Despite the popularity of beer in American culture, there are very few truly indigenous American beer styles. Most beer in America is a derivative of some European style. Even though Kentucky is better known for its beautifully delicious bourbon, we are the home and birthplace of one of only three truly American beer styles.
The Cream Ale, California Common (including the Anchor Brewing trademarked version of the style, Steam Beer), and the Kentucky Common Ale all cropped up at slightly varying times in the young burgeoning 19th century America. These beers were all created in different regions of North America for very similar reasons. A working class was brewing up and needed an easy drinking pint after a hard days work.
At that time, beer had to be brewed with transportation largely in mind. India Pale Ales, brewed in England, had to be excessively hopped. As you may know, hops are used for preservation as well as bitterness. The higher amount of hops used preserved the libation for English expats in India to withstand the turbulent voyage.
There was a large amount of German immigrants in America who wanted a light, mild beer akin to the German or Czech Pilsner, but such a beer would (and still does) struggle to make the sea voyage across the North Atlantic.
Plenty of ingredients and a rich tradition of brewing beer was already waiting in North America. So, in true American fashion, we created a self dependent economy using resources harvested from our own blood, sweat, and tears.
A great example of a plentiful resource is corn. The Cream Ale and Kentucky Common contain an uncanny amount of corn in the mash bill, which was nearly unheard of in Europe at the time. Corn has a much larger amount of starches and sugars than wheat and barley. Therefore, the hard working yeast has an abundance of sugar to metabolize into alcohol in a short period of time. This was good news for the hard working immigrants. Because corn is cheap, readily available in pretty much all of America, and allows for a quick mash to consumption process, there exists the possibility of a lot of good, cheap beer. THANK GOD for corn. (Y’all, don’t forget that I’m a Hoosier immigrant to this beautiful Commonwealth!)
While the Common from California and Cream Ale from the Northeast are light in color and body, the Kentucky Common is a darker amber-ish brown color. This is due to a small addition of 1 to 2 percent of caramel and black malt to the grain bill. The full grain bill is what separates the Kentucky Common from other beers like it. This consists of mainly six-row barley malt (most like beers use two-row, another lesson for another time), ~35% corn grits, and finally 1 to 2% caramel and black malt respectively. It is widely accepted that the German immigrants added this small addition of darker malts to help acidify the water from Louisville, KY, which contains high mineral content (i.e. limestone).
The Kentucky Common was nearly exclusive to the Louisville area (specifically the metropolitan area). This is partly due to the short fermentation period and life of the beer. As the heat naturally kills yeast, this beer was not brewed in the summer months. However, with the advent of refrigeration at the turn of the 20th century, this Ohio River beer exploded. It is said that 75% of pints poured in Louisville were Kentucky Common Ales from 1900 until the destructive Prohibition of Alcohol that devastated Kentucky in 1918. Most of the rest of the continent and world would not taste this delectable dark ale, though. Like many distilleries, whiskeys, breweries, and beers, the Kentucky Common died with prohibition.
It wasn’t until the resurgence of craft beer in the 1980s and 1990s that this beer was dredged from the history books and poured into glass. Even then, it was little more than a novelty of homebrewers. With a strong respect for our heritage in Kentucky, it was only a matter of time before we found this gem of a beautiful time during Kentucky’s history. Although the beer is not brewed with definite regularity, one-off brews from craft breweries around the country take a swing at the fun, delicious representation of Kentucky.
As the lost beer style was brought back from the grave in the 1990s, brewers and beer aficionados speculated that the Kentucky Common was supposed to be somewhat sour. Some also thought that the brewers of the time employed the technique of sour mashing from Kentucky Bourbon. This, however, is not true. The mashing techniques used for the Kentucky Common can be clearly discerned from extensive first hand brewing records. It is more likely that people misinterpreted the one-time description of the beer as having “slight but characteristic bacteria taste and flavor,” as found in the 3rd edition of Wahl & Henius’s American Handy-Book of Brewing from 1906. I would speculate that this bacteria taste may have come from somewhat lower sanitary practices of the time, allowing the lactobacillus yeast to harbor a “spoiling” bacteria. This should not be out of the question, seeing that this beer was brewed quickly which would allow for the yeast to evolve and permeate under the given conditions.
Want to try out an example of the Kentucky Common beer style? Finding a commercial example of this style can be somewhat tricky. Many times, homebrewers gravitate towards the style. But, Falls City Beer in Louisville, KY does offer their ‘Kentucky Common’ year-round on draft and in cans!