Whatever Happened to Kentucky Common Beer?

Forgotten since Prohibition, Kentucky Common—Louisville's native beer style—is primed for a comeback. Sarah Baird on its origins and long road back to everyman popularity.

Louisville, Kentucky is the kind of town that wears its working class heritage on its sleeve. In the Schnitzelburg neighborhood, residents still proudly play a charming, antiquated German street game called danity. Century-old, hand-painted ads for local businesses—butchers, burlap sacks, roofing—can be found on the sides of industrial brick buildings. And in Butchertown—named for the area’s large number of slaughterhouses in the 1800s—it’s not unusual to see a truckload of pigs still hauled down the street.

How, then, did the native blue collar malt of this river town—Kentucky Common—go the way of the dodo bird?

Produced and consumed in and around the Louisville area by an influx of German and Irish immigrants beginning in the mid-1800s, Kentucky Common is a regional style of beer that burned hot and bright at the turn of the 20th century, but has become something of a glaring omission from the annals of drinking history until its recent revival at the hands of a number of local craft brewers.

“[Kentucky] Common beer…is dark like an average Bavarian beer, and the beer should [have] a pronounced malt flavor and [be] full-bodied,” wrote early 20th-century beer documentarians Robert Wahl and Max Henius. “Besides these taste qualities, the beer should have a gentle but characteristic bacteria taste and smell…caused by using a yeast infected with a moderate number of bacteria.”

The beer’s feverish popularity, however, never reached very far beyond the Ohio River Valley due, in large part, to its oddball production methods. The majority of the batches were taken from mash to saloon in no more than eight days. In turn, the beer had a decidedly short shelf life, corralling its potential to expand beyond being a regional favorite.

The living organisms milling about in Kentucky Common became a defining characteristic, with brewers occasionally plunking wild yeast into their batches, beckoning forth a bready aroma and malty aftertaste. Some recipes even call for the addition of 2 percent lactobacillus—the same culture added to milk to help create yogurt—giving the beer a Germanic tang.

Adding to its quirk, Kentucky Common was also often a highly carbonated beer, frequently placed in kegs unfermented to expedite distribution to saloons and ensure the beer had a frothy head. “When a keg of common beer was tapped, great care was taken…as the pressure was so great that it would break china or glass,” warned Conrad Selle in his book, Louisville Breweries. By 1915, up to 80 percent of beer sold in and around Louisville was Kentucky Common.

The beer’s feverish popularity, however, never reached very far beyond the Ohio River Valley due, in large part, to its oddball production methods. The majority of the batches were taken from mash to saloon in no more than eight days. In turn, the beer had a decidedly short shelf life, corralling its potential to expand beyond being a regional favorite.

A 1909 edition of German-language newspaper The Louisville Anziger (reprinted in Kevin Gibson’s book, Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft) noted the drink’s limited, yet effective, reach. “Beer has conquered the world! In Louisville, however, the beer drinker can enjoy…the “common beer,” a really great and increasingly popular product…that people in other large American cities are, for the most part, unaware of.”

While Louisville and neighbors across the river in Southern Indiana (an area now bearing the unfortunate portmanteau “Kentuckiana”) most certainly consumed the majority of Kentucky Common, records show that its reach may have extended as far as St. Louis in its heyday. Between March and September 1854, six million bottles were reportedly glugged down of the city’s total 18 million beers consumed.

After Prohibition, Kentucky Common—once the scrappy, omnipresent beer-of-the-people—never regained its footing, becoming all but extinct for the remainder of the 20th century.

Today, Louisville’s beer scene is frothing over with productivity, as ales and lagers made on the banks of the Ohio River flow freely in bars alongside almighty Kentucky bourbon. Several local breweries have tried their hand at a take on Kentucky Common, each spotlighting one of the beer’s eccentric characteristics. For Against the Grain Brewery, it’s the Kentucky Common’s bacteria-happy sour notes. Their Kamen Knuddlen—a lip-puckering, dark-as-night beer—elevates this concept by pulling a page from the book of bourbon and “souring the mash.”

“There’s really no perfectly defined style guidelines for [Kentucky Common], just some historical data from pre-Prohibition breweries here in Louisville with a huge range of descriptors and characters,” says Against the Grain’s Sam Cruz. “What they were probably doing was a carry-over from distillation practices. With that, they were probably sour mashing.”

The most historically accurate reincarnation to date is produced by Apocalypse Brew Works using an original recipe from Oertel Brewing Company—a turn-of-the-century, Butchertown-based, common beer magnate. Their Oertel 1912 is the kind of tart, low-ABV (about 4 percent) sipper that could easily gain popularity with both twentysomethings and nostalgic old timers.

“If people are coming in for the [Kentucky] Derby, every brewery should be doing their own take on the Kentucky Common,” says beer scholar Kevin Gibson. “People can taste something that’s just as much a part of Louisville as bourbon or horseracing, and maybe even more so.”

The current national interest in revisiting and exploring indigenous and heritage beverages (even those long since forgotten) will do wonders to help Louisville along in this quest, with the Kentucky Common’s working class birthright morphing into an advantage rather than a sticking point.

Even city government big wigs have started to take interest. In 2014, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer assembled the first-ever Mayor’s Local Brewery Workgroup, a government sanctioned (yes, you read that correctly) committee to explore the promotion and support Louisville as a “beer city.”

“A shot and a beer” in Louisville might just take on an entirely more local meaning in the near future, as the rebirth of Louisville’s sudsy native son is now practically edict. One of the committee’s five key recommendations for the upcoming year?

Revive Kentucky Common.

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