WORDS: James Taylor PHOTOS: Richard Croasdale
Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Reluctantly, we depart early from Covington to make our way to our next destination – Lexington. Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky and the heart of the ‘Bluegrass Region’. Therefore, it seems entirely appropriate to cram as many bluegrass tracks into the 90-minute drive as possible. Much to Richard’s initial pleasure, and later visible dismay, there is quite a variety of bluegrass to choose from. Bluegrass gospel, bluegrass rap and even a bluegrass cover of 90s hip-hop classic “No Diggity” makes an appearance in our suitably oversized Jeep. It was an appropriate accompaniment to the wonderful Kentucky scenery.
Iconic water towers towered from the surprisingly green landscape, like giant metal spiders, emblazoned with the charmingly peculiar names of small country towns (Beaverlick a personal favourite). Enormous trucks containing even more enormous truckers flanked either side of us on the long straight road, like guardian angels with V8 engines, until we arrive at our destination. 21c Museum Hotel is a unique place.
An 88-room hotel in the beautifully restored National Bank Building totally rammed full of solo and group exhibitions that ‘reflect the global nature of contemporary culture’.
Thought-provoking art fills the galleries while a more relaxed, unbeatably stylish approach is taken with the beautiful rooms. Not just a hotel, but a destination in itself.
Surrounding us are trendy eateries, towering financial buildings, laid-back bourbon bars and even a courtyard hosting a seemingly never-ending blues/funk concert. Of course, we go for a closer look. An important thing to remember when visiting Kentucky is that everyone will speak to you, no matter how busy, foreign or, in our case, ugly you are. Relentlessly charming folk will offer you beers, lifts (or ‘rides’), travel advice or even pull you up for a dance in the right scenario. What was intended as a five-minute wander turns into a drunken hour-long swing dance session. Now incredibly late, we force our way through the crowd, jump in a cab and leave for our first destination of the day: Blue Stallion, located just North of Lexington.
Jumping from our trusty steed (the air-conditioned taxi), and with a friendly welcome from the bar staff, we clamber up to take a stool at what is rightly regarded as the highest and widest bar in the world. While resting my chin on the bar, I start speaking to operations manager and head brewer Jim Clemons about the history and ethos of Blue Stallion brewing. Jim, a qualified chemical engineer, has always had a passion for brewing and a particular interest in the biochemical element of it.
“I’m obsessed with the science of brewing” admits Jim, swirling and investigating a tall glass of their Hefeweizen, releasing a strong aroma of banana (the beer, not Jim). This brewery, one of whose founders is German himself, has a strong European influence in the beer styles. “We sent our Doppelbock to a European competition last month, and it won the gold”.
Thrusting a sample into our hands, he says: “go on, try it, it’s fantastic” and he was correct. It is hands-down the best Doppelbock I’ve ever tried. Only four years old, this brewery is stacking up the medals from all over the world in a wide range of styles, but particularly the German offerings. Dunkels, Marzens, Helles and more, all brewed to the strict Reinheitsgebot, prop up Blue Stallion, complemented by eight or nine taps of more experimental beers such as the tangy passionfruit saison and the simply incredible Wee Heavy “Sethiroff”. With a generous gift of the latter in hand to smuggle back to the UK (if it makes it that far) we made our way to the next venue: Country Boy Brewing.
“Kickin’ and a gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer,” declares an old rusty car bonnet hanging on the wall, welcoming us to our Country Boy Brewing. While lacking a saloon style entrance – which disappointingly has been lacking despite my pre-conceived notions (or wishes) about Kentucky – the sight of around 20 taps and a cosy taproom was very welcome. Amazingly, almost everything seems to have been made from some form of barrel, emphasising this relatively young but rapidly growing brewery’s love of barrel-ageing in anything they can get their hands on.
Boasting a wide range of styles, from the wonderfully named blonde Cougar Bait, to the experimental Jalapeño smoked porter, there’s an incredible amount to get your teeth into. Accompanied by a suitably bluesy soundtrack, we met brewery manager Nathan Coppage. Country Boy, despite its modest initial appearance, boasts some of the most ubiquitous craft beers in the region. Cougar Bait American Blonde and Shotgun Wedding American Brown can be found in many bars and restaurants in the state, and account for 80% of the brewery’s production.
“The hardest thing we do is keeping those beers consistent,” Nathan explains. “We have regular testing in labs and daily tasting sessions.” It seems the larger brands help give it the power and resources to indulge Nathan’s bigger passions.
“What really excites me is maybe 2% of what we do,” explains Nathan, with a glint in his eye. Leading us out of the taproom and across the road, we entered the enormous main building.
Barrels lined along one side, brewing equipment in the middle and, nestled behind fermenter #2 (nicknamed “The Beast” – I never found out why) we find his real playground.
Peach wilds, made with 100 pounds of hand-picked peaches per barrel, strawberry and ginger sours and much, much more. With true Kentucky generosity, Nathan picked out some large, hand labelled bottles from his personal stash to bring back to the UK. The team at Country Boy are truly on the cutting edge of brewing, producing some of the most complex and incredible tasting beers we’ve ever put our hands on.
For example, “Upland Funk Land Country Shuffle” is a blend of one and two year-old sour brown ale aged in oak bourbon barrels. Massive amounts of local strawberries are added and the resulting mixture left to re-ferment for three months with house yeast and souring microbes. It goes on, and on, and on and maybe it’s not necessary to know the whole process. But the resulting beer is a work of art and it’s hard not to appreciate the effort these guys have put in to making experimental and delicious beers.
