Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: The 'Ville, Indy and the base of the craft beer pyramid.

I’ve always maintained that Louisville is a great beer town, given the circumstances of geography and history which might otherwise argue against the city’s prospects.

Louisville is Southern, but it isn’t Mississippi, either. It’s a rather Northern version of Southern, with bits of the best of both worlds.

Louisville generally represents the highest cultural and educational aspirations to be found in Kentucky, the hinterlands of which perpetually resent the state’s biggest city precisely because of its cosmopolitan strivings, causing me to respect Louisville’s upward arch all the more.

Louisville’s tenure as an Ohio River port is helpful, although being a seaport would be even better; then again, proximity to the ocean hasn’t much helped New Orleans or Miami become great beers in the sense of Seattle, Baltimore and San Diego, which amply prove my “ports as great beer towns” rule of thumb.

Louisville enjoys a diverse and profuse restaurant and dining scene, and maybe some of this depth of appreciation for good food spills over into the realm of better beer, informing our pursuit of more challenging beverages.

Louisville has been home to top-shelf founding beer evangelists, and boasts watering holes of upper-echelon quality, with people and places in it for the long haul, including owners, brewers, bartenders and staff at Rocky’s and the sadly defunct Fat Cat’s (1980’s); Silo (also dead), Bluegrass Brewing Company, Rich O’s, the Irish Rover, the O’Shea’s pub empire (1990’s); and Cumberland Brews, Browning’s and too many second- and third-generation establishments to count in the past ten years. Louisville attracts beer business gamers and lifers, adds constantly to the list -- and the quality shows.

---

As for me, having lived this good beer life since the first Reagan administration, and passed my time both as active participant and periodic voyeur as years have gone by and changes unfolded, Louisville’s status as great beer town makes me feel proud and vindicated, although of late, to be honest, I find myself a bit troubled.

Are we falling behind?

These thoughts are an effort to put my tremulous finger on what’s bothering me; accordingly, I don’t pretend they’re entirely formed, or finalized to any firm degree. You see, if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll find a lengthy list of links that chronicle existing and forthcoming breweries in the city of Indianapolis, two hours to the north.

Not so long ago, there were only two main areas of choice for locally-brewed craft beer in Indy: The three chain brewpubs downtown (Alcatraz, Ram and Rock Bottom), and the two independents in Broad Ripple (Broad Ripple Brewing and Brugge Brasserie).

There also were a handful of “good beer bars,” as in the case of the Marvin-era Chalkie’s in Castleton and Mike DeWeese’s BW3 downtown.

Now, five or so years later, there has been a veritable explosion of better beer options, and gazing at the boom from afar, it appears that brewery start-ups are leading the way forward, which is precisely as it should be. By early 2011, the Indianapolis metro area’s working brewery population easily could double in number, dwarfing Louisville’s roster.

As noted here previously, Indiana’s list of distinct brewing companies is approaching 40, and may already be there. When beer writer John Holl’s book about Indiana breweries is published this spring, it will be the third such volume in a year. Indiana is hot.

Obviously, donning my business-sized fedora for a moment, I hope to capitalize on this brewing profusion by rededicating the Public House’s draft lines to emphasize these Indiana beers, of which we brew just a few, too. It will give us a product that cannot be found to the same extent across the river.

But I digress, and this isn’t the point of today’s rumination.

---

Rather, it is this: Why is it that until only recently, given Indianapolis’s urban clout and its economic strength, both as crossroads of America and as state capital, it clearly underperformed when it comes to beer brewed locally within its metropolitan parameters, but now is going stratospheric?

And, why is it that Louisville, previously hitting way above its economic and geographic weight in terms of locally brewed beer, is stagnant in terms of brewery start-ups?

Apart from the brewery expansion projects undertaken by three of its pre-existing brewers (BBC St Matthews, Cumberland and NABC) and the presence of two contract ventures lacking bricks and mortar, we’re standing stock still. Where’s the new blood to impel evolution?

Yes, I know. Indianapolis is different from Louisville in many ways. Yet, it seems to me that in Indy, an area not lacking in the best American craft beers and world imports as provided by homegrown wholesalers like World Class and Cavalier, the focus turns increasingly toward an expansion of locally brewed craft breweries – those clearly comprising the foundation of the craft beer pyramid as it should be anywhere that purports to be a great beer town.

Isn’t it axiomatic? How can a town really be a great beer town if the prime focus isn’t on its own, unique, locally brewed beers? Would you go to Bamberg just for the CafĂ© Abseits, as wonderful as it is? Or do you go because there are nine breweries there?

In Louisville, we’re just not spawning new breweries, with the pre-existing expansions and contract exceptions already noted. Overall, Louisville as a still-great beer town seems largely content to protect consumer comfort zones, and indulge in the habit of looking further afield to adopt as its “local” beers those coming from other places.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, although it raises an eyebrow, doesn’t it? In my experience, the quality of locally brewed beer in Louisville is uniformly excellent. There’ll always be unique specialties and rarities, but on an everyday basis, why look elsewhere?

