Photo by John Wurth

Derby City on Tap

In 2007, Andrew Dimery was fermenting his first batch of homebrew on a whim, having cashed in his tax return for the most minimal of required gear. Six years later he is the newest head brewer at the Bluegrass Brewing Company in St. Matthews.

“I loved the DIY aspect of it,” said Dimery. “I remember recycling was every Tuesday. And I’d go out to recycling bins and that’s where I’d get my glass bottles – clean them out really well and sanitize them. But I kind of felt like Gollum or something like that.” 

Responsible for draft production of BBC standards like the American Pale Ale and Dark Star Porter, but with the freedom to introduce some new concoctions of his own, Dimery has just finished his first original for BBC, an India Pale Ale, and is drawn largely to flavors and notes on the dark side of the palate.

“I like a lot more of the darker beers,” said Dimery. “A lot of the smoked character I find very appealing.”

Far from the unlikely story it may seem, Dimery’s climb from backyard to “Breaking Bad” represents a path that is uniquely common in the ever-dynamic business of craft beer. He is but one among an increasingly intimidating wave of Louisville area beer pioneers ensuring that, while Kentucky will always be proud to be a bourbon state, artisanal brews are becoming more and more vital to the conversation.

“The thing that keeps my interest is that everything is always changing,” said Tyler Trotter, Holy Grale and Louisville Beer Store founder, who strives to bring Louisville the best of world beer. “There’s not just set styles. There are new things happening. Styles are being mixed together. There’s no rules with beer the way there is wine.”

Inspired to open Louisville Beer Store in 2009 after years of obsessive beer tourism squeezed in amid international crisscrossing as a traveling musician, Trotter expressed faith in the growing predominance of Louisville’s beer IQ.

“Pre-Prohibition there were over 50 breweries in Louisville,” said Trotter. “And I think that’s coming full circle.”

Starting with the second floor choir loft and, most recently, the backyard biergarten, complete with a grill and taps of its own, Trotter has been incrementally expanding operations at the Bardstown Road location of Holy Grale since opening day. But the announcement of Holy Grale’s forthcoming beer and breakfast is one that solidifies the location as a true one-of-a-kind.

A three-room bed and breakfast space, but with personal tap lines in every room and a cellar craft beer bottle list, the beer and breakfast is an entrepreneurial endeavor that was born of both passion and problem solving. Trotter has always had an affinity for old school European breweries, which often include some on-site lodging space, and had also found himself financially obligated to make use of the old house directly behind Holy Grale, having agreed to rent it as part of the deal to gain the expanded space for the biergarten.

The house had to be gutted down to the studs, but the project is growing ever closer to the end of more than a year of renovations. The location will also feature a first floor beer store component, deli, and artisanal coffee via Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee when it opens later this year.

Trotter never imagined his love of beer would take him this far down the rabbit hole, but was quick to speak to another oddity of craft beer culture – that the various brew operations and brewpubs in town see themselves as part of a collective movement, as opposed to in competition with one another.

“We’re all supporting craft beer so I think it’s for the greater good,” said Trotter.

“We haven’t been competitive with each other,” said Roger Baylor, owner of the New Albanian Brewing Company. “[The industry has] managed for 30 years to have the opinion that the rising tide lifts all boats. There’s always going to be the people out in the world that are self-directed to become geeks or nerds…But what’s different now is that level of knowledge has touched a lot of people who never would have thought about it before. They don’t self-identify as an expert; they just know that they like some things.”

New Albanian spearheaded the brewpub concept for this area with the opening of its Public House beer bar back in 1992. Having since commenced full-time brewing in 2002, the company now operates two New Albany locations and distributes its beer throughout the region.

“What we’re trying to be is a locally rooted model,” said Baylor. “Seven years ago, for a place in New Albany to have six or seven craft beers on tap was unheard of. And now every one of these guys is doing it.”

Baylor believes that the advancement of craft beer, rather than being self-contained, is in fact an outgrowth of a larger trend toward the pursuit of handcrafted quality and increased locality.

“Craft beer is kind of a gateway drug because it has relevance to some other things: people who are interested in their food, people who are interested in their neighborhood, people who are interested in things that are real,” said Baylor. “And I think it has to do with some measure of authenticity. And that’s why we have these theological arguments about what really is craft.”

A large part of that authenticity is having a great product. And Baylor credits the consistently high marks for New Albanian beers to the meticulous craft of his brewmaster. David Pierce has reinvented New Albanian staples like Hoptimus and Elector, along with creating a number of new brews, since coming on in 2009.

“It wouldn’t have that rating if we’d just been doing it the way we were doing it before,” said Baylor. “It was good, but it wasn’t great. And I think it’s great now.”

Perhaps the closest thing this city has to beer royalty, Pierce has been a consistent innovator since opening the now defunct Silo Brewpub on Barret Avenue in 1993. During his time at BBC, Pierce invented the first iterations of many of the BBC staples that Dimery is still working with today.

“[Pierce] goes through and keeps tweaking until it’s dialed in,” said Baylor. “And once it’s dialed in, he keeps it there. And that’s what you have to do when you’re doing what we’re doing now.”

