At first glance, it seems like Kentucky Common should already be Kentucky’s official beer style. After all, the sessionable dark ale from Louisville checks all the important boxes: It’s local, delicious, historically important, and riding a wave of newfound notoriety. But before it can officially claim that title, there are a few obstacles in its path.
Those barriers don’t seem to phase Michael Moeller, who launched an online petition this summer asking the public for support in naming Kentucky Common the official state beer — a request he says he has also sent to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.
“Kentucky Common is an indigenous beer style to the United States,” Moeller says. “I think that’s a big deal and it should be celebrated.”
For Moeller, the push for recognition is about more than this style alone. “I just want Kentucky to embrace beer in a way that it hasn’t really embraced it before,” he says. Kentucky Common’s historical importance echoes the growing importance of breweries in the state today — something he knows well, thanks to his day job at the Louisville Ale Trail.
“Not only has Kentucky and Louisville had a rich history in the beer industry, with a lot of impact on it pre-Prohibition,” he says, “but now we’re at a place where we are growing exponentially and we’re worth checking out.”
“[Kentucky Common] is the beer we are known for. We have customers that only drink this beer.”
A Return to Style
Similar to a cream ale, but with an unusual dark appearance, Kentucky Common was once the preeminent type of beer brewed in Louisville, said to account for some 75 percent of local production before it was killed off by Prohibition, starting in 1920. Although not brewed commercially for the next 80 years or more, the style has recently seen a resurgence, both in Kentucky and elsewhere, with the Brewers Association including Kentucky Common in its influential Beer Style Guidelines for the first time early this year — another good reason, Moeller notes, to make it Kentucky’s official beer.
Chris Swersey, the Brewers Association’s competition director, says that the listing this spring came after seeing more and more examples of Kentucky Common entered in the “Historical Beer” category at the Great American Beer Festival over the last few years. The guidelines define the strength, color, flavors, aromas and other qualities of a traditional Kentucky Common, for both brewers and judges.
“The style is refreshing, flavorful, and delivers a unique experience,” he says. “Kentucky Common is one of a very small number of uniquely American, original classic beer styles that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.”
Swersey cites cream ale and California Common as two other historical beer styles that similarly originated in the U.S.
While their histories and backstories are clearly interesting, Leah Dienes, head brewer at Apocalypse Brew Works in Louisville, thinks that beers like Kentucky Common are worth brewing simply because of how they taste.
“The fact that they fell out of favor due to new style trends doesn’t take away how good they were to drink,” Dienes says. “There’s a lightness of body, but interesting depth of character, malt flavors, and the dry finish gives it drinkability. We should care about these historic styles because they were tasty beers.”
Delicious, local and historic they may be, but such beers can also be adjusted to modern preferences — and enjoyed just about anywhere. At Factotum Brewhouse in Denver, owner Laura Bruns Bresnahan says that her brewery’s Kentucky Common is akin to an “imperial” version of the style, offering 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) instead of the traditional beer’s 4 to 5.5 percent ABV.
“Our version is a little customized,” she says. “However, ours does drink like a 5-percenter, so I always like to tell people it will sneak up on them. Overall, it is the beer we are known for. We have customers that only drink this beer.”
Barriers to Entry
At this point, it probably seems obvious: Yes, Kentucky Common should definitely be the Official Beer of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. But in order to get there, Moeller and other fans of the style will have to jump through a few flaming hoops.
In Kentucky, that starts with “bourbonism,” Moeller notes — the thinking that bourbon is, by far, the most important beverage for the Bluegrass State, and thus keeping a kind of prejudice and preference for it above all other drinks.“It’s touting, ‘Hey, listen, we have so many distilleries and it’s great,’” Moeller says. “Yes, absolutely. But also look at this other beverage industry that’s exploding right now.”
“Bourbonism” in Kentucky is more than an idea, however. Or to put it another way: Why should the state promote an obscure local beer style and an industry that brought in $870 million in 2019, when the Kentucky Distillers Association can point out that bourbon is worth $8.6 billion annually to Kentucky, accounting for some 20,100 local jobs?
A second issue, if a minor one: Kentucky Common would have to be a trailblazer. As for what reasons we cannot possibly imagine beyond the ubiquity of cruel injustice, no state has named an official beer.
California Common might be historically important, but it is not yet the official beer of the state of California. Despite widespread love for Genesee, cream ale is not the official beer style of New York; and Vermont has not yet claimed New England IPA. As a marketing stunt, Budweiser ran a campaign to be named the state beer of Utah in 2020, but even that didn’t stick.
There are no official state beers. That’s probably because the beer industry doesn’t quite have the pull — and lobbying muscle — of the dairy industry. Kentucky might love its whiskey, but milk is the official state drink, as it is in at least 20 other states. Kentucky is one of a few states with a backup beverage, however, even if it is nonalcoholic: Regional favorite Ale-8-One was named the official “original soft drink” of Kentucky in 2013.
That official declaration for a cult citrus-and-ginger soda shows the uphill battle faced by the fans of Kentucky Common. While Moeller launched his online petition and requested that Gov. Beshear make Kentucky Common the state’s official beer through an executive order, most state beverages have been declared by various state legislatures. As such, the path to victory seems to run straight through the Kentucky General Assembly.
In a statement to VinePair, the Kentucky Governor’s Office said: “All of the state symbols and similar designations are in KRS [Kentucky Revised Statutes] Chapter 2 and the General Assembly would need to take legislative action to declare a state beer style.”
That doesn’t mean that Moeller is tilting at windmills. To start, if enough people sign the online petition, Kentucky’s state legislators are likely to pay attention. And in any case, the movement has a good chance to elevate the status of craft breweries in Kentucky.
“I don’t think that we want to pick a fight with bourbon. I’m not trying to do that,” Moeller says. “At the end of the day, my other goal is, ‘All right, maybe we don’t get to name an official state beer of Kentucky, and maybe it’s not Kentucky Common, but at least we had a conversation around it.’ At least now there are state officials that are like, ‘Oh, I had no idea that that our number of breweries had tripled in five years.’”