Kentucky Common Ale: Bringing Back a Forgotten American Beer Style

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The taproom at Bellevue’s newest microbrewery, Darkness.

 

This past weekend saw the grand opening of another microbrewery in Bellevue, Kentucky, called Darkness Brewery.   It’s housed in an old car lot garage on Route 8, the main drag through the hip and burgeoning river town across from Cincinnati.   Masterbrewer Eric Bosler and co-owner Ron Sanders are specializing in dark beers – porters, stouts, and black ales – thus the name.   Their dark beers are lighter than the typical dark styles and easier to drink.

 

I was compelled to try their new beers on Sunday to help escape the heatwave.     But, as karma would have it, their AC had gone out the night before at their opening. They had several industrial sized fans running in their tap room, which made a pleasant Sunday drinking space.     A future rooftop deck will hopefully offer idyllic Ohio River views.

 

As Eric’s super-friendly wife served us, I got a history lesson from Eric while gulping down two of his Bellevue Uncommon Ales, one of their non-dark varieties.   And, although dark is their specialty, I think the feature of their operation is this historic Kentucky Common.

 

Eric deserves some huge props for bringing back what’s known as the Kentucky Common Ale, one of only three indigenous beer styles in America.     The style has been largely forgotten since Prohibition, even though before Prohibition it was the most consumed beer in Kentucky.    The other indigenous American Beers are California Common or Steam Beer, and the Classic American Pilsner or CAP, which adds corn, and/or rice to what was typically a barley-only mash in Europe.  All three types are modification of Central European lagerbier with lots of local improvisation by the Germanic immigrants.

 

Like Anchor Steam Brewing in California brought back the California Common beer in the 1960s, Eric, as a beer preservationist, is bringing this cool legacy back to Northern Kentucky.

 

The Kentucky Common beer was a once popular form of ale from the area in and around Louisville, Kentucky, from the 1850s to Prohibition.   It was also known as Cream Beer or Dark Cream Common Beer.   By Prohibition, about 80% of all beer consumed around Louisville was this Kentucky Common.   The beer was top-fermented and not krausened, meaning it was fermented once and sent out for sale.   The Kentucky Common typically went from mash to saloon in less than 8 days.   Because it didn’t travel well, it didn’t reach popularity outside the Ohio River Valley, although some reports document it being shipped into Indiana and as far north as St. Louis.

 

Before modern refrigeration, breweries depended on ice harvested and stored from the previous winter for producing beer. Louisville didn’t have the weather conditions to produce enough ice for this. Common Beer was fermented at higher temperatures like an ale, but was aged for a very short period of time to reduce carbonation, eliminating the need to keep it cool. The end result was that the specific gravity was moderate, the carbonation low and the taste full and sweet. It was consumed fresh, usually as draft beer.    And, it was economical, about half the cost of lager beer.

 

Typical Louisville water is very alkaline due to underlying Karst characteristics, which refers to the amount of chemically soluble limestone in its landscape. The Kentucky Common used dark malts and rye to help acidify the mash to combat the alkalinity of the water.     Eric’s version uses dark malt, corn and rye, along with East Kent Golding Hops, introduced in England in 1790, only a few years before Kentucky became a state in 1792.    Eric surmises that original Kentucky Common producers, used Nugget hops from New York State, and other native, spicy hops found in Louisville.

 

Historical accounts reveal that Kentucky Common brewers used California Gray hops for bittering and New York Hops, like Nugget and Clusters for flavor.

 

Louisville was the 12th largest city in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War.   With a community of Germanic immigrants comparable to Cincinnati’s, it had its own German newspaper, the Louisville Anzeiger.   The Anzieger published recipes and numerous accounts of the varieties of Kentucky Common ales brewed at its six large breweries.    Run by Germanic immigrants, the six breweries producing Kentucky Common were, in order of founding: Conrad Walker’s Brewery (1858), Shelby Street Brewery (1861), Butchertown Brewery (1865), Phoenix Brewery (1865), City Brewery (1872) and Ackerman Brewery (1877).

Being able to taste history and see the revival of an almost forgotten beer style mirrors what’s been happening in Bellevue the past several years.     Now, the hip burg has a gem of a microbrewery to anchor it’s other cool restaurants and shops.   I’ve found a new drinking hub.

 

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