Am I forced to conclude that as a beer town, Louisville still is suffering through a small market, “inferiority complex” phase, having less to do with quality than perceived image? Is it that locally brewed craft beers are considered insufficiently trendy or not hip enough, and instead, palates are diverted to other locales to provide panache, star power and RateBeer tasting comments memorized by rote, if not actual experience?

These questions plague me. Maybe I worry too much.

Does this quasi-attention-deficit disorder owe to a neglect of the metro market by local brewers? Is it because local brewers in Louisville have not provided beers worthy of attention? Are we somehow screwing up?

On all counts, no, I think not.

Wonderful beer is being brewed in Louisville … as well as in Indianapolis, except that in Indy, it’s leading to greater interest in locally brewed beer and new start-up investments in locally brewed beer. In Louisville, outside of reinvestment by existing brewers (admittedly, a very hopeful phenomenon) it is not, and because of this, diversity and innovation surely suffer.

That’s why I fear we’re slipping, and that shelves groaning with beers from other cities, once a cause for joy, instead is impetus for mild concern in today’s evolving marketplace.

I may be right, and just as easily, I may be wrong.

Feel free to debate, affirm and disprove.

One thing I can say is this: My energies in 2011, and in the years to follow, will continue to be devoted to advancing “betterbeerthink” as it pertains to the cause of locally brewed beer in Louisville. Thanks for reading, thinking and drinking.

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: New and Proposed Breweries in the Indy area

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Alcatraz Brewing Company

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Barley Island Brewing Company

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Broad Ripple Brewpub

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Brugge Brasserie and Brewing

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Oaken Barrel Brewing Company

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Ram Restaurant and Brewery

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery - College Park

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery - Downtown

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Sun King Brewing Company

Metromix 2010 Local Brewing Guide: Other Breweries in the Greater Indy Area

4 comments:

Lew Bryson said...

I muse these very same things about Philly, roger. GREAT freakin' beer town...but no new in-town breweries in quite a while, and so few in relation to our size. We are lucky to have great breweries around us -- Stoudt's, Victory, Flying Fish, Weyerbacher, and others -- but the town hasn't added many since Philly Brewing split off from Yards. Disturbing.

And yes..."sadly defunct Fat Cats." I'd go back to that place tomorrow, gladly.

I'll be in town next week with the wife; maybe we could catch breakfast at Lynn's again?

The New Albanian said...

Thanks for that.

I'm open to anything next week. What day? Diana could join us on Thursday, otherwise she's the breadwinner and will be working.

Lynn's is always good. Some day I want to show you what's up in downtown NA with our new place and a few others, including a breakfest spot that's similar to Lynn's without the decor (!).

Anyway, let me know the score and I'll be there.

Jim said...

I can't comment on Louisville at all but I have some thoughts on Indianapolis.

The first thought is on the topic of why Indy may bave lagged. In the early 90s boom several brewery/brewpubs opened up around the state. In addition BroadRipple Brewpub, there was also Oaken Barrel and the Bloomington Brewing. ...and there was well-known Circle V and the spectacularly ambitious Indianapolis Brewing. (down your way you had...Silver Creek? Something like that?)

I think the public collapse of Circle V and IBC made investors and entrepreneurs put the brakes on their ambitious, made them rethink whether or not the craft beer boom had crested and Indianapolis had capped out.

Indiana has consistently underperformed the national average for craft beer drinkers some of which is no doubt related to the vicious circle of "you can't drink nor like what you can't buy."

So, with the memory and IBC and Circle V fading and the hard work of companies like WorldClass and Cavalier and independent orgs like Hoosier Beer Geek, Indy is able to take advantage now of our previous low growth in this area. So, to me, it isn't that Louisville is falling behind, it's that Indy was further behind the curve. Consolidating this beer scene by increasing the public profile of local beers while diminishing the roles of macros and imports is the next phase and it will almost certainly be more difficult.

johnking said...

I've been asking myself this same question for the past few months. I was having a conversation with Paul from MyOldKentuckyHomebrew about how Louisville has "changed" within the past year with the onset of LBS, Sergios, Holy Grale, and Bank Street across the river. We couldn't really come up with a definite answer, but we agreed that is was a really good thing for the beer drinking (some brewing) in the city.

The other day I went to the new BCC and wasn't surprised how much money they poured into their new place. Why? Because they knew it would work and it would make money due to it's location. As I sat there staring at their brewing equipment, I turned to my fiance and told her, you know if we stayed here in Louisville, it would be the perfect place to at least try a start up brewery. Kentucky is the 47th state (I think) when it comes to microbreweries and there is so much potential in the Louisville market.

Like you, I don't have an answer for why someone hasn't went out on a limb and tried. Maybe it's been the economy. Maybe people think BBC has a hold on the market with it's three different locations. Maybe you just need to get the right group of homebrewers/people together to take a risk. A risk, I hope comes sooner than later.