Monday, January 25, 2016
The PC: "A True Local Approach ... Kentucky Beer and Food Take Center Stage at Crescent Hill Craft House."
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Please excuse me for tardiness. As regular readers know, I write a quarterly beer column for Food & Dining Magazine (Louisville Edition). The magazine is free of charge and can be read at issuu concurrent with the print release, and yet I like to wait a bit before adding the columns to the public record here.
Eight months is more than a bit, so here is something different from the Summer 2015 (Vol. 48; May/June/July) issue, in that my "Hip Hops" column about Crescent Hill Craft House was expanded to feature length. With a second Craft House under construction in Germantown, at least the topic remains somewhat timely.
A True Local Approach ... Kentucky Beer and Food Take Center Stage at Crescent Hill Craft House.
It remains a golden age for craft beer in America, but while artisanal brewing continues to grow and prosper on Kentucky soil, another satisfying libation retains the bulk of bragging rights in the Commonwealth.
It’s bourbon, and bourbon is ascendant.
With considerable justification, Kentuckians view their native spirit not merely as intoxicating, but representative of a local art form belonging uniquely to them. Strictly speaking, bourbon is a process and not an appellation, and can be produced anywhere in America. However, don’t expect a Kentuckian to accept this fact without an argument – and splashes of branch water are purely optional.
Verily, a bourbon aficionado residing in Kentucky probably is the most rigorous practitioner of localism in all of these United States: A specific distillery’s venerable layout, its historic pot still, a particular limestone water source, gentle aging in oak (from which preferred cooper’s grove?) and the comprehensive guiding intelligence of a wily master distiller, all combining to create a topographic, geographic and mythic elixir like no other.
Yet it is rightly said that bourbon is a form of distilled beer without the hops, and surely craft beer’s explosive Kentucky growth with hops is intriguingly comparable with bourbon’s, but significantly, not always so much in terms of its acceptance as a manifestation of localism.
It is depressingly common for Louisville-area craft beer enthusiasts to openly eschew locally brewed beers, reserving their fevered approbation for new and different beers coming into Kentucky and Indiana from far, far away. As such, localist beer instincts compete with perceptions of “exotic” value, which are as old as humanity itself.
Unfortunately, these perceptions often have little to do with the actual liquid occupying one’s glass.
When the shipping-borne international spice trade commenced in Europe several hundred years ago, a form of consumer demand was created. A “need” arose to obtain previously unknown spices from overseas, owing not to their supposed usefulness in masking otherwise rancid food, as is often erroneously imagined today, but because the spices themselves were quantifiable and visible measures of social status according to prevailing, evolving and subjective value systems.
In essence, anyone who was anyone just had to have these spices – or risk not being anyone, any longer. Possession was a palpable, tangible symbol of status, and the key to their value was distance: These spices were from somewhere else – exotic, expensive and hard to obtain, and as such, infinitely sexier than piddling local norms, with magical and totemic properties.
No one thought it necessary to bother with explanations as to why the rare spices proffered at the wedding feast mattered. It was understood. Peers compared the quantity of their spice stocks to establish social pecking orders, and any stray servant or cowed peasant in proximity of the scene knew immediately that strength and power were conferred on those who possessed the requisite spicy symbolism … while by contrast, he or she remained a degraded underling.*
Happily, we’re here to consider local beer and not saffron; after all, that stuff’s almost as expensive as trendy finishing hops from New Zealand.
Present-day metro Louisville boasts numerous bars and restaurants where the distilled variant of localism is stirringly endorsed by means of encyclopedic Kentucky bourbon lists: Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Down One Bourbon Bar, Bourbons Bistro, the Silver Dollar – surely there are barber shops in a Shively strip mall boasting “century” bourbon lineups – but not one metro multi-tap or specialty beer bar of appreciable size has followed suit with similarly exhaustive local craft beer selections.
Until now. At the Crescent Hill Craft House, 40 taps pour locally brewed beers to the exclusion of all others, and as much kitchen fare as possible is sourced from regional farms and suppliers. For good measure, there is a list of 40-plus bourbons.
Co-owner Pat Hagan explains: “We’re going with all Kentucky beers, including Southern Indiana. That’s the way economies should be going, and are. Customers want to support the local area and they want local products, so offering them beer and food from the area makes sense.”
Hagan’s name might be familiar. In terms of Louisville craft brewing, he is an undisputed elder statesman, and his family’s Bluegrass Brewing Company (founded in 1993) now includes three on-premise Louisville locations. There also is a BBC production brewing facility, owned separately but working in concert with the BBC brewpubs.
In 2014, after two decades of building and nurturing his own locally popular breweries, Hagan began thinking about what has come of craft brewing’s proliferation in BBC’s wake. A new concept began to take root, and with business partners Brad Culver and Beau Kerley, he bought and remodeled a longstanding bar space located at 2634 Frankfort Avenue – a locale where independent small businesses tend to thrive.
At the Crescent Hill Craft House, amid exposed brick and stripped beams, beers from Against the Grain, Alltech (Kentucky Ale), Apocalypse, Bluegrass Brewing, Country Boy, Cumberland, Eight Ball, Falls City, Flat12, Great Flood, New Albanian and West Sixth are featured, and according to Hagan, their massed presence initially caused confusion.
“The biggest resistance we had, pre-opening, was convincing bar managers, distributors and salesmen that you don’t need Bells and Southern Tier,” he said, nicely name-dropping two out-of-state brewers.
“But breweries in Kentucky make great and diverse beer, so serving just those beers is no downgrade. I think both locals and visitors like to be able to come to one place and see everything that the area has to offer.”
Chef Tim Smith enthusiastically agrees, and has designed the Craft House’s food program to reflect localism from the ground up. Hagan approached Smith in the early stages of the project.
“Pat asked if I could put together a locally sourced menu, and I said sure. He liked it, then wanted to know who could pull it off in the kitchen. I said, well, might as well be me.”
And why not? Smith has been cooking professionally in the Louisville area for as long as Hagan has been brewing beer, putting in stints with the Grisanti family, Napa River Grill and 60 West Martini Bar.
Smith’s first priority at Craft House is local and regional sourcing, whenever possible: Beef from Marksbury Farms and aquaponic greens raised at Groganica Farms; spent grain from the BBC brewhouse in St. Matthews to top his delicious cobblers, and crusty Blue Dog bread baked a few blocks away to produce a beer-friendly bruschetta oozing bacon jam.
Even when a local source isn’t available, menu items are “finished” on site (smoking salmon, curing pork belly) and strategically paired, as with the Sheltowee Farms mushroom risotto accompanying Smith’s pan seared scallops.
Smith gently rejects the notion of any specific style or cuisine as ideally suited to a venue like Craft House. “The idea is good food you can pair with beer in an unpretentious atmosphere,” he said, adding a crucial point: “It always takes a team, and it’s up to the servers to know.”
That’s huge. At Craft House, both the beers and the food constantly change with the season, and so servers are the ultimate frontline aggregators of information. What’s in the “seasonal vegetable medley”? Is that ale hop- or malt-forward? What makes this dish and that beer work together?
In Louisville, the Crescent Hill Craft House is answering these questions. Why not local beer and local food? Why not harness subjective value systems to objective local quality, and celebrate the beers that make us special, as brewed right here, in and near our own neighborhoods?
The philosopher’s advice rings true: “Think globally, drink locally.”
* For more see “Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants,” by Wolfgang Schivelbusch.