Over the next several years, New Albanian intends to double-down on efforts to maximize current production capacity and continue to invest in its current physical locations. There have been some talks of a partnership that might lead to a country brewery in Floyds Knobs, but priority is being placed on growing the impact of the brewery proper.

“Craft beer is 10 percent nationwide; 90 percent we have to be converted,” said Baylor. “Good times ahead.”

“If you can imagine, we’re on tap at Chili’s,” said Paul Grignon, co-founder of Apocalypse Brew Works, with a laugh. “That kind of says something.”

Grignon, along with fellow co-founders Leah Dienes and Bill Krauth, celebrated the microbrewery’s first anniversary on May 11, 2013. Apocalypse has brewed 25 different recipes since opening. Boasting adventurous-sounding names like Atomic Amber, Fallout Dust, Baby Jesus, and Watermelon Crack, Apocalypse brews are also on tap at a dozen or so additional, and perhaps less surprising, locations around town, including Four Pegs, Zanzabar, and The Blind Pig, alongside a taproom at the brewery’s Mellwood Avenue location.

Located in an industrial-looking, chain-linked complex alongside a plumbing outfit run by Krauth, the bombed-out aesthetic of Apocalypse’s Fallout Shelter is one that the three are happy to embrace. The property’s parking lot, which often plays host to food trucks and live music, frequently serves as an improvised open-air party space.

“We’re close to everything and we have a space,” said Grignon. “It’s not fancy, but it’s comfortable. And people like to make it their own.”

Also hailing from the homebrew world, Dienes, Krauth, and Grignon all met as part of the Louisville LAGERS Homebrew Club, which stands for Louisville Area Grain and Extract Research Society. The three consider the DIY spirit and continued emphasis on education to be key to their efforts.

“One time I even counted that every other person in the bar was a homebrewer, that I knew,” said Grignon. “The homebrew community supports us, we support them, and if somebody wants to come in and help, or come in with an inspiration, sometimes we’re able to run it through. We’re small enough that we can do that.”

In order to meet demand, Apocalypse intends to triple its current production, moving from the current three and a half barrel system to 10 barrels. Grignon pointed out that apocalypses do not just signal the end of things, but new beginnings as well.

“Just as people’s enjoyment of craft beer rose, the inevitability of wanting to make it sort of grew with that,” said Paul Young, owner of My Old Kentucky Homebrew. “The luck of that was that from day one we had customers: people who were already brewing, people who were excited to get into brewing, people who had brewed 15 years ago and wanted to get back into it…We fell into a good situation where there were a lot of people already anxious for this kind of store.”

Operating since 2009 and having moved to a new location on Frankfort Avenue this past January, the store stocks supplies and equipment for every step of the brewing process and provides free homebrewing lessons every Wednesday evening.

“Fifty percent of what we do here is education, easy,” said Young. “I say, ‘I can’t tell people how to make good beer, because good beer is a personal decision, but I can tell people how to make unflawed beer.’”

Far from just a change in scenery, Young explained that My Old Kentucky Homebrew’s move to a larger location was for a very specific purpose.

“On the back side of the building, we will be building a brew on premise and microbrewery where folks can actually come in and brew a batch of beer,” said Young “They will brew the beer themselves. We will ferment it. They will come back and package the beer, put it in bottles, and then they will be able to take it home. This is for folks who – they want to brew their own beer, but they don’t necessarily want to be doing this all the time. They don’t want to own their own equipment, but they want the experience of learning how to do it. And we will certainly be able to bring in qualified teachers and professional brewers to walk them through every part of the process.”

But possibly even more ambitious is Young’s idea for a brew-on-demand brewery, where clients could order single batches of highly customizable brews for parties and special events. Perhaps a preview of things to come, Young recently collaborated with Dienes at Apocalypse to craft a Chocolate Banana Hefeweizen in celebration of the TV comedy “Arrested Development.” Young hopes to have both new ventures up and running by early 2014.

Whether it is public radio or performing arts, independent music or foodie fantasy land, the notion of this city excelling at something to a degree that is disproportionate to its mid-market moniker is one that has proven increasingly common. In every case, it is the accumulated passion of individuals, as opposed to some inherent “weirdness,” that has made this possible. Yet when it comes to craft beer, it seems that, more than anything, this passion is being expressed as a conversation. And this dialogue – among brewers, DIY home brewers, shop owners, seasoned craft beer zealots, and the newly initiated – is what is really at the heart of the wellspring of handcrafted creativity.

Whether it be BBC, New Albanian, Apocalypse, Louisville Beer Store, Holy Grale, or My Old Kentucky Homebrew, or even others like Cumberland Brewery, Falls City Beer, Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, and Sergio’s World Beers, each of them is not only happy to have the others around, but acknowledges that the scene is made more robust by their presence. Because of this attitude, it is easy to understand just what is keeping this entire beer explosion going.

“After we planned our first Brewfest [in 2009] for 500 people coming, and ended up with 1,500, our saying around LIBA is that ‘Beer is a magical thing,’” said Jennifer Rubenstein of the Louisville Independent Business Alliance.

Not OK, good, or great, but magical. Beer is magical.

Special thanks to John Wurth of

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