My first Great American Beer Festival was in 1997, and it proved to be a liberating experience.
By tradition and design, the GABF is about beer brewed right here in America, as opposed to imported brands, which at the time still comprised the bulk of better beer options in metropolitan Louisville.
It always was my goal to help shift this balance. Denver was far ahead of Louisville, and seeing what worked in Denver was an invaluable opportunity.
My GABF tickets came through the good offices of Bluegrass Brewing Company, and I dimly recall this as being advantageous, as they included access to certain perks not available to general admission ticket holders.
It transpired that one of these was a tasting of “vintage” beers, including a vertical Alaskan Smoked Porter selection. Imagine my surprise when I was seated at a table with the late, great beer writer Fred Eckhardt. He seemed to be a perfectly regular guy, but then again, almost everyone was.
It was the primeval, pre-rock-star-brewer phase of the revolution. Very quaint, indeed.
Eventually I had the chance to ask Eckhardt a question: What did he consider the best beer he’d ever beer sampled at the GABF?
After mulling for a moment, his answer was Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, and in retrospect, it seems surprising to learn that BCS was only brewed for the first time in 1994, a scant three years before my chat with Eckhardt.
Originally it was Goose Island’s 1,000th batch, and as schoolchildren in Siberia know by now, it came about by aging Imperial Stout in used bourbon barrels brought to Chicago … from Kentucky, of course.
Barrel-aging was a suitably exotic notion in 1997, although back in Louisville, the dawning age of “microbrewing” already had produced an instance of similar experimentation.
In 1994 at BBC’s original St. Matthews brewpub, brewmaster David Pierce filled a used bourbon barrel with Doppelbock and allowed it to sit outside during a wintry snap. Water freezes before alcohol, so voila! BBC barrel-aged Eisbock was the result.
I’m not sure any of it ever passed my lips, but that’s okay. The GABF tickets more than made up for it.
My most recent assignment as columnist for Food & Dining Magazine was a profile of Louisville’s Goodwood Brewing Company, to be published in the May/June/July issue.
Goodwood’s identity dates to 2015 and a rebranding of the entity once noted for brewing Bluegrass Brewing Company’s beers under license for packaging and distribution. The brewery’s new name is fully intentional, meant to inform beer lovers of the roles played by wood and water.
“We became Goodwood because we are known throughout the region and industry as experts in barrel aged products,” says Goodwood’s CEO, Ted Mitzlaff.
While researching this essay, I came across a relic of past barrel-aged aspirations. A newer generation of visitors to the “beer corner” of Main and Clay in downtown Louisville might not know that “craft” brewing actually began there almost two decades ago.
Something's brewing on East Main -- or will be soon, by Terry Boyd (Louisville Business First; September 8, 1997)
A 30-year-old Pennsylvania native plans to brew and distribute bottled beer in Louisville for the first time since Falls City Brewing Co. left town for Evansville, Ind., in 1978.
But, unlike brewpub/restaurant operations that combine suds and grub, his new venture is only about wholesale beer, says Paul Hummer III, president and brew master of Pipkin Brewing Co.
Pipkin operated from 1998 through 2001, when BBC bought it and launched its own production brewery at the Beer Corner. In fact, Pipkin had been contract-brewing and bottling BBC brands prior to the changeover.
In retrospect, it’s easy to understand what happened. Pipkin was financed, planned and constructed to be profitable at a theoretical production capacity projected to be reached quickly. It never got there, with familiar ramifications.
Trust me. I know these all too well.
Pale Ale and Brown Ale were intended as Pipkin flagships from the outset, later augmented by Porter and a few gimmicks tied to local universities, and when sales of these brands were too slow, contract brewing was introduced for cash flow.
But the ultimate problem with contract brewing is that it enhances the value of someone else’s brands, not your own.
Many have since been compelled to learn Pipkin’s lessons: Whether the start-up capital comes from a financial institution, a helpful lottery-winning angel or the founding family’s own pockets, there is an unforgiving logic to its expenditure. Keeping one’s nostrils barely above water is better than drowning, and yet subsistence offers no margin for error – and no ability to leverage necessary further investments.
It is a painfully familiar sensation.
Around the year 2000, Pipkin borrowed a page from the Goose Island playbook and released a Bourbon Barrel Stout. For many of us, it was Pipkin’s best ever beer. I’m not entirely sure who conceived and shepherded this idea, but my guess is brewer Paul Philippon, future mastermind of the Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in North Carolina.
That’s right. Philippon brewed for Pipkin.
I’ll never forget my reaction. How could this not be the single best idea in local brewing history? Bourbon Barrel Stout, brewed in Kentucky and aged in bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Just imagine if the brewery partnered with the distillery and cross-marketed the results?
At the time, it annoyed me that Pipkin Bourbon Barrel Stout was a one-time seasonal release. I told anyone who’d listen that it should be the only beer Pipkin brewed; after all, there was ample warehouse space at the Beer Corner. Clear ‘em out, stack 'em high, and go all in.
Now I can see that Pipkin’s precarious situation surely precluded such a marshaling of resources. A barrel-aged program would have required substantial outlays of time and money, and the brewery had a surplus of neither. It’s a fond memory nonetheless, and Pipkin Bourbon Barrel Stout should be remembered as a Louisville trailblazer.
In 2006, BBC began brewing its Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon Stout (the distillery tie-in later ceased). Alltech’s Bourbon Barrel Ale was launched around the same time. Bourbon Barrel Stout was BBC’s mainstay in markets outside Kentucky, and remains the basis of Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Stout.
In 2016, wood “touches” every beer Goodwood brews, whether by aging “in” (a barrel) or “on” (added to the process).
The rest of the Goodwood story? It's coming in May.
March 7: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Can I get a “do-over” on Naughty Girl?
February 22: The PC: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo?
February 15: The PC: Swill in youthful times of penury and need.
When the Euro '85 series returns: Leningrad USSR.