Historical Beer: Kentucky Common


Overall Impression
A darker-colored, light-flavored, malt-accented beer with a dry finish and interesting character malt flavors. Refreshing due to its high carbonation and mild flavors, and highly sessionable due to being served very fresh and with restrained alcohol levels.

Modern characterizations of the style often mention a lactic sourness or sour mashing, but extensive brewing records from the larger breweries at the turn of the century have no indication of long acid rests, sour mashing, or extensive conditioning. This is likely a modern homebrewer invention, based on the supposition that since indigenous Bourbon distillers used a sour mash, beer brewers must also have used this process. No contemporaneous records indicate sour mashing or that the beer had a sour profile; rather the opposite, that the beer was brewed as an inexpensive, present-use ale.

A true American original style, Kentucky Common was almost exclusively produced and sold around the Louisville Kentucky metropolitan area from some time after the Civil War up to Prohibition. Its hallmark was that it was inexpensive and quickly produced, typically 6 to 8 days from mash to delivery. The beer was racked into barrels while actively fermenting (1.020 – 1.022) and tightly bunged to allow carbonation in the saloon cellar. There is some speculation that it was a variant of the lighter common or cream ale produced throughout much of the East prior to the Civil War and that the darker grains were added by the mostly Germanic brewers to help acidify the typical carbonate water of the Louisville area, or that they had a preference for darker colored beers. Up until the late 19th century, Kentucky Common was not brewed in the summer months unless cellars, usually used for malting, were used for fermentation. With the advent of ice machines, the larger breweries were able to brew year round. In the period from 1900 to prohibition, about 75% of the beer sold in the Louisville area was Kentucky Common. With prohibition, the style died completely as the few larger breweries that survived were almost exclusively lager producers.
Six-row barley malt was used with 35% corn grits to dilute the excessive protein levels along with 1 to 2% each caramel and black malt. Native American hops, usually about .2 pounds per barrel of Western hops for bittering and a similar amount of New York hops (such as Clusters) for flavor (15 minutes prior to knock out). Imported continental Saazer-type hops (.1 pounds per barrel) were added at knock out for aroma. Water in the Louisville area was typically moderate to high in carbonates. Mash water was often pre-boiled to precipitate the carbonate and Gypsum was commonly added. Considering the time from mash in to kegging for delivery was typically 6 to 8 days, clearly aggressive top-fermenting yeasts was used.
Commercial Examples
Apocalypse Brew Works Ortel’s 1912