Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Wednesday Weekly: "Craft Beer Near the KFC Yum! Center."

My Wednesday Weekly today takes another trip into the Food & Dining magazine archives. The following (as originally submittted) appeared in F & D's fourth quarter 2010 edition. Forgive me for the craft establishment list not being exhaustive. When I wrote this piece three months in advance of publication, it was summertime. I'll do a follow-up when there's time!


“We’re pleased to be by the KFC Yum! Center for several reasons, and one of the best reasons is that so far, it’s all local businesses – not corporate – starting up nearby. It’s great to have the hometown guys be able to take advantage of serving the people visiting the arena and the downtown area.”
--Pat Hagan, Bluegrass Brewing Company

Louisville lived through the debates and drawings, watched the earthmovers and cranes converge on what always seemed an impossibly small and compressed plot of ground for installing 22,000 seats, and now the city has its new downtown arena. The venue cannot lay claim to a professional basketball team as tenant, but most area residents regard the University of Louisville’s Cardinals as far outstripping the NBA in importance when it comes to the intensity of their rooting loyalties.

My game is beer, and I routinely cheer for the side that offers the best selection of American-made, craft-brewed elixirs for my drinking and contemplative pleasure. Whatever the future occasion at Louisville’s freshly minted indoor palace, from ballgames to rock concerts, and including origami conventions, Boy Scout conclaves and massed baptisms, there’ll have to be good beer somewhere close at hand, before, during or after the particular event, or else I’ll stay home.

(At this juncture, I must confess that herculean self-restraint is required to resist certain wisecracks about fried chicken that have been queuing within my fevered and skeptical cranium these past months. Perhaps they owe to previous stillborn arena plans in the late 1990’s, when the fast food corporation then known as Tri Con proposed to purchase the rights to name it the KFC Bucket. By contrast, KFC Yum! Center is vastly preferable, and very nearly tasteful.)

As might be expected, the months-long run-up to the KFC Yum! Center has impacted far more than craft beer choices. It has created opportunity in all directions, even across the Ohio River, in Jeffersonville, where city government approved a request to operate water taxi service. Two years of arena construction in the epicenter of downtown Louisville has helped buck the recession by spurring redevelopment, as with the Whiskey Loft condos a stone’s throw across Second Street, and producing an immediately noticeable ripple effect in food and dining options.

As the BBC’s Hagan notes above, virtually all of these venues, whether pre-existing refurbishments or new build-outs, are locally owned and operated. Happily, most of them reflect the steadily growing preference of consumers for choice in beer. Good beer is popping up everywhere in proximity to the Cards’ new home, and rather than attempt an exhaustive listing of nearby establishments, which can be handily viewed in the map section of this magazine, I’ve chosen to focus instead on my personal “top three new” craft beer emporiums closest to the new arena, these being major investments obviously enabled by it, and unlikely to have come to life without the arena’s impetus.

Bluegrass Brewing Company

In 1993, Bluegrass Brewing Company became the second Louisville brewpub of our contemporary era, following just a year after the now defunct Silo Brewery broke ground. Back then, the first task facing BBC’s owners, the Hagan family, was to renovate an existing restaurant building in St. Matthews to serve as BBC’s primary brewing and dining facility, which it remains today.

BBC’s second location on 4th Street at Theater Square (2006) also required some preparation work, although just as a restaurant and bar, and without a working brewery as part of the package. Neither of these buildings was more than twenty years old when BBC moved into them.

For the new Arena BBC (300 W. Main), directly south of the KFC Yum! Center, the ever industrious Hagans took on their most labor-intensive start-up project to date, and in a truly venerable structure. Dining, drinking and brewing space to the tune of $1.4 million now occupies the basement and first floor of the seven-story Louisville Orchestra Building, formerly known as the Kentucky National Bank, a splendid 120-year-old example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Longtime BBC brewer Jerry Gnagy was there in late July, on duty, shoveling spent grain from the mash tun of a newly installed 15-barrel DME system. By September, the familiar starting lineup of BBC beers was flowing: American Pale Ale, Kolsch, Alt, Nut Brown, Dark Star Porter and Mead, alongside a handful of Gnagy’s idiosyncratic specialty brews, which double as ingredients in more than a few perennial menu favorites: Brewhouse Chili, Spinach and Artichoke Dip, Beer Cheese and the batter for fried fish, among others.

I asked Pat Hagan to describe BBC’s success. He replied, “We’ve won numerous awards for our beers, and always stuck to our mission statement: To create bold, unique beers, quality affordable food, and serve them in a comfortable, family friendly atmosphere.”

Hagan might have added: Now appearing across from a major downtown arena near you.

Kentucky Ale Tap Room

Adjectives come and go, and so in the interest of brevity, I’ll describe the collegiate rivalry between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky merely as “intense,” omitting various R-rated references. The first game between the UK Wildcats and the U of L Cards on the new home court of the Cards is slated for December 31, and craft beer lovers will note the irony being served on tap at tip-off.

