‘craft’ — I don’t care what they call it. It’s a man’s beer. And it’s too good of a brand to lay dormant.”