With an astounding new taproom opening up in nearby Georgetown and a team of dedicated staff, Country Boy is definitely one to watch. “Next time y’all are here we’ll take you to the new taproom” he insists; a generous offer I’m happy to extend to our readers. If you make it there, tell him we sent you.
We exited into a solid wall of humidity and heat, tip-toeing as if on a blistering hot beach, and made our way back for a well-earned rest at the hotel.
“What really excites me is maybe 2% of what we do,” explains Nathan
Featuring a brewery, a distillery, a farm to table restaurant, craft ice cream, an old school bar and a pizzeria – Pepper Campus is one of the hippest entertainment areas of Lexington, Kentucky. The Pepper Campus area lies between an old warehouse, emblazoned with an incredible 300ft mural across the front, and another one of the epitomical water towers. The incredible heat, at least being from the UK, prompts us to make a dusty bee line for our first destination, Ethereal Brewing, to sample their plentiful taps and to chat with co-founder and general manager Andrew Bishop.
“We try to brew what we like,” he says, as we sink a tangy tropical gose, an increasingly popular style worldwide but especially in the US. “It’s always been beer first, business second,” continues Bishop, as he’s affectionately known in the Lexington brewing scene.
Throughout the trip we’ve met many, many brewers and it’s clear to see how highly regarded this young brewer is.
Recommended as a must-visit by almost every brewer we met, it’s exciting to finally be here.
“We hand-peel oranges and lemons for that one,” Bishop proudly says, regarding their top-selling Belgian white ale. “We’re also busy brewing a NEIPA; we’re naming it ‘fad-tastic’ to reflect the fact we feel it’s crazy,” joked Bishop.
This laid-back, experimental approach spreads to the décor as well. Situated in a towering old beat-up 1920s factory, many of the original features remain. A favourite feature is the wall of graffiti. Previously situated outside the front of the building, it was carefully dismantled and brought inside and rearranged, tetris style.
In terms of the beer, a strong microbiological approach is taken. Bishop and co-founder Brandon have been brewing together for around nine years, with Brandon serving a spell at major Lexington brewer Alltech. There he learned all about caustics, loops, LIPs and various other things I struggled to understand. A major surprise is through the back, where Bishop shows us his favourite piece of equipment.
“This is our laboratory,” he explains and he wasn’t joking. “We have complete quality control, from an incubator to manipulate yeast to sampling area to detect faults. “So you’re basically a mad scientist brewer?” I joked, getting a proud nod in return. “Bad beer can ruin your brand; if it’s not good it’s not good,” he explains, making it clear that they’ve had to dump gallons and gallons of beer along the way on their quest to achieve perfect beer.
Bishop goes on to explain a little more about the sense of community in the brewing industry of Kentucky. “As long as everyone is making good beer, we want to help each other” he explains. “If someone makes a bad beer, it reflects badly on all of us.” So far, this hasn’t happened, so there’s been no-one voted off the island quite yet. With this evidence, there’s no bad beer coming any time soon. Right next door to Ethereal in Pepper Campus is Middle Fork restaurant.
Entering to a blast of heat and mouthwatering cooking aromas, we are confronted by Hieronymus Bosch’s own kitchen; a giant wood-fired open griddle, piled with sizzling chickens, sausages and ribs. A team of black-clad cooks move almost balletically through the space, preparing vegetables, chopping herbs, and above all wielding every kind of meat conceivable.
The seated area is relatively small (certainly in proportion to the extensive bar) but the atmosphere is jumping. We realise quickly that our untrained European stomachs are not up to the challenge presented by Middle Fork’s portion sizes, but the menu is simply too enticing to exercise any kind of restraint, so we dive in with both feet.
An entire loaf of freshly baked bread arrives, with aged whipped butter, a ‘brisket candle’ (basically a cylinder of beef dripping with a wick in it; Kentucky is amazing) and a pot of home-pickled root vegetables. This is followed swiftly by thick, succulent lamb sausages with mustard and fennel salad, and a spatchcocked chicken with sorghummaple glaze and fresh herb salad. We barely manage two-thirds of this feast before we’re defeated, but we have no regrets at all – every single element of every single dish has us sighing with delight.
For a well-deserved nightcap, and a questionable diversion from our itinerary, we hop across the road to the Break Room. This was a recommendation from the staff at Blue Stallion brewing and we are very glad they told us about it. Visiting these fantastic craft breweries and eateries can sometimes skew your impression of a place. The Break Room is a step back to reality, a proper old-school Kentucky bar. Dart throwing, pool-playing, bourbon drinking and, probably, gunslinging were all permitted in this venue.
As long as everyone is making good beer, we want to help each other
Sat beside an old rusty jukebox in the corner, we were approached by some locals who handed us a neat bourbon. “Hey, y’all think this is real Kentucky?” they ask, ambiguously rhetorical. “You should come out in the country with us for the Bluegrass festival!”.
Devastatingly, such a massive diversion would get us into a bit of bother, but it’s a tempting offer. We politely decline, but it will definitely remain the biggest regret of my life.
Surveying the place further, through the hordes of locals leaning against the weathered bar, I spy their beer taps. It still baffles me how, no matter where you go in Kentucky, there will always be a selection of 10 or more local craft beers from the state. Craft beer is completely ingrained into everyday life and I love it.
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