Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: As they say, think globally and drink locally.

My tenure at Rich O’s Public House began in June of 1992, and in considering this simple chronological fact of our company’s development, it is important to remember that at the time, no local breweries were operating in the metropolitan Louisville.

However, the revolution was palpably imminent. It arrived shortly thereafter, and has wildly proliferated ever since. Almost two decades have passed, and with them an array of sensations and experiences.

What has been learned?

Apart from an abortive precursor at Charlie’s, a restaurant on Main Street in Louisville, the modern era of brewing in Kentuckiana began in the autumn of 1992, when the Silo Brewpub opened for business with David Pierce manning the brew house. Apart from the Silo, the closest functional brewery to metropolitan Louisville was Oldenberg, just this side of Cincinnati in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky. Further afield, in Indianapolis, both Indianapolis Brewing Company (the Dusseldorfer brands) and Broad Ripple Brewpub (no distribution, then or now) were brewing beer.

That’s about it.

What’s more, almost no microbrewed beers (“craft” being a term to be coined much later) were available through normal wholesaling channels. The good beer game largely was played in terms of imports, most worthy examples being shipped from Europe.

We spent much time drinking beers like Guinness, Paulaner and Bass, fantasizing about the time to come, in what we could plainly see was a dawning age, when we’d be able to do it – to brew it – ourselves. Of course, the homebrewing contingents in LAGERS and FOSSILS already were brewing themselves, and so I’m restricting my field of vision to commercial brewing.

Even back then, we were not satisfied with Rich O’s being “just” a good beer bar, and we desperately wanted to brew our own. In 1994, the pre-existing Sportstime Pizza Inc. transitioned into the New Albanian Brewing Company, and we formulated a plan to acquire equipment and build a pub brewery at the original location on Grant Line Road.

Alas, neither the time nor the money was yet right, and the plans were shelved. We bided our time until 2002, by which time Tucker Brewing, Silver Creek Brewing, more than one Oldenberg branch, Pipkin, Hops!, Jack Daniels (no kidding), and perhaps other I’m forgetting already had come and gone, or were about to head out the door. We bought the remnants of Tucker via Silver Creek, and Michael Borchers fired up the NABC kettle for the first time.

By then, the go-to option for beer enthusiasts from the Louisville metropolitan area had long since been Bluegrass Brewing Company, which opened in 1993 in St. Matthews, having hired Dave away from the Silo.

For many of us, BBC was the one, crucial, necessary variable that truly mattered, as Dave pursued a quality program of mainstays and seasonals. BBC primarily was a brewpub with a small but growing degree of local distribution, and it was followed in later years by Cumberland Brews, Browning’s, and BBC’s own production facility at Clay & Main, which lie outside the scope of this essay.

Meanwhile, slowly and inexorably, as the years passed by, microbrews from elsewhere in America crept into the mix at the Public House. Some of them remain familiar today, like Sierra Nevada and Rogue. Others now are largely forgotten, like Baderbrau and Legacy.

To me, the analogy of a spigot gradually being rotated aptly illustrates these passing years. At some forgotten point, the trickle became a gushing torrent, with hundreds of beers from America’s hundreds of brewing companies, hundreds more from abroad, and the challenge of trying to decide which ones were worth stocking.

Verily, the American beer desert bloomed.

After visiting Delirium Tremens in Belgium in 2000, and watching as our beercycling group was toasted by the owner as representative of a burgeoning American market that was “saving” traditional brewing in his country, it began to occur to me how strange it was for drinkers in New Albany to rely on imports from afar, where local markets often were not sufficiently strong to support acknowledged world classic beers.

I didn’t realize it then, but this was the beginning of my grappling with the concept of local buying, local production and local creativity in beer. There would always be a place for the classics brewed throughout the world, but in the final analysis, shouldn’t the length and breadth of a local beer culture be measured by the strength of its local brewing?

By the mid-noughts, virtually every European brewery – big or small, good or bad – seemed to have found an American importer, and this was before the new generation of Mikkellers and Struises and Brew Dogs came on the scene. Concurrently, American craft brewing was growing at a rate far exceeding other beer business segments.

Taken together, the revolution of good beer became an unparalleled phenomenon mixing great taste with great business. If it were not, Anheuser-Busch would not be bragging about its own “craft” beers in a descriptive language utterly foreign to its corporate culture. Indeed, imitation remains the surest form of flattery.

