Nick Carr on January 8, 2018 1 Comment Resources The History of Kentucky Common Style Profile & Characteristics Examples of the Style How to Brew Kentucky Common Recipe The History of Kentucky Common As a beer style, Kentucky Common was a bright, but short-burning star. It is one of the three or four modern beer styles that the Americas can claim as indigenous. Kentucky Common, also sometimes called “Common” or “Dark Cream Ale,” was once an extremely popular regional style centered around Louisville, Kentucky. Its origin is rooted in the influx of German and Irish immigrants to the region in the mid 1800s. They came thirsty, keen for the beer of their homelands, and quickly began trying to reproduce it. And, like other immigrants, they adapted to the ingredients available in their new home. They made a low alcohol thirst-quenching beer, basically a dark version of American cream ale. The grain bill was a mix of the protein-laden six-row malt, and some native corn to smooth the beer out. A dab of dark and caramel malts were added. The water around Louisville is alkaline, so the small addition of dark malt could have been to help acidify the mash. It also could have been added just to increase character. 1902: The Earliest Reference of the Beer Style The earliest known reference to Kentucky Common is in the second edition of American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Associated Trades by Robert Wahl & Max Henius. This 1902 publication gives a well-detailed description on the making of Kentucky Common, including the grain bill, mash temperatures, boiling, and fermentation. As noted in the 1902 description, Kentucky Common found its most feverish popularity among the laboring class. This was likely due to the its quick availability and cheap cost. The beer was delivered to the market while still fermenting in the cask, giving it a complete turnaround — brewery to consumer — of only 6 to 8 days. The cost of producing it was also significantly lower than other styles of the time (PDF). It could be delivered to publicans at $5 a barrel, translating to the costumer paying only about two cents a pint. In comparison, a barrel of stock ale would run about $12, and a barrel of lager would cost about $8. Kentucky Common’s quick turnaround time, and thus short shelf-life, may have had a lot to do with its popularity being confined to a rather small area. However, for Louisville, it remained the go-to beer right up until prohibition. 1919: Prohibition & The Decline of Kentucky Common In fact, according to the above reference, in 1919, at least 75% of beer being produced and sold in the vicinity of Falls City was Kentucky Common. A translated quote from the German-language newspaper Louisvill Anzinger (1909) referenced in Kevin Gibson’s book Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft, gives good account to just how popular the style was: Beer has conquered the world. But one thinks… that this refers to lager beer. In Louisville, however, the beer drinker can enjoy double pleasure, as they can along with the lager beer enjoy the “common beer” a really great and increasingly popular product. It is a healthful, light, pleasant drink that people in other large American cities are for the most part unaware of. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Kentucky Common died, its popularity cut short, by the coming of prohibition. The lifting of prohibition, 13 years later, made little difference to this style, the blow had been struck, the regional giant toppled. The Curious Circumstances of (Modern) Kentucky Common In recent years, the Kentucky Common style has been lifted up out of obscurity, thanks in large part to the ever-curious craft beer movement. However, these inroads have not been without a strange set of circumstances, which has split Kentucky Common’s history into a modern and traditional take on the style. Craft brewers, looking at the descriptions of Kentucky Common available to them, concluded that the style carried a slightly sour character. This idea is largely attributed to a description found in the 3rd edition of Wahl’s and Henius’s American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Associated Trades, published in 1906. The description includes the following passage: “… a slight but characteristic bacteria taste and flavor, which can be obtained by employing a yeast containing a moderate number of bacteria of the rod-shaped variety.” They go on to state, “To obtain the desired results, the yeast should contain about 2 per cent of such bacteria.” The assumption was that since distilling uses a sour mash, and Kentucky is known for its whiskey, that sour mashing would likely have been part of the brewing process, too. Not a huge leap and an understandable hypothesis at that. But, new research has shown no good evidence of sour mashing. In their paper on Kentucky Common, Leah Dienes and Dibbs Harting conclude that the bacteria the book is referencing is Lactobacillus. It seems there is little evidence, in other brewing documents of the time, which lend much credence to the intentional use of Lactobacillus. Instead, the authors hypothesize that the distinct sour character was due to a common spoiling species, Lactobacillus brevis, not one of the two species welcomed in some styles, L. hordei (found on pale malt) or L. delbrueckii (often used in the making of Berliner Weisse); and