Commonism in Kentucky? Why not, seeing as it’s a true American brew

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Kentucky Common needs to become more customary, and today my friend Michael, one of three visionaries behind Louisville Ale Trail, revealed that he’d started a necessary ball rolling.

The truth of the matter is that Kentucky Common has been a personal obsession of mine since the 1990s, and I’m delighted with the renewed attention being given it. I devoted a digital Food & Dining Magazine column to Kentucky Common earlier this year (Hip Hops: Kentucky Common should be the beer from here, right?) as well as a longer style profile for The Aggregate Magazine (April 2021).

The latter is reprinted here.

A True American Brew

In Kentucky tourism-speak, “bourbonism” is the sum total of bourbon, hospitality, distillery experiences and local food.

Okay, but what about beer?

Louisville has somewhere around 20 breweries at present, with several others in the planning stages. Six breweries call New Albany home, with our ancestral rival Jeffersonville being able to muster only one.

So, doesn’t local beer deserve a clever marketing slogan, too?

It does, except that bourbon possesses a compelling appellation of origin effectively tying distilling techniques to the bluegrass landscape. In reality bourbon can be produced anywhere in the world so long as the “rules” are followed, yet bourbon and Kentucky remain synonymous in the popular imagination.

Bourbonism simply has marketing panache that beer can’t match.

And yet there is a beer style fully indigenous to Kentucky, owing primarily to the development of brewing in Louisville. It’s Kentucky Common, and 120 years ago its popularity ranked on a par with bourbon’s.

Ironically – perhaps even obtusely – Kentucky Common is seldom brewed these days by breweries located in its city of origin. This may change soon. Earlier in 2021 the Brewers Association added Kentucky Common to its list of approved styles for the sake of brewing competitions.

To celebrate, let’s look at the historical record.

In the beginning, immigrants brewed according to parameters developed back home. In colonial times these templates understandably were British, shifting to German and Central European from the 1840s forward as immigration patterns shifted and newfangled lager revolutionized the brewing scene.

Brewers trained in Europe often found it necessary to improvise in the New World. British brewers found that molasses augmented their favored two-row barley malt. Transplanted German brewers adjusted to climactic conditions and raw materials at hand, learning to use six-row barley with adjuncts like corn or rice, leading to a “pre-Prohibition” style of Pilsner.

California Common (or Steam) reflects a hybrid brewing approach dating to Gold Rush times. Another uniquely American offshoot is Cream Ale, which many of us still associate with Little Kings from Cincinnati. Cream Ales were a top-fermented golden answer to bottom-fermented German pale lagers.

Kentucky Common fits into this paradigm, as the Beer Judge Certification Program explains.

“A true American original style, Kentucky Common was almost exclusively produced and sold around the Louisville Kentucky metropolitan area from some time after the Civil War up to Prohibition. Its hallmark was that it was inexpensive and quickly produced, typically 6 to 8 days from mash to delivery. The beer was racked into barrels while actively fermenting and tightly bunged to allow carbonation in the saloon cellar. There is some speculation that it was a variant of the lighter common or cream ale produced throughout much of the East prior to the Civil War… (and) in the period from 1900 to Prohibition, about 75% of the beer sold in the Louisville area was Kentucky Common.”

Look again: 75%!

In its heyday Kentucky Common was fresh and cheap, truly the working man’s choice. In 1900, “rushing the growler” meant sending a kid to fetch a (literal) bucket of beer from the neighborhood watering hole for mere pennies – and the liquid in the pail probably was Kentucky Common.

The typical grist for a Kentucky Common was 65% six-row barley, 30% corn, and 5% dark malt, just enough to resolve the brewing chemistry and give the finished product an amber to light brown appearance.

Hopping was minimal, with American hops used for bittering and just a pinch of expensive imported aromatic German hops at boil’s end. Brewers favored aggressive house ale yeasts to kick-start fermentation. Conventional German ingredients and techniques usually were reserved for Pilsners and Dunkels, the higher-priced “special occasion” beers.

Also, contrary to what so many of us believed to be true for a very long time, Kentucky Common was not intentionally soured. Old-school brewing in Louisville may have been analogous to distillation, or at least in the still’s proximity, and yet there wasn’t anything “sour mash” about it.

Kentucky Common was the German-trained brewer’s adaptation of known techniques to available raw materials, as well as an offering purposely slotted to a popular price point. Bourbon shots to accompany such beers were optional, but no doubt as “Common” as the beers themselves.

125 years ago there’d have been numerous interpretations of Kentucky (and SoIN) Common, riffing off this basic model. However, today only Falls City Brewing Company brews Common Beer throughout the year.

Others, including Apocalypse (brewer Leah Dienes helped write the BJCP definition quoted), Old Louisville and Against the Grain make batches seasonally. Recently the newly minted Wild Hops Brewery in Logan Street Market brewed the wonderfully named A Long Time Common.

The brownish-tan-hued Falls City Kentucky Common looks almost like Dos Equis, but the resemblance ends there. It’s malty, not at all hoppy, with a mild, bready flavor touched by caramel. Rye peeks through, adding complexity. The body is light, with a hint of fruitiness, and there’s an element of sweetness derived from the use of corn as an adjunct.

I like Falls City Kentucky Common for what it is: a solid quencher that pairs with all sorts of food, and moreover, as an upholder of distinct local brewing traditions.

The Brewers Association’s inclusion of Kentucky Common as a recognized beer style surely will prompt more examples of it being brewed nationwide for the express purpose of entering in competitions.

Wouldn’t you hate to see a brewery from upstate New York waltz away with a Great American Beer Festival gold medal for Kentucky Common, and not one brewing right here in metro Louisville, where this whole Common business started?

Admittedly, it’s asking a bit much for Kentucky Common to draw level with “bourbonism” any time soon. Still, more regularly available Kentucky “Commonism” in the fermented sense would be a welcome trend.

Cover art copied here.

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