Craft beer in Kentucky has endured a rather fitful history. When microbrewing began to see its first serious national momentum in the early to mid-‘90s, Louisville and Lexington saw some of that action too, mostly in the form of brewpubs. Yet craft beer failed to take a strong hold in the state’s two biggest cities. The only major survivor of that era is the split-off, microbrewery wing of Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Company, now known as Goodwood.
But even as that initial wave of Kentucky craft brewing ground to a halt, the initial stirrings of rejuvenation came about. Animal feed giant Alltech bought and began revamping Lexington Brewing Company in 1999, which led to the introduction of its famous Bourbon Barrel Ale in 2006. Louisville’s Cumberland Brews opened shop in the popular Highlands district in 2000. Even so, craft beer was by and large moribund in the Bluegrass state for more than a decade.
Or so it was until five years ago, when craft brewing in Kentucky began showing serious signs of life again, and now that scene is exploding. Small breweries with tap rooms have sprung up all over the state, and Lexington and Louisville each have several to choose from. However, if you want to sample Kentucky’s craft brews from afar or take some back with you, what you want are outfits that do bottles and cans. In that case, these are the five to look out for.
Photo via Against the Grain
If you are a serious beer geek, you likely have already heard of Against The Grain, whose beers are prized both for their quality and their signature irreverent labeling (just try drinking a can of The Brown Note while looking at the comic on it; I dare you). You can find Against The Grain’s brewpub in downtown Louisville, but you don’t even need to come to Kentucky to get their tallboys and bottles, since they distribute in most states and even internationally. That is, assuming, you can find it, because those cans and bottles are highly sought after. Rather than have a standing line of beers, Against The Grain is always tinkering within certain categories, turning out myriad releases. Even so, some offerings, like their hoppy Citra Ass Down IPA, come back again and again.
Photo via Alltech
Whereas the other four entries on this list focus mostly or entirely on cans (Against The Grain produces some brews in 750 ml bottles), the makers of Kentucky Ale are all about longneck bottles. What is more, their size (Lexington Brewing is almost a mid-sized brewery) means that, after Against The Grain, this is the company that is the most likely to put something interesting and experimental outside the taproom, especially when it comes to barrel-aged beer. Lately they have been playing with fruit in some of their offerings, like their Bourbon Blackberry Porter, and in the barrel-aged department expect to see a Bourbon Barrel Cream Ale, Rye Barrel Ale with extended aging. While you can pick up Kentucky Ale all over the country, you should make a trip to the brewery, which has a sister distillery component (Town Branch Distillery). Together, it’s a hell of a tour in a stunning, state of the art distillery and brewery.
Photo via Country Boy
A lot of microbreweries in Kentucky aim their products at a more traditional set of urbanized palates, Country Boy is very much what their name implies. That is not to say that they don’t have some beer for the city slicker beer snobs: no, they have plenty of such offerings, like their creamy, vanilla sweet brown ale dubbed Shotgun Wedding. However, their flagship brew is Cougar Bait, a blonde ale tailor-made for the tailgating crowd. It’s light, but a bit earthy too, and it’s not hard to imagine coolers full of Cougar Bait cans in the parking lot at the next UK vs. U of L football game. Country Boy has a fairly understated brewery in Lexington, though it does manage to pull some tasty food trucks, particularly during Kentucky basketball games.
Photo via Great Flood
Great Flood sits in a building that served as a supply base and refuge for victims of the Great Flood of Louisville in 1937. They opened in 2014 and has quickly succeeded, propelled by passionate local support at their taproom. Great Flood has expanded rapidly, and opened their new brewery with canning line in January 2017. “We accomplished our 10-year plan in three years,” says co-founder Vince Cain. The founders of the brewery are basically living the recent college grad’s dream: three guys who broke out of their entry-level office jobs to start a successful go at making beer for a living. Having just gotten into canning, their line consists of just two brews so far: their Find A Way IPA and their slightly smoky, yummy Toasted Brown Ale. Show up to their brewery, and you’ll have a broader selection which leans heavily on the IPA.
Photo via West Sixth/Facebook
Along with Country Boy, West Sixth is one of the oldest craft breweries in Lexington, which is interesting because they’re set to celebrate their fifth anniversary is coming in April. (Like we said earlier, it took a while for craft beer to take hold in Kentucky.) While West Sixth is the place in Lexington to check out what the firkin-aged brew of the week is, they have some real winners in their regular and seasonal line up of cans, particularly when it comes to their IPAs. “Our [flagship] IPA is the best-selling IPA in the state,” says co-founder Ben Self. And their seasonal Pennyrile IPA is just as good. You can take a tour of West Sixth’s main brewery, or you can head straight to their Greenroom, a nano-brewery that pumps out specialty beers on a small scale just for the onsite taproom.