likely a result of infected cooperage in smaller, family owned breweries. It’s only been lately that research has shown the falsity of any intentional souring of Kentucky Common. But, the idea seemed plausible, even likely, at the time of its stumbling first steps to resurrection in the mid 1990’s, and those 20 years have created a false face to the style’s past — not to mention some pretty good beer. 2015: Kentucky Common Added to BJCP Style Guidelines In 2015, the BJCP added Kentucky Common to its style guidelines, expressly stating that research does not bare out any presence of sour character. The new research and the publicity of the BJCP will, no doubt, help shift Kentucky Common’s identity back to a truer version of itself. But, at the same time, one may ponder whether the “modern” style should be shunned? No matter what you want to call this offshoot of Kentucky Common, it has a 20 year history backing it. Maybe we should celebrate the old… and the new. Style Profile & Characteristics The guidelines for the Kentucky Common beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what a Kentucky Common should represent. BJCP Guidelines Color Range: 11 – 20 SRM Original Gravity: 1.044 – 1.055 OG Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.018 FG IBU Range: 15 – 30 ABV Range: 4.0 – 5.5% Serving & Storage Temperature: 46 – 50°F Shelf Life: <3 months Suggested Glass: Mug, Flute or Pilsner Glass The BJCP classifies the Kentucky Common beer style under category number 27, “Historical Beer”. It can be found in the guidelines as sub-category 27B. Other beer styles under this category include: 27A — Gose 27C — Lichtenhainer 27D — London Brown Ale 27E — Piwo Grodziskie 27F — Pre-Prohibition Lager 27G — Pre-Prohibition Porter 27H — Roggenbier 27I — Sahti Appearance: Color can range from an amber-orange to a light brown. Head can be white through off-white to beige in color and head retention is often poor. Beer is usually clear, though short conditioning times can cause some haze. Aroma: Malt aromas of low toast, caramel, bread, and grainy biscuit-like present across a background of low to moderate graininess with a corn-like sweetness. It is malt forward in the balance, but there should be moderate to medium-low hop aromas. It should have a clean fermentation character with the possibility of slight berry esters. There will be no sourness to the aroma, but low DMS aromas are possible and considered appropriate to the style. How to Brew Kentucky Common Everything you should know as you try to brew a Kentucky Common recipe at home. Start Brewing Mouthfeel: High carbonation and a medium to moderately light body can give a soft mouthfeel and creamy texture. Taste: Expect light palate flavors typical of adjunct beers. The backbone is of a medium sweet grain maltiness with low to moderately-low bready, toffee, caramel, and/or biscuit-like character. Hop character will be medium to low in flavor presenting slight spicy and floral characteristics. Moderate to low bitterness should be soft, balancing the sweet malt while leaving the scales tipped toward the malt. Possible light fruitiness. Finish is fairly dry and might have a low flinty or mineral-sulfate quality. There should be no harsh bitterness in the aftertaste. No sour flavors. Pairing: Authentic examples of Kentucky Common will be low in alcohol, but high in carbonation, making it excellent company to light, grilled, and spicy foods. It plays well with a char-grilled burgers, BBQ pork, and grilled lamb chops where its light beady, biscuit flavors will meld and brisk carbonation is put to work scrubbing the palate. The same goes for spicy dishes like chili burritos, or pair it with a heaty Asian dish, such as curry. On the other side of the coin, it rolls just as well with light foods where its smooth mouthfeel and brisk palate walk can sidle up to, and highlight, fresh spring salads with walnuts, a chicken or ham sandwich, grilled trout, light fish dishes, or shrimp preparations (spicy or otherwise). Cheese: Think lighter cheeses to deck out the snack trays when pairing with Kentucky Common. Montgomery Jack, Feta, mild cheddars, or pepperjack all will work. Dessert: Round out the meal with desserts like lemon tart with caramel sauce, sugar cookies, or a light caramel cheese cake. Serving & Storage: For best presentation and greatest appreciation, a Kentucky Common should be served at around 46-50°F in a mug or a flute (Pilsner) glass. They are best stored at cellar temperatures away from light, and should be enjoyed young. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Award Winning Examples of the Style Hilltopper’s Pride Kentucky Common from Ironworks Brewery & Pub (Lakewood, CO) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2017. Available: Rotating. Popular Examples of the Style Kentucky Common from Local Option Kentucky Common from Falls City Brewing Company (Louisville, KY) Kentucky Common from Sisyphus Brewing Company (Minneapolis, MN) Kentucky Common from Gun Hill Brewing Company (Bronx, NY) Kentucky Common from Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company (Ireland) Hidden Hollow from Ten Mile Brewing Company (Signal Hill, CA) Common Sense from Upstate Brewing Company (Elmira, NY) The Common from Iron Duke Brewing Company (Ludlow, MA) 1912 from Apocalypse Brew Works (Louisville, KY) — Recipe is the Oertel’s Brewery original recipe from 1912.