Today, the Louisville metropolitan area boasts five brewing companies, including a total of eight brewhouses: BBC (2), Browning’s, Cumberland and NABC. Perhaps a thousand or more other brands come to the Louisville metropolitan area from macros and micros in America and the entire planet. I wouldn’t change a thing about this situation, because the founding generation fought for choice above all else.

At the same time, the next stage of the revolutionary struggle, at least on the part of those of us who are in the business of craft brewing, is to expand local brewing’s perimeter in its own marketplace. We must win back the hearts and minds of those living locally by making the case for genuinely local beer as distinctly indicative of what makes this region special, as worthy of a defined appellation of origin, as supportive of local brewing as adding inestimable value to a finished product, as recognizing that product as the freshest local daily option, as keeping more money in the local economy, and numerous other good reasons. If you have one, let me know and I’ll add it to a growing list.

My point is three-fold.

1. Some readers are not familiar with the back story, which I believe is crucial in understanding current times. Like any other individual, or any collective grouping such as the “good beer” business, accumulated experience shapes contemporary thinking.

2. There always has been a philosophical comparing-and-contrasting of beer from here, beer from there, and beer from all other places, a discussion that has changed as the times themselves have evolved.

3. Through it all, as reflects my personal experience, it has remained the case that even if one manages to create and maintain the very finest specialty beer bar (for which there’ll always be a need, and which I’ll always support), there is a glass ceiling that can be shattered only when beer is being brewed on site. Only then can artistic visions and expectations truly be attained, with a positive impact on local economies.

When it comes to Kentuckiana, our thriving local brewing industry represents an amazing revolutionary achievement. It exists alongside beer bars, restaurants, package outlets, homebrewing clubs, and every other manifestation of a vibrant beer culture, all of them worthy of equal recognition and celebration, all of them combining to provide a level of choice never before seen hereabouts. The Public House, formerly Rich O's, still offers the finest beers from anywhere and everywhere, even as we emphasize NABC more than before. We'll continue that marketing trajectory.

For me, after almost thirty years of effort, brewing locally is the pursuit that best unites the various stylistic, “create and buy local,” consciousness-expanding, educational-broadening strands of beer endeavor into an expression that is unique to Kentuckiana. No other place can be exactly like we are.

We must sell this fact – not just to the world, but even more importantly, to ourselves.


David said...

True Story:
I also formulated and brewed the original Charlie's batches. The formula was based on the original SNPA which was given to me by Steve Harrison of Sierra Nevada via beer board on AOL (2400 baud baby!). I cultured the yeast from a small sample given to me by Sonny Neurath which he had grown from a bottle of SNPA smuggled into Louisville from Colorado. The beer wasn't bad until the servers started dipping unsanitized cups into the "fermenter".

johnking said...

good read as always, good to know some of the story. Since becoming a craft/micro/whatever you want to call it, I have become fascinated with the processes, especially around here in Louisville. While sitting at a desk in academia, I often dream what it would be like brewing instead of teaching. Thanks for the post!

Rob said...

I see for a place like Rich O's, there being 4 concentric rings of craft beer, of which 3 are well represented. The 4 rings would be:

1. In house
2. Local
3. USA
4. World

Not sure what the exact ratio between the 4 should be, but #2 seems to be lagging the others - there are some obvious good reasons for this, but it would be nice to see more BBC/Cumberland/Brownings/(the next 40 local breweries) on tap.

The New Albanian said...

Rob, you are absolutely right. Earlier this year, I designated one of the taps as rotating Kentuckiana. The problem we've found is the Ohio River: Only BBC production beers are consistently available through legal wholesaler channels. Browning's is not currently legal in Indiana. For BBC St Matthews and Cumberland, we must plan ahead for routing through proper channels. Because it's a hassle, and because we've been busy, it has not been getting done ... but I'm working on it.

Your concentric ring analogy is exactly the way I'm thinking, too.

Rob said...

Distribution arrangements was the "obvious good reasons" I assumed #2 was lagging - good to have that verified. The Ohio River also causes some differing definitions of local, as I (living on the south side of the river) dont consider Indy or Bloomington to be local.

I almost added a 5th ring for "state", but then they wouldnt have been concentric, as all (most!) of the locals arent in Indiana.