Wednesday 06 December 2017
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As first impressions go, Covington is a great welcome to the state of Kentucky. The river that separates it from Cincinnati to the north also marks the state boundary with Ohio, but Covington certainly doesn’t languish in the shadow of its larger neighbour. Having spent nearly its entire history as a centre for commerce and industry – first as a shopfront for Kentucky’s tobacco trade, then hosting steel and other heavier manufacturing – Covington was inevitably hit hard during the Great Depression and the lean times persisted through most of the 20th century.
Today though, things are looking up; nobody wants to use the word gentrification, but the city’s economy is definitely modernising, with a crop of new independent businesses making the area (which is beautiful anyway) a more attractive place to visit and live.
The Hotel Covington, where we’re staying, is a great example of this; opened about 18 months ago, it’s seen by the locals as a (welcome) sign of the times, and stocks a range of high quality craft products from neighbouring small businesses. This includes a well-appointed bar with knowledgeable staff and a better range of craft beers than you’d find in the vast majority of European hotels. We kick off the evening with a pint of Rhinegeist Brewery’s Truth – a feisty, fruity American IPA to help us find our feet.
Like other cities in Kentucky (and most notably Cincinnati) Covington has a strong German influence, thanks to the migrant workers who travelled here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work the factories. This influence can be seen everywhere, from the street names to the Germanthemed bars, and even the respect for the Reinheitsgebot (German beer purity law) that many Kentucky brewers still retain.
One of our first ports of call was just such a German bar – Hoffbräuhaus – where we’d been told we could find a classic fusion of German and traditional Kentucky culture. Sure enough, we are greeted at the door by an archetypal Southern Belle in the full beer hall regalia, and shown to our table with huge steins of Weissebier, brewed onsite.
Cognitive dissonance is apparently all part of the service.
James sensibly opts for a schnitzel, but throwing caution to the wind I go straight for Hot Browns. For those unfamiliar with this true Kentucky classic, it’s basically cheese on toast for fans of congestive heart failure. A generous hunk of white bread is topped with sliced turkey and bacon, then covered in a thick cheese Mornay sauce and baked until golden brown. In America, cheese is generally extruded rather than sliced, and I’m soon regretting my digestive folly.
Rolling with a belly-full of cold German beer and hot American cheese, we set off again to seek out our first craft brewery of the trip. The early evening is properly described as sultry; not unbearably hot, but humid and oppressively still, even as we walk along the bank of the Ohio river. There’s a classic rock outfit playing in a bandstand right on the waterfront, to a sparse crowd of bikers and a group of teenagers playing a listless game of cornhole, so we stop for a while to soak up the atmosphere.
When we finally arrive at Wooden Cask Brewery and taproom, we’re ready for air conditioning and a sip of something cold.
The building itself, tucked away behind a shopping street in Newport, has a storied past. Before its most recent incarnation as a yellow cab company, the bar has been a bowling alley, a punk venue called The Jockey Club and even a mob hangout called The Flamingo Lounge (a battered safe from its Flamingo days still adorns the taproom).
We meet owner and head brewer Randy Schiltz behind the bar he constructed himself using wood from the building’s old bowling lanes.
Bald and bearded, with mischievous eyes, Randy is an infectious presence, and makes a great double act with his wife Karen.
Randy’s Damascene conversion to quality beer came while he was serving with the US Navy in the Middle East, where he found a British pub serving traditional English styles.
“Growing up in Kansas I think I’d only ever drunk Coors,” he recalls. “So I had this pint of English bitter and was like ‘holy motherfuck this is amazing’! So I went home and started trying to brew all these fantastic British styles with British hops.”
This first love has stuck with Randy, and the beers we try in the Wooden Cask would sit proudly in any real ale pub in the UK, particularly his northern English brown ale, Seventh Street Runoff, and Reformation, an 8% abv Scottish stout. He also has a healthy barrel ageing programme, using a mix of virgin and bourbon oak to bolster the already impressive tap list.
But is Randy’s penchant for English styles shared by others in Covington?
He acknowledges that the taproom still sees a lot of macro-lager drinkers, but says the tide is turning with some light persuasion.
I had this pint of English bitter and was like ‘holy motherfuck this is amazing’!
“Most of the time, it’s real simple: they’ve never tasted anything else,” he says. “We brew a beer here for the local Fire Department, called Local 45, named after their local union. It’s pretty low abv – a real basic beer.
“One night one of the guys said: ‘this is the furthest away from Bud Light I’ve ever been’. So I said: ‘you’re here, so let’s broaden your horizons a bit’. So we did some samples and he was being polite, but then we got to our porter and his eyes went wide. ‘Holy crap, I could drink this!’ Bud light to porter in one evening!”
Wooden Cask also brews a couple of IPAs, though Randy clearly sees these as something of a necessary evil of being a modern US craft brewer, and sticks to his fundamental beer-making principles.
“We have two IPAs on tap just now, one is experimental,” he continues. “Our core IPA is a recipe I put together in 2003 when we were living in California, where you find a lot of big IPAs. I really don’t understand a lot of the IPA trends of the past few years – how you can have a style where the worse it looks the better? I brewed my IPA to be balanced, with a good hop aroma and it went down well. But now you have all the extreme hop heads saying ‘this isn’t hoppy enough’. Well… you’re stupid!”
Showing us through a door at the back of the bar to the Brewhouse itself, Randy describes his methodical, mathematical approach to brewing “We’re very focused on the detail of the process,” he says. “We control, trace and look at every single step. If you want to reproduce the same beer you have to do that. That mash tun there has its own efficiency, that one there has a different efficiency, the hop utilisation is different from there to there, and unless you know all that you can’t scale. I’ve been using this setup for a long time so I know how it’s going to behave.
“Even here in the US, you see people going from 15-barrel systems to 100-barrels systems; they have no idea how it’s going to behave. Even the
crush of the grain is going to have an impact. We take the time to analyse and understand that, because that’s how we can make the beer exactly as we want it time after time.”
With a box of delicious barrel aged beers under my arm, we bid Randy and Karen a warm farewell and head back out into the fading sunshine.
Next day, we’re up with the lark, and forego our hotel breakfast in favour of the Covington Chili diner across the road. It’s a great spot, and exactly the slice of Americana we are looking for, from its Formica-topped bar to the Happy Days-style booths, each with its own tiny jukebox.
Somewhat intoxicated by our surroundings, we go big: Scrambled eggs, chilli dogs, a potato dish resembling bratkartoffeln and a huge plate of biscuits and gravy. The thing about biscuits and gravy – another delicacy around these parts – is that it doesn’t contain anything we in the UK would ever describe as either biscuits or gravy.
The biscuits are most like a savoury version of Aberdeen butteries, or Welshcakes – salty, doughy, butterheavy slabs. Even more bafflingly, the ‘gravy’ is a cheesy béchamel sauce, with ground pork floating in it and a generous grind of black pepper. The result is surprisingly delicious though, and we polish off the lot under the approving eye of Covington Chili’s aproned proprietress.
A mercifully short roll around the corner (burping creamy pork gravy) we find one of the breweries featured in this month’s Beer52 subscription box, Braxton…
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