Note: This story originally appeared in Issue #76 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. It is republished here without the brilliant editing that BA Mag gives me every month, so please excuse any typos or silly mistakes.
For anybody that still needs proof that beer brings people together, head to Lexington, Kentucky and sit down at Country Boy Brewing’s bar. Grab a pint poured from one of their 24 taps. Chat with your neighbor, ask them what it’s like to be into craft beer in Lexington (here’s a hint: it’s good, and getting better all the time).
Then know that this is not the result of a single man’s dream. Understand that the beer you’re drinking was not crafted within a narrow sphere of influence, but that its roots span the globe. Finally, you can recognize that that same global product is making a major local impact.
Just a few years ago, Lexington did not have much of a beer scene.
“We were a craft beer wasteland for the last 10 or 15 years,” says Country Boy co-owner Daniel Harrison. “There was a place here in the 90s that tried to make a go of it – they were a big brewpub. The south is a quirky place, man. Good beer is hard to do here because most people here are not into craft beer. The things they have out in the Northwest and California – that’s not here.
“Mark Twain said when the world ends he wanted to be in Kentucky, because everything happens here 10 years later, and he’s right.”
But Harrison figured that the reason Lexington wasn’t a haven for craft beer had more to do with the fact that it had relatively few options. So he, as well as partners Evan Coppage and Jeff Beagle, decided to do something about that.
The city known for its nearby distilleries and thoroughbred farms already had Kentucky Ale – a relatively large brewer focuses its flagship, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, but little else. Harrison, Coppage and Beagle felt like it was time for something new.
“We wanted to be the experimental, small place,” Harrison said. “We all started as home brewers. We wanted to be a more experimental place.”
And as they started down the path toward creating a craft beer scene in Lexington, others quickly joined them. Around the same time Country Boy opened – February, 2012 – so too did places like Lexington Beerworks, a craft beer bar that doubles as a bottle shop and homebrew supply store, and West Sixth Brewing Company, a community- and environmentally-conscious brewery nearby.
“All these places were opening within give months of each other,” says Harrison, “and it’s helped create a craft beer renaissance here in Lexington, and it’s just been amazing.”
From Numazu to Lexington
Even to an outsider like Chris Poel, the scene in Country Boy’s taproom seemed remarkable.
“I’ve just been blown away just the two nights I’ve been here – it’s just been wild,” says Poel. “It’s packed with people and all different kinds of people. Different ages, young men, young women, old guys that look like they’re on their last beer – it’s wild. We really don’t have anything like that in Japan, yet. A good night for us and a good night for them here – there are two different levels.”
Poel, the lead brewer at Numazu, Japan’s Baird Brewing Company and a Michigan native, was back in the U.S. to brew with the folks at Country Boy.
On the surface, it seems strange for the two breweries from different continents to work together. But dig a little deeper, and the connections become apparent.
Harrison, known as “DH” to his friends – and everybody he meets is his friend – spent three years in Japan after college. With essentially no beer culture in his home town, it was in Japan that he fell in love with beer.
“I’ve never experienced meeting a brewer, drinking fresh beer in site and being infected by the passion this guy had,” says Harrison about the first time he met Baird Brewing founder Bryan Baird. “Anybody who knows Bryan – he infects you with the passion he has. So we said we can make a go of this brewery thing in Lexington.”
Upon his return, Harrison teamed up with Coppage and Coppage’s brother on an immense home brewing operation. What started as a passion quickly mophed into an obsession.
The self-described country boys had an eight-tap keezer in their basement, and they kept it full by brewing as much as possible.
“We started balls-to-the-wall a huge homebrew system in our back yard,” says Coppage. “We’d brew 20-gallon batches, sometimes 40 gallons in a day. We actually brewed more than our legal limit in our first year… we brewed like 370 gallons our first year.”
But opening a brewery was still just a dream – something they kicked around with friends over pints on a brew day. Until Beagle, a fellow member of the homebrew club BOCK (Brewers of Central Kentucky), finally gave them the kick in the ass they needed.
“He was like ‘Hey, if we’re going to do this – let’s quit talking about it,’” says Harrison. “’Let’s do it.’ If we hadn’t met him we’d probably still be in the back yard. It’s kind of like the right people in the right place. Lexington was just dying for a craft brewery.”
As They Like It
Poel and Country Boy collaborated to brew Angry Amos – essentially an imperialized mashup of Baird’s Angry Boy and Country Boy’s Amos Moses. A lot of the details were fluid, but Baird did send along one specific request from Japan for the beer destined for aging in bourbon barrels.
“My boss, Bryan, said, ‘If you’re going to do Bourbon, get some Maker’s Mark barrels,’” Poel said. “Originally, Evan and people here said we can’t do that, Makers sends all their barrels overseas, we can’t get them. Two days later, DH said ‘I made some calls and we’ve got Maker’s barrels.’”
Lexington is in the heart of bourbon country – a source of great pride for Kentuckians – and the barrel-aging program has certain enviable qualities that brewers in beer Meccas like San Diego or Portland (either one) could only dream about.
“Breweries around the country cry trying to get the barrels we get here. We’re swimming in barrels,” says Harrison. “They’re not a rarity here. The fact that we can get different bourbons with different flavors on them plays a lot into our process of barrel aging.”
That availability allows Country Boy to brew a rye beer, then age it in Sazerac Rye bourbon barrels. Basically, Country Boy gets to brew the beer they like, then do whatever they want with it after it’s done – which is just the way they want it.
“We like to make beer that we like to drink,” says Coppage. “We don’t brew anything to style. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not our approach. We brew things that we imagine in our head how we want it to be.”
That includes beers like the wildly popular Jalapeno Smoked Porter – made with 20 pounds of freshly chopped and de-seeded jalapenos, or Shotgun Wedding, a Vanilla Brown Ale aged on whole vanilla beans.
The Country Boys, though they gladly pay homage to those who inspired them, proudly do their own thing. And as they go their own way, an entire community is starting to go along with them.