25 March 2010

Beer Diary #16 - Jim | Red Penguins Keep Louisville Weird

Date: 19 March 2010
Location: 21c Museum Hotel
Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky

Terroir: The notion that a place injects a unique character into the things that are produced and grown there. Louisville embodies the concept of terroir because Louisville is a unique place, more than unique if that's possible. Its people, its neighborhoods, its culture--all have this incomparable organic character that seems to spring from the very banks of the Ohio River.

Perhaps this is so because Louisville defies preconceptions and expectations. The motto of Louisville's independent business association is "Keep Louisville Weird." If you spend enough time in the city, you'll see that its residents take this motto seriously because Louisville is weird--the best kind of weird. Amble along Bardstown Road or up Frankfort Avenue and drink in the pleasant, earthy weirdness.

One facet of Louisville's uniqueness is downtown's 21c Museum Hotel. According to a 2009 readers' poll in Condé Nast Traveler, the 21c is the #1 hotel in the U.S. and the #6 hotel in the world. It's not surprising to see why the magazine's readers felt this way; the 21c is a one-of-a-kind institution. In addition to its guest rooms, the hotel contains a stunning museum (open 24 hours a day) with a collection of 21st Century art. It also houses a world-class restaurant called Proof on Main. Contemporary art can be seen in every area of the building. A deer's head in a bondage mask adorns the wall in Proof on Main's entry area. And the red penguins are ubiquitous. These 21c mascots stand guard on the hotel's rooftop, at the lobby door, in the hallways, in the guest rooms, in the rooms of the museum, and, in miniature form, on the lapels of the hotel's staff.

Photo by jbcurio

Photo by Daquella Manera

Proof on Main's bar has a specialty: bourbon, that most elite expression of Kentucky's terroir. Hotel guests receive a complementary shot of bourbon from Proof on Main, and there are over 50 bourbons to choose from. Bourbon means bourbon barrels, and bourbon barrels mean bourbon barrel-aged beer. In this case, the beer in question is BBC Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout. This is a beer of which the KOTBR are quite fond. It is currently the number three beer on our list of beers reviewed. It is also on the beer list at Proof on Main among other excellent selections such as Founders Red's Rye and Bell's Winter White. But these other selections are not expressions of Kentucky's terroir. BBC Bourbon Barrel Stout is; it's this beer that I want, and it's what I have.

The experience is as I remember from our roundtable in which we reviewed the beer: baked brown sugar, black coffee, a dash of vanilla, and a bit of bourbon, which is lightly folded into the mix, hanging there in the background, unveiling itself gently.

Date: 20 March 2010
Location: Cumberland Brewery
The Highlands
Louisville, Kentucky

While Kentucky's terroir might find its highest expression in bourbon, Louisville's terroir is well expressed by the Highlands. In terms of Indianapolis analogues, the Highlands are Irvington, Broad Ripple, Mass Ave, and Fountain Square combined into one district. It's a meandering strip of independent shops, restaurants, and bars that hasn't been overrun by complete gentrification.

In the middle of the Highlands sits Cumberland Brews, a small but integral part of Louisville's beer culture. It is my destination while my wife goes in search of tchotchkes at nearby shops. Again, in terms of Indianapolis analogues, Cumberland Brews is the Broad Ripple Brewpub, but with a Deadhead vibe on top of the English country pub atmosphere. In the afternoon light, the pub is dim, but comfortably so. The tap handles are made of art glass. Three small fermentation vessels are perched behind the bar. Inhabiting one vessel is a beer called "Dorkmonster." It's not on tap yet, but its name makes me wish that it were.

The flagship beers are mostly English style ales, a Nitro Porter and a Pale Ale among them. There are also a Cream Ale and an Irish Dry Stout in honor of St. Patrick's Day. I order an imperial pint of the Nitro Porter to begin. Creamy, malty, and chocolaty it is. A suggestion of licorice and molasses as well. A good way to kick off the afternoon.

A glance at the seasonal menu piques my interest. The second beer on the menu is named "Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse." Louisville's terroir is expressed through sourness? Apparently so. Cumberland Brews does not serve this beer the Berliner way, i.e., with syrup. Rather, it comes all by itself. A half-pint of the Berliner Weisse displays faint banana, apple, and musty notes in the nose. It's crisp, fizzy, wheaty, sweet, and sour all at once. Delightful.

The bartender has been at the hand pull frequently, doling out pints and half-pints of a dry-hopped, cask-conditioned porter. As I am finishing off my Berliner Weisse, I am dismayed to see that the cask is empty, or so I believe. An enterprising woman, the bartender grabs the pin from beneath the bar, tilting the tap toward the floor to coax the last two half-pints of porter from the pin. I am fortunate because she offers me one of those two half-pints free of charge. A toast to her. The creamy citrus/chocolate blend of the porter. Magnificent. My dismay returns as I realize that I should have ordered this beer earlier so I could have enjoyed a full pint. Terroir is often expressed kindly, but sometimes not as kindly as one might wish. The pin is forever empty of this particular beer.

The name at the top of the seasonal menu is "Two Brewers One Pint." I chuckle. If you don't understand the genesis of this beer's name, please, do not ask. Terroir is not only expressed in good beer, but through humor too, and that humor is not always classy. I learn from the bartender that this beer, which is a German Brown Ale, is a collaboration beer; BBC is Cumberland's partner in production. Two Brewers One Pint (or in my case, one half-pint): a malty nose with a faint whiff of smoke. Caramel flavors are coupled with a dry bitterness at the front of the tongue and a sweet finish at the back. Very nice.

My wife has finally caught up with me. The shopping treasure that she has unburied: Milli Vanilli earrings.

Only in Louisville is Milli Vanilli an expression of terroir.


  1. This post reminds me of Amy Trubek's The Taste of Place, a book I'm finishing. She is all about terroir, particularly for wine, cheese, and local produce.

  2. Frankly, I had some bad writer's block when I began writing this post. Then I watched "No Reservations" earlier this week and Tony Bourdain was in Provence discussing (what else) terroir. That concept just seemed to fit Louisville perfectly, so I ran with it.

  3. For about a year and a half, Cumberland has had a production brewery a couple miles away in an industrial park. The "formal" collaboration with BBC used to be on a contract basis for Cumberland's bigger selling beers. The production facility ended that, but as you tasted, Cameron (formally a BBC assistant) and BBC's Jerry/Sam all still like each other and work together.

    Things like that are why this is such a great business.

  4. making me want to travel (and stay at what is no doubt a very spendy hotel!)... great post, Jim