Who doesn’t like a beer vacation? While in Lexington, Kentucky discussing the learning and writing of college-age humans, I had the chance to engage in that other college-age activity most students don’t actually do very well, serious beer drinking. So let me teach you a thing or two about Lexington’s offerings in craft beer—
After a lecture about, weirdly enough, beer—“Obsession as a key term, with beer, but also with sharing the experience . . .a focus that’s fragmentary and shared. . .excited over the mundane, the common, and the ordinary” (author and academic Jeff Rice discussing his obsession with visiting national craft breweries, young daughter in tow)—I headed to Lexington’s own West6th. Of the three breweries I visited, West 6th is the only one who bottles—and so the only one you have a chance of purchasing. Don’t ask me where—my advice is to go to Lexington for a weekend, there is plenty there.
|Lemongrass American Wheat|
I tried four beers: Deliberation, West 6th IPA, Lemongrass American Wheat, and Bogan Walkabout ISA. The Deliberation is a simple amber, good enough. The IPA was a little more exciting, and I tasted more than a passing similarity to Bells’ Two-Hearted (blame it on the centennial hops and the identical ABV). West 6th’s IPA also enjoys the presence of Cascade hops, which dries the flavor of the toasted malts as you drink. Solid IPA.
A more unusual combination was the Lemongrass American Wheat, which I really enjoyed. The lemongrass and some sugar hit you first sip, then the wheat and lemon fruit in the middle, followed by a light hop quality at the end. This is a summer beer to be sure, a shandy without all that annoying non-beer liquid in your glass. It went extremely well with the fish and chips I was enjoying at the brewery.
My preferred beer of the night was the Bogan’s Walkabout ISA (India-style Session Ale, if you wondered. . . honestly, I’m not a fan of the label. Seems silly.) APA would be a fine descriptor, even though there was a lot of tropical fruit. My first thought was guava, but then I realized I was tasting more of a un-sticky watermelon flavor—after looking it up, I realized it was Galaxy hops that I was tasting, and smelling: the nose was clean, refreshing, and singular in a way I like to label “Hopfruit.” Combined with a >5% ABV, and I could drink this one all day.
While I truly enjoyed the established West 6th, I started getting excited about the Lexington beer scene at Blue Stallion, which specializes in German-style lagers and British ales. To make myself clear, everything I had at this brewery was great. Delicious. Drinkable. And unerringly German—this brewery has the markings of a great craft brewer in that they definitely have found their own style, even if it is ‘borrowed’ from west-central Europe. (Honestly, I didn’t taste the British influence so much, and the best beers here were German-style.) Blue Stallion made me wish for higher tolerance, or at least a purpose in Lexington that did not require getting up at the crack of dawn the next morning. . .
|Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maibock|
So first was their Bourbon Barrel-aged Maibock, a collaboration with the widely distributed and Chicago-available Kentucky Brewing. It started with a vanilla bourbon sweetness and a full-on maibock richness. There was less oak than I expected, but detectable (aged two months). The aroma was of whisky and water with light ice, half melted. Truly, it smelled heavenly. My mouth watered when I sniffed it. So I ran out the food truck parked outside—The Gastro Gnome—and ordered a beer battered fish sandwich with pickled green tomatoes and green pea aioli on Texas toast. It was amazing. I sighed out loud eating this sandwich and drinking this beer, both of which were going down a little too fast—the maibock was really easy drinking for 10%. It had a medium carbonation, more than I expected for the style. The immediate richness of the beer thinned out in the middle as the whisky flavor faded, was replaced by hops, and then by just the light flavor of the ice left in your glass after a fine bourbon. I ordered too big a glass, and asked the bartender to clear it with at least 5 oz. left—I wanted to try more brews after this one, and finishing my 12oz. pour would have meant heading home.
Next was a Black Smoked Lager—lots of smoke, but totally drinkable. It did get a little too watery in the end—this was not the ice you suck after a fine whisky, but the melted ice you suck out of the glass after the waitress has dropped the check and forgotten about you. But it was in the middle of this beer that I fell in love with the bartender at Blue Stallion. A group of new drinkers walked in and began to make a big production of their order, since really, there is no way to keep an 8-beer order at a craft brewery simple . . .one poor girl, unthinkingly, turned to the bartender and asked her—“What’s good here?” Not missing a beat and smiling kindly the whole time, she handed the new drinker the beer menu: “Here’s a list of everything that’s good here.” She wasn’t fooling.
My next beer was the Schwarzbier, and it needs no other descriptors than good, solid, drinkable. This beer did everything a schwarzbier is supposed to do, and honestly I feel like “It’s good Schwarz. Drink it” pretty much sums up what you need to know. But if you want more, I can offer that it was lighter than a lot of American Schwarz I’ve tasted—there wasn’t any coffee or mud in this one, it was pure lager. It had a light floral aroma mixed with yeast, and was crisp as a cracker.
