Wednesday 06 December 2017
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Louisville has the double-edged reputation of being both one of Kentucky’s more bohemian, freewheeling cities and sometimes a little rough around the edges. We found both to be true, and all the more charming for it.
First things first though: pronouncing the name. Don’t try it the obvious French way unless you enjoy winding up the locals. The trick is apparently to take all the vowel sounds and mash them together, so you end up with something that sounds like “Luuuuurvull”. Even after patient instruction though, I still fail to master it, although I’m sure I’m making all the right noises; much like Lina Lamont getting elocution lessons in Singin’ in the Rain, it’s frustrating all round.
Kentucky’s largest city and home of the adored Sluggers baseball team, Louisville was founded in the late 18th century, making it one of America’s oldest cities not on the east coast. Perhaps most famously though, it is host to the Kentucky Derby, arguably the world’s most prestigious – and certainly it’s best-known – horse race.
We set up basecamp at a hotel near the Ohio River, just around the corner from the city’s historic Whisky Row.
Our first stop takes us on a scorching walk along Main Street, past theatres, a roller rink, and the insanely popular Wild Eggs Café (serving every style of egg imaginable, to a queue stretching literally around the block).
Against the Grain Brewery is based in the Louisville Sluggers baseball stadium, and in many ways its taproom looks exactly as you’d expect from a blue-collar stadium bar; the walls all slathered with sporting memorabilia and big-screen TVs, and the toilet graffiti dealing mostly with crude studies of the male form and entreaties to “make America great again” (though it’s unclear whether the two strands of thought are connected).
Alongside the usual bar decoration though are examples of Twisted Grain’s label art, which is – to put it mildly – characterful. Highlights include The Brown Note, featuring a mostly-naked man in the midst of a serious digestive mishap (tasting advice includes “drink this beer or shit yourself trying”) and the brewery’s collaboration with Mikkeller, Bloody Show, whose hockey-masked protagonist is wringing his heart out into an ankle-deep pool of pulped blood oranges.
Fortunately, Against the Grain’s beers are as exceptionally good as everyone had told us they would be. Our standouts were definitely its Pile of Face and Citra Ass Down, two very different American IPAs which really show off the brewer’s skill and demonstrate why hoppy American beers are best enjoyed fresh.
From Twisted Grain, James wants to head back to check out a riverside crab shack we saw on the downtown harbour front. I’m keen to continue out a little further though. So, braving the heat, I leave him in order to indulge my extracurricular interest in bourbon.
First up is Angel’s Envy, one of a clutch of new bourbon distilleries springing up around Kentucky and Louisville in particular. Angel’s Envy looks thoroughly modern and is clearly set up with the visitor experience fully in mind. Our host – the improbably named Kenny G – is charming and slick (though a drink in the bar afterwards reveals he’s also a keeneyed observer of the drinks industry and its politics).
Setting off again, my next stop is GoodWood, a brewery and taproom just off the Interstate that is bustling with thirsty punters. Sadly, nobody from the brewery is available to speak with me, so I order an American amber ale and get chatting to a chap sat at the bar. As often happens in such situations, he introduces me to a friend, who introduces me to a group of friends, and soon I’m taking to Todd Pharris the manager of one of the state’s largest Liquor Barns (a nationwide retail chain) about the craft beer scene here.
“Overall, Kentucky is behind most other states on craft beer, but only if you look at the number of breweries,” says Todd. If you look at the beer though, and how they’re running their businesses, it’s quite a different story.
It’s a small community of brewers, so it’s important that they all get along and they’re not trying to do each other in.
If you look at a brewery like West Sixth in Lexington for example, they’re great people and their story is great – they opened that place and crime in the area plummeted. Then they have something called ‘Pay it Forward’, and for every porter they sell they donate a certain percentage to local charities.
“So localism is definitely important to customers, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. The beer has the be great as well. But what you see from all these new Kentucky breweries – and you can see this if you talk to guys like Ethereal and Mile Wide – is an awareness of the mistakes that first wave of craft brewers often made, particularly around quality and consistency. They’re very focused on these things already, so although Kentucky is behind on volume, the beer we’re making is already excellent.”
