When nine Kentucky breweries got together nearly two years ago to form the Kentucky Guild of Brewers, the goal was a unified organization that would provide a singular voice with which to promote their beers, breweries and events.
They’ve found that voice in John King, who recently was named executive director to lead the guild’s board. And his voice speaks to the very unity Kentucky’s breweries seek. It isn’t about who can sell the most beer, King says, it’s about helping each other.
“People think [Bluegrass Brewing Company] is competing against Against the Grain,” he says. “The breweries are working together. It’s a good ol’ boy system where, if they run short on malt, they get malt from another brewery.”
But King has longer vision for his – for now – unpaid position, and that is to organize the breweries around the state into action.
It’s a hell of a good time to be doing it because there are new craft breweries springing up everywhere. Louisville alone is awaiting the launch of roughly a half dozen, with Great Flood Brewing set to open in the Highlands soon and Danville-based Beer Engine eyeing a summer opening in Germantown.
King points to Mayor Greg Fischer’s initiative to make Louisville a bourbon and dining touring destination as all the motivation he needs. When Fischer’s announcement came down at a bourbon-drenched press conference, many brewers in the city were left wondering, hands open and mouth agape, why no brewer (beer or coffee) was asked to join in on the action plan.
“I took it as a kick to the balls,” King says. “For beer geeks, Kentucky is a craft beer destination.”
And so, priority No. 1 for King is to build relationships with Fischer, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Danville Mayor Bernie Hunstad, to help raise the profile of the state’s breweries. Priority No. 2, he says, is to increase membership – and not just to include breweries, but suppliers, retailers, distributors and anyone else involved in the business of beer.
Ultimately, King wants local businesses of all kinds to be more connected to local breweries.
And priority No. 3 is to connect with the people who make it all possible, the enthusiasts. Or, as King puts it, “The common beer drinker that loves to drink Kentucky-made beer.”
Interestingly, King, 31, insists he came by all this beer business mostly by accident. His “real job” – his words – is in education. He also makes furniture hand crafted from oak and bourbon barrels.
His path to becoming a craft-beer aficionado started with enjoying non-Kentucky craft beer, by way of Dogfish Head, a brewery based in Delaware. Next came Sierra Nevada Harvest, a wet-hop ale. He would get away from hoppy beers for a while, and then it was a local beer that snagged him and reeled him back in. That beer was Hoptimus, brewed by New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany.
“As soon as I had it, I kind of fell in love,” King says.
Not long after, he began home brewing. Not long after that, he began communicating with New Albanian head brewer David Pierce, who also is involved with the guild.
From there he began testing his palate, finding out what he liked and what he didn’t. He began to plan his vacations around beer (and who doesn’t?). And soon he was blogging and podcasting for LouisvilleBeer.com.
“It was,” he says, “sort of a snowball effect.”
He was named executive director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers at the guild’s first official meeting in January. The upcoming Halfway to Louisville Craft Beer Week, April 16-20, will be the guild’s “coming out party,” King says. That’s when things will truly begin to ramp up, and a membership program will ultimately be put in place.
His vision is that for a membership fee, beer enthusiasts will get a VIP card good for discounts at every guild-member brewery. Members will also get a T-shirt and a regular newsletter.
“And you can celebrate the fact you are paying tribute to the great beer that is made in Kentucky,” he says. “I am personally going to sign every membership card and mail out all the T-shirts, so people can become members of what we call ‘the KGB.’”
He even envisions that one day, instead of corporate mega-beer sponsoring mega-events around town, it will be local breweries, and asks the question, “Why are we drinking Coors when we should be drinking BBC?”
It’s a question he hopes to answer in due time; make way for the new King of beers, Kentucky.