The winner of the night was actually the Helles. Yes, the Helles. I do not kid when I tell you it was perfect. It was light, a little floral yeast and mineral water in the nose, crisp and quenching as it went down—this Helles was even more Helles than the Schwarz was Schwarz. These folks should write the style guide for German Lagers. I could drink Blue Stallion Helles all morning and afternoon, and was all smiles when my favorite bartender told me they are planning on bottling their product in another year. Keep your eyes open.
The final brewery visited was Country Boy Brewing, which I enjoyed so much Wednesday that I went back Thursday. The atmosphere in this place is fantastic—the bar was all 50-60 year-old men spinning lies when I walked in, and 30-40 year old couples and cliques when I left. I felt like I was back in high school sitting in a friend’s garage, or maybe listening to music on the hood of a car, nodding my head in rhythm like that goofy chick from “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
My first beer was the Peckerhead Wheat IPA, because it was named Peckerhead. The guy next to me did not know that a peckerhead is a type of morel, so clearly not everyone in the bar was from Kentucky, although judging from the steady stream of folks getting growlers filled, the locale is a local fave.
The Peckerhead was all flowers and bread and grass in the nose, and the hops hit you hard and fast on the first sip. The beer dried out quickly, although a little pine resin spread across my tongue as the beer disappears down my throat. This is coupled with a light caramel through the gulp that I didn’t expect from the aroma. It adds a richness without sweetness that is especially pleasing. A yummy beer, but not special. Just solid. The Gastro Gnomes were parked outside (they followed me!) so I grabbed another fish sandwich, which I learned was actually battered with Cougar Bait, Country Boy’s Blonde Ale.
My next beer was the winner of the night, the Ghost Gose—A Gose? In Kentucky? Hell yeah! Ringing in at a featherweight 4%, this little guy had plenty of flavor with a little funk. A plain nose hid the lemon-chiffon flavor that stretched throughout the gulp. This was a simple, subtle beer, true to style and straightforward in presentation. I had more than one. The brewery also had Bell’s Oarsman on draft, which I thought was odd—the beers are very similar, as one might imagine. That having been said, I think I’d rather drink the Ghost (and I love Oarsman, there’s two 6-packs in my fridge right now).
Nacho Bait was a blonde Ale (remember mention of Cougar Bait?) with jalapeño and habanero added. The flavor was a traditional American Blonde at first followed quickly by jalapeño flesh and habanero heat. Lots of heat! I couldn’t drink it all day, but if I’d had a plate of tacos in front of me some serious damage would have been done. This might be the first spicy beer I have had that I truly liked and fully enjoyed.
Finally was Shotgun Wedding, a brown ale at 6%. The nose was ALL vanilla syrup, with lots of vanilla extract on the tongue. It was sweet but not cloying, with a little sarsaparilla, and a little caramel. It is here that I realized two things—if I lived in Lexington, Kentucky I’d drink at Country Boy every night. There’s road signs on the walls and gose on tap, clearly these folks knew me. They understand me. I also realized I’d had enough for the night, and headed home for that 6am wake-up.
The next night I headed straight for Country Boy once again. My first selection was Country Western, a 9% American Brown made in collaboration with West 6th. The nose was a flat cola. It started with vanilla and sarsaparilla with a little something in the middle that seemed misplaced. It dried out in the end with a nice woodsy licorice bark that got a little tannin under the tongue. After a few sips I realized the misplaced flavor was butter—damn you, diecetyl! A quick chat with the guy next to me revealed that the diecetyl wasn’t there when Country Western was first released, but I wasn’t the first person to notice it since. Happens.
Next was Papaw’s Red, an American Strong Ale aged in PAPPY VAN WINKLE barrels. I don’t really need to say more, do I? It was delicious. I’ve been torn trying to decide whether or not good whisky makes a better barrel-aged beer than a mediocre one. Papaw’s revealed the truth: YES. The whisky shined in this beer, and my inner beer-geek voice whispered “good”. I have no critique for this beer. The red ale balanced caramel malts and subtle hops deliciously, and stood up well to the dominant oakvanillamarshmellowrum of the whisky barrel. It was smooth, velveteen sweetness that felt like it was melting in my mouth. This beer was heavenly, and one of the best barrel-aged Strong Ales I’ve had (and I’ve had plenty). It alone is worth the trip to Lexington, where there is plenty of it! I had more beers after this one, but my notes are all illegible. It was my last night in town.
So tip your glass, folks! While there is enough delicious going on in Chicago for any beer drinker, Lexington offers a change of pace, and is a quick four hour drive. All the breweries are an easy, easy walk from downtown, and there are several bars with beer lists that would make any Chicago joint pale with envy. You aren’t going to find these great brews anywhere else, so hit the Bluegrass for your next beer vacation.