It’s our last night before heading back to Scotland and, looking back over the whole experience, we suddenly realise a potentially unforgiveable defect in our attempt to capture an authentic Kentucky experience, and set out at once to remedy it.
Royals Hot Chicken is easy enough to find by following the aroma of succulent chicken frying in spicy batter. There’s already a queue, but that’s okay, as we need time to get our heads around the baffling menu of sauces and sides. It also gives us time to get to know our queue neighbours; a tall young man, Chris, who has just been awarded an athletics scholarship and his track-suited father/ coach, Brad.
Although Kentucky is behind on volume, the beer we’re making is already excellent
Just like everyone we meet, Chris and Brad are confident and hugely hospitable, so when they offer us a place at their table to continue the chat, we leap at the chance. We talk about sports, Chris’s plans after college and his sister who, by coincidence, is currently living in Edinburgh not five minutes from Ferment HQ.
The chicken is moist and the batter thick, crispy and perfectly seasoned, with home-made coleslaw, fries and pickles on the side. Large roller shutters open out into the darkening evening and a few ceiling fans are the only things bothering the heavy, torpid air.
When a young woman faints next to our table (presumably from the heat, rather than our rugged Celtic good looks), Brad is straight on his feet, taking charge of the situation and administering first aid. From the unperturbed look on Chris’s face, this sort of thing happens all the time. Brad is clearly a stand-up guy.
Wiping the chicken grease from our chins, we bid Chris and Brad goodbye and, with heavy hearts (hello cholesterol), set out for the final stop on our Kentucky Odyssey: Mile Wide Brewing. If we’re feeling a little low though, Mile Wide is the perfect pick-me-up.
Opened just last December, Mile Wide has definitely been ‘that brewery’ during our travels; the one that everyone we’ve met insisted we visit while we’re in Louisville. And we’re not disappointed.
The brewery and taproom is a little tucked away, inside an unremarkable, oddly institutional building that has variously been a music venue and a nondenominational church. Inside though is quite another story, as the four co-founders have done a remarkable job of turning a potentially awkward space into a genuinely welcoming and atmospheric bar.
“We got the keys in December 2015 and then spent a year pulling everything out, back to the bare bones, and building it back up again up,” says cofounder and ‘hype man’ Scott Shreffler.
“We laid a new floor, scraped every inch of that ceiling with a four-inch putty knife and then painted it. Two of us spent about two weeks doing all the insulation on the pipework. So it’s a bit janky in places, but it does the job!”
To our eyes, the result is anything but “janky”. All four of the co-founders have a wealth of complementary experience at successful bars and breweries, covering everything from marketing and business management to brewing, and set out to create Mile Wide with their eyes open.
“Having a well-rounded team allowed us to avoid any of the classic new brewery mistakes, and the confidence to start out bigger than we might have done otherwise. We’ve given ourselves room to grow and enough starting capacity that we’ve not had to rush around buying new kit a month after opening. Eight months in though, yeah we’re looking at getting some extra fermenters and trialling canning.”
If there’s one thing that’s carried Mile Wide’s reputation, it’s hops, in the form of its four distinctive pale ales: a west coast IPA, a north-east IPA, a rye IPA and a session IPA. Even as someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy hopforward beers, Mile Wide’s clean, juicy west coast IPA, Catalina Breeze, ranks among the best examples of the style I’ve ever tasted.
So, are the guys feeling the pressure from their sudden notoriety among Kentucky’s craft connoisseurs? Scott continues: “People say some amazingly kind things, and it’s great that they appreciate all the work we’ve put into it, but in terms of pressure... we’re just trying to keep things moving. At this stage it’s all hands on deck – you have two owners here at 6am on a Saturday and that’s not uncharacteristic at all. If anything’s uncharacteristic, it’s that Patrick and Kyle, the other two co-founders, aren’t here right now. So, yeah, the only pressure is the pressure we’re putting on ourselves!”
After a couple more pints in the taproom to mark our journey’s end, we step out into the night. Having enjoyed unbroken sunshine for our entire stay in Kentucky, lightning now plays across the horizon and there’s an ominously still pressure. Within minutes, the boiling sky cracks and we’re soaked to the skin instantly. Even the rain feels good though, warm and fragrant as it kicks up the dirt; one final side of its complex character that Kentucky wanted to show us.
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