That’s because the Alltech corporation inked a sponsorship agreement naming the sports bar on the arena’s main concourse after its house craft beer: The Kentucky Ale Tap Room, and, Kentucky Ale is brewed by Alltech’s Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company in Lexington, Kentucky, home of the University of Kentucky. However, there is far more to the Alltech story than clean, crisp ales, seemingly created as ideal accompaniments to epochal basketball contests.

Alltech, headquartered in Nicholasville, Kentucky, is a private, family-owned company with worldwide reach, specializing in natural ingredients used in animal, alcohol and food production, many of them involving the use of yeasts in manufacturing. It is because of this direct connection with fermentation science, the animating microorganisms of the beer world, and the Irish background (brewers as well as coopers) of Alltech’s colorful founder, Dr. Pearse Lyons, that brewing and distilling joined his business’s existing portfolio.

According to Jeremy Markle, Kentucky Ale’s one-man whirlwind of a Louisville sales staff, Alltech’s community commitment extends beyond craft beer in the Yum! Center, as attested by sponsorship of the World Equestrian Games earlier in the year, and partnerships with Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center and Kosair Children’s Hospital.

Furthermore, Markle believes the Kentucky Ale Tap Room just might be a first in the entire nation. “As far as I know,” he says, “sponsorship of a major sports and entertainment venue by a local independent brewer is unprecedented.”

Alltech’s three year-round beers are Kentucky Ale, Kentucky Light, and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and they’re being be sold both within and outside of the arena’s signature tap room.

“Our products will be available on draft at multiple locations throughout the arena, including general concessions and mobile kiosks,” Markle explains. “The centerpiece Kentucky Ale Tap Room will be located on the main concourse at the north side of the arena. It will be the perfect spot to watch the game or concert, enjoy the river view, and never have to step more than a few feet away from good local craft beer on tap.”

There is no food served at the Kentucky Ale Tap Room, although arena concession stands are located nearby.

Patrick O’Shea’s Public House

In terms of technology and architectural design, as well as aesthetic appeal, the KFC Yum! Center symbolizes the cutting edge, a culmination of many interwoven, longstanding ideas and themes that have predated it.

The same is true for the new generation of American craft beer: Jerry Gnagy’s recipes for BBC incorporate centuries of brewing lessons painstakingly learned, and yet they’re now brewed in a sleek, proficient modern brewery, and with today’s far-ranging consumer tastes in mind.

Patrick O’Shea’s Public House, located at 123 West Main Street (a half-block east of the Yum! Center) is another example of the past rushing headlong into the present. It is an epic, crowning achievement, and the culmination of the O’Shea family’s prolific and successful half-century of hospitality in the food and drink business.

While deriving from all that has come before it, Patrick O’Shea’s is an instant present-day downtown landmark, both for its scale in the context of local ownership, and its adaptive reuse of an imposing historic structure on Whiskey Row, where sadly, the dilapidated east side of the block is threatened with demolition. Long recognized for his pubs and their philanthropic endeavors, Tom O’Shea now has become the darling of preservationists, and it’s easy to see why.

Patrick O’Shea’s is a joyous sensory overload. There is a tea room and huge custom-built bar; tin ceilings, balustrades and skylights; sturdy exposed masonry and stolid ceiling beams; decades-old inscriptions remaining on some interior walls from the whiskey warehouse days; balconies and a rooftop deck; an eerie sub-basement used for storage and refrigeration equipment; and probably enough seating space on multiple levels to accommodate an NCAA tournament game.

Food and drink offerings incorporate and expand the tested formula at three other O’ Shea’s pubs elsewhere in Louisville (O’Shea’s, Flanagan’s and Brendan’s), with dining options aplenty, ranging from steaks and pizza, to fish ‘n’ chips and salads.

The extensive Patrick O’Shea’s beer list is the real draw for me. It offers the most diverse overall stylistic selection within crawling distance of the new arena, including imported stalwarts like Guinness and random Belgians on tap, alongside rotating American craft ales.

You’ll see Stone and Dogfish Head, Magic Hat and Schlafly, and Louisville’s local brands, too. Malty or bitter, Germany or Wisconsin or London, fruity and sweet and sour … all the flavors and textures of the world’s brewing bounty get face time at Patrick O’Shea’s, and Tom O’Shea says he is ready for the Yum! Center’s event patrons, be they from near or far.

"We hope to educate the many visitors of our fine city to the great possibilities and wonderful beer offerings from our local and regional breweries,” he told me, “as well as the many, many distinct styles of beer from around the world."

The only problem for me is this: With Arena BBC and Patrick O’Shea’s to choose from – with a dozen other establishments serving good beer within walking distance – will I ever manage to make it inside the KFC Yum! Center to enjoy a Kentucky Ale with Jeremy Markle, at his company’s Tap Room?

Has anyone seen a ticket office?

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