08 May 2012

The Louisville Beer Trail

In my experience, vacationers usually fall into one of three classes. The first class consists of folks who are looking mostly for leisure. These are the people who travel to resorts in places like Mexico or the Caribbean to lie on the beach, hit the resort's buffet, play golf or tennis, and just generally escape the demands of workaday life. I call this vacationer the "comfort-seeker."

The second class of vacationer looks primarily for culture at his destination. This person yearns for the museums, the restaurants, the shops, the pubs, the art galleries. He wants to do what the locals do and fills each day with an agenda that immerses him in the local culture. A metropolis is his haven. I call this vacationer the "urban explorer."

The third kind of vacationer falls somewhere between the comfort-seeker and the urban explorer. She needs down-time on her vacation, yet she gets restless at the thought of being unable to fully interact with the locals. Anyone who's been to a vacation resort knows that it can almost be isolating, especially if the resort is in a second- or third-world spot. So this vacationer (for whom I don't have a nice snappy name) will travel to places that possess a good blend of leisure and culture.

My guess is that most people fall into the third class. But I'm squarely in the urban explorer camp. Now this is just a preference for me--I can hang with the occasional beach vacation--but it's a very strong preference.

A few years ago, a friend who knew this preference brought Louisville to my attention. At the time, I'd been to Louisville only once, and that was for a five-hour visit to the University of Louisville. So I knew little of what the city had to offer and was confused by his suggestion. Seeing my quizzical look, my friend assured me that the urban explorer in me would enjoy the city.

My friend proved to be wise because Louisville is a city that is endowed with a rich culture. To the city's great benefit, this culture flows not from national chains or generic sources, but rather from local, independent roots. Indeed, Louisville is the increasingly rare American city that strongly values this sort of independent culture. "Keep Louisville Weird," they say. Okay, they say "Keep [Insert City Name] Weird" in a growing number of cities these days, especially in the cities trying to mold themselves according to Richard Florida's models. But in Louisville, they really mean it when they say, "Keep Louisville Weird." You can't help but be charmed by the quirky uniqueness of the place. And this uniqueness is very much reflected in the city's businesses, whether those businesses are restaurants, food markets, bars, boutiques, or breweries.

Take the gastropub Holy Grale, nestled in The Highlands, the district which is the center of Louisville's independent spirit. Headquartered in an old Unitarian church, Holy Grale draws those who seek communion with hard-to-find European-style beers. At this pub, a goblet of Bockor's Cuvée des Jacobin Rouge may hammer one's palate with tartness, but the beer simultaneously lifts one's spirits. Or a tall glass of Mikkeller's Bloody Show Pilsner, brewed in collaboration with Louisville brewery Against The Grain, flowers with bitterness and citrus because it was brewed with blood oranges.

A trip to the arts-oriented East Market District takes you to Against The Grain. Against The Grain embodies Louisville's independent spirit with its irreverence. For instance, the brewery's brown ale is named "Brown Note," apparently after an infamous episode of South Park (aren't they all infamous?). And ATG is not just a brewery; it's a smokehouse too. So of course they brew a rauchbier, whimsically called "Raucho Man Randy Beverage" (R.I.P. Macho Man). While smoked beers don't appeal to me, coffee beers certainly do. ATG has an amazing coffee beer that came about when the brewery played well with another local. The local in question is coffeehouse Heine Brothers Coffee. Together, they gave birth to Heine's Big Bro, an imperial oatmeal espresso stout that one could rightly call a mocha in beer form.

On Barret Avenue at Lynn's Paradise Cafe for breakfast or lunch, you'll find yourself immersed in a kitsch explosion. If the B-52s had stopped making music and started designing restaurants, Lynn's Paradise Cafe would have been their prototype. Sit down at a booth and a menagerie of plastic animals greets you. Your table is a miniature zoo. What's the Kentucky angle here? Bourbon milkshakes. Thick-sliced bacon. Biscuits with house-made gravy. Eggs with yolks so gold-yellow that you'll have to wear sunglasses just to dig into them. And this place is no one-note tourist trap. Plenty of locals eat here.

Back in the Highlands on Bardstown Road, happy hour is being celebrated at Cumberland Brewery. This small brewery hails from the era when it seemed that most brewmasters had spent a few years of their lives following the Dead before they settled down to brew beer. Cumberland fits right into that free-spirited theme. English style beers are in abundance as regular brews, but a springtime-appropriate wit, saison, and doppelbock are also on the menu.

But first, sustenance. A Kentucky evening calls for fried green tomatoes, served with a spicy remoulade. Breaded with cornmeal, fried perfectly, and brimming with tartness. And the doppelbock calls. Anti-Coagulator is its name. The caramel and brown sugar of the malt certainly keep the blood flowing freely.

Last stop in the urban exploration: a return trip to the East Market District for a visit to The Louisville Beer Store. The Louisville Beer Store is exactly what its sign says, but it's more as well. Walls and walls of bottles and cans plus eight taps. So much to choose from. Some experts in cognitive behavior have criticized the perils of having too much choice; they say the mind can only handle so much. Apparently, if you keep on opening door after door, you become lost.

But when it comes to beer, the experts are wrong. It's possible to choose well when it comes to all that beer; it's just that you may have to make multiple trips to do your choosing. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that, especially when it's likely that different beers will be on tap during your next trip.

Choices -- This time, the choices are an armful of hard-to-find sour beers but also a pint of Lexington Brewing Company's Kentucky Coffee Stout. For a brewery known for its bourbon barrel ale, they have made a coffee stout to be reckoned with. Do you remember the Folger's Crystals switch? Secretly substitute Kentucky Coffee Stout for, say, Schlafly's highly regarded Coffee Stout and chances are that you'd fool the drinker.


  1. Great post, but I'm a little surprised at the zero references to Sergio's World Beers.. http://sergiosworldbeers.com/

  2. Didn't have time to make it over to Sergio's. That's on the agenda for the next trip, which will be this summer.

  3. Love it, Jim! I'd take that coffee beer challenge any day!

  4. Another post-script--

    I've had people ask me why I didn't write about New Albanian or BBC. The reason is that we were in Louisville for only 2 days, so there was only so much time to get around the city. Therefore, we didn't have time to visit either brewery. Besides, we've written about both breweries on this blog before. That being said, we'll be visiting both places on our next visit to Louisville, so perhaps there's a blog post in that.