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It doesn’t rival bourbon, but beer is booming in the Bluegrass

by Steve Coomes

The Bluegrass State is enjoying a brew boom lately.

Exactly a year-ago, Roger Baylor, co-owner of New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany, told me in an interview that Indianapolis’s craft brewery numbers had doubled from five to 10 in the prior two years. Surprised and envious, I asked, “Why isn’t that happening here? Why are we stuck at just a handful?”

Jerry Gnagy and Sam Cruz, brewers and co-owners of Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse. (Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville)

His answer was simple and truthful: “I don’t know.”

Seems someone heard you, Roger, and got to work.

Since then, Louisville has added Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, and Apocalypse Brew Works is set to come online around spring.

This summer, Falls City Brewing will open a micro-brewing operation on Barret Ave., which will feature a tap room serving several different styles of beer in addition to the current pale ale. Murmurings about others, including a new Bluegrass Brewing Co. outlet in Norton Crossings (this one more fact than gossip), abound as well.

And it’s not just happening in Louisville. In the past year or so, West Sixth Brewing and Country Boy Brewing have opened in Lexington, and Lore Brewing and Beer Engine have opened in Danville. And those are in addition to Alltech Brewing in Lexington, which has brewed Kentucky Ale for several years now.

Now there’s a website touting the formation of the Brewgrass Trail, which, for now, features a limited list of microbreweries and restaurants with good beer selections.

A story in the Advocate-Messenger (a newspaper based in Danville) quoted Adam Johnson, executive director of the Danville/Boyle County Convention and Visitors bureau, about a nascent beer tourism industry here.

“Marketing to the growing ‘beer tourist’ segment has shown great promise and is seen in the exploding growth of breweries, specialty shops, and craft beer bars across the Bluegrass,” he told the paper. “Our hope is to make things easier for the culinary traveler to find these uniquely Kentucky beer spots with this website and social networking campaign.”

This could be a cool thing locally, something not lost on Lisa Higgins, CEO at Mint Julep Tours, who told me her company is adding brewery tours to its list of offerings, which include bourbon distillery tours.

Local media is caught up in the frenzy, too. Louisville magazine just did a large feature in its February edition (titled “Beer is the New Bourbon”) that detailed the city’s brewing history (some 150 breweries operated in Louisville between 1840 and 1978 at 54 sites) and the status of microbreweries “hop spots” here now. And not to be left out, the city’s convention and visitors bureau asked me to do a similar piece for its 2012 visitors guide—talk about fun work!

Jason Schuster, specialty beer brands manager for River City Distributing, and one of two certified Cicerones (beer experts) in the state, attributed part of the beer boom to the area’s long-established restaurant scene.

“When you have a great restaurant selection like we do, and you have open-minded chefs who try lots of different things, you attract diners who like that kind of food,” he said. “It’s only natural that people who love that kind of food would be open to trying different kinds of beer … and our sales increases prove that people want much more than standard lagers.”

Want proof? Just look at the growler selection at Liquor Barn in Springhurst: 40 frequently rotated craft beers on tap every week. And while that’s the best spot in town for growlers, it’s hardly the only one. Louisville Beer Store, Whole Foods Market, ValuMarket (Mid City Mall), any area microbrewery, and now even Boombozz Taphouse and Flanagan’s Ale House, all sell growlers. (If you prefer draft over bottle, it’s the best way to enjoy beer short of having your own home keg.)

Last week I talked to Paul Young, owner of My Old Kentucky Homebrew in Butchertown, who said sales of home brewing equipment and ingredients are strong. Biggest day for equipment purchases? Sunday, when people are off work and have time to brew.

Jerry Gngay, brewmaster at Against the Grain told me recently that the scene here hasn’t come close to reaching its potential, that the more microbreweries there are here, the more that rising tide will float all ships dedicated to producing good brew.

“Chances are if they like another brewery’s beer, they’ll like ours, so it’s all good,” he said.

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