If you’ve ever tasted a barrel-aged beer before, there’s a great chance you’ve tried one of the many offerings of Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. Not long ago I took a roadtrip to Lexington, KY and made sure to visit the biggest brewery in the area. Touring the production facility, I was blown away by their state-of-the-art bottling line and their many, many bourbon barrels: some filled with beer while others were filled with spirits. I was led on this tour by Technical Director Mark Phipps, who is also a Master Brewer with more than 40 years of brewing and distilling experience under his belt.
After the tour, we discussed their barrel-aged beers, the history and expansion plans of their brewery, the creation of a “brew-stillery,” and preview the upcoming Kentucky Ale Brew-Off in my interview.
How did you get your start in the alcohol industry?
– “It’s kind of a kismet thing: I was in the right place at the right time. I started at the University of Cincinnati, back in 1973. I ended up sitting in class next to a guy who worked for the Schoenling Brewing Company, in Cincinnati. He was in charge of their weekend clean-up crew and asked me if I wanted a job. Over the next couple of years, I ended up becoming one of the crew bosses and Ed Schoenling– who was one of the founders of Schoenling Brewing Company — particularly liked me and my friend, who got me the job. When I was a senior at UC, planning on going on to graduate school to do something in environmental health, he asked me what I was going to do with my Biochemistry degree. The EPA was right across the street from my campus and I thought that was possibly a good place to go work. He said, ‘You’re going to work for OSHA. I want you to work for me. My brewmaster’s going to retire in a few years. I want you to be the next brewmaster.’ I had about 30 seconds to figure it out. He sent me to Brewing School, in Chicago, for my Masters Degree. That’s where I met Ken Lee. Ken and I went to brewing school and graduated together but we worked for different breweries. He was at Wiedemann in Northern Kentucky.”
What’s the history of the brewery? Did Alltech purchase the Lexington Brewing Company?
– “Yeah. I was here, that happened at the end of 1999. Dr. Lyons was helping his son, Mark, get through his Masters degree program in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University, over in Scotland, the same as Dr. Lyons. He was kind of following his dad’s footsteps. So, he needed a brewing project and Dr. Lyons was looking for something locally and called up the guy who owned the Lexington Brewing Company, who was about to close the brewery at the end of that week. They were going belly up. He came down, got a tour, talked to the guy and by the end of that week, Dr. Lyons owned the Lexington Brewing Company.”
“Originally, Alltech actually started out in brewing and distilling sciences and then moved into the animal-nutrition stuff, but the roots of the company were in alcohol production. I would say we sold 70 percent of the North American distiller’s yeast to Canada and the U.S. and Mexico and Central America. It was supplied through us. I was here for that, so I can attest for that. Now, we cover all aspects of fermentation. Probably, in the beginning, all we did was drink up all of our product. I actually brewed up the first Kentucky Ale. We had to come up with the beer that Dr. Lyons prescribed us to make.”
What was the first beer brewed by Alltech?
– “Kentucky Ale is the first beer that we brewed, here, in Lexington. Matter of fact, I was privileged to be the first guy to make this. Dr. Lyons wanted a cross between an English Pale Ale and an Irish red. The only difference between that beer and the Bourbon Barrel Ale is six weeks in a bourbon barrel. Kentucky Ale is aged for a six weeks minimum, sometimes up to eight. That beer is then packaged off as Bourbon Barrel Ale.”
Is Bourbon Barrel Ale your flagship?
– “It’s now our flagship. It’s the one that we’re famous for.”
Was your brewery one of the first to offer barrel-aged beers?
– “Yeah, I would say we were. We started it before it became popular. We started brewing in 2000 and we were making bourbon-barrel ale by 2004. So, that’s 11 years ago. I would say the barrel-aging phenomenon has happened only within the last five years. Honestly, there are a lot of people who want to be able to do what we do. I taste every barrel-aged beer that comes out on the market, just to see what’s happening. They aren’t doing what we’re doing.”
What kind of beer trends are you noticing in Kentucky?
– “Kentucky is pretty representative of the beer trends of rest of the nation. Nationwide, trends are moving toward lighter beers.”
What’s your perspective of the craft-beer industry?
– “I’ve been brewing for a long time and I grew up in an era when a lot of breweries competed with Anheuser-Busch and everyone else. A lot of people can take as many stabs as they want at the big brewers, but to make a light, clean lager and make it consistently, is not an easy thing to do. I’ve always told people, ‘Budweiser is probably one of the most technically perfect beers.’ It’s certainly not my favorite beer, but it’s consistent and clean, all the time. It doesn’t have bacterial issues or defects that a brewer would quickly sniff out.”
“My take on the whole craft-beer industry is that the rise of ales and especially IPAs was largely because ales are easier to brew. You can have them into and out of the tank in two weeks. The sins of not doing fermentation right can easily be covered up by lots of hops. That is my background theory on why IPAs became so popular. Now, people are starting to get more interested in the sophistication level of beers. I’m not saying going lighter is necessarily the way to go, but it is a fact that it’s much harder to make pilsners, lagers and lighter beers and have them be clean and true to form. Those kind of beers take a lot more attention from the brewer and they take about six weeks to make. From a brewer’s standpoint, sophistication levels of beers are going up. Now you’re seeing the small craft brewers starting to get interested in making the more difficult beers. Ironically, the more difficult beers are the lighter beers.”
Do you foresee ever having to make your brewery’s stout as a seasonal?
– “No, because our coffee stout is our brewmaster’s form of getting his coffee every day. I don’t think he’s going to stop making that beer. As long as it continues to show good sales in the marketplace, we’re going to continue to make it year round. Right now, it does. Our stout is a pretty consistent seller for us.”
What is your current seasonal beer?
– “The seasonal that we’re running right now is our Rye Barrel IPA. We brewed this ale with a 30 percent rye formula and we aged it in rye-whiskey barrels. It definitely has a different characteristic than our bourbon-barrel ales. When we put IPAs in barrels before, it’s kind of robbed some of the hop character. This time, we dry-hopped the beer in the barrels.”
What’s you pumpkin-beer perspective?
– “Many of them are just typical ales brewed with a lot of pumpkin spice, and then they hit you in the face with cinnamon or a spice that just nails you. Our goal, when we made the Pumpkin Barrel Ale, was to take advantage of the fact that we were barrel aging it. So, we were giving it a characteristic that other people weren’t going to get, anyway. But we also wanted the pumpkin to come through as something subtle, almost as an aftertaste. That’s what I’m really proud of. It doesn’t slam you in the face with cinnamon or nutmeg. It’s actually subtly giving you a really nice ale-based with a good barrel-aged quality and 10% alcohol. What comes through the aftertaste and the mouthfeel is a pumpkin spice that I call, ‘Breathes through the beer.’ You don’t know you’re tasting a pumpkin beer until you swallow it.”
Do you use actual pumpkins in your Pumpkin Barrel Ale?
– “Yes. Actually, we got tricky. We use pumpkin butter in the brewing formula. We found a local person who was making this amazing pumpkin butter. That was the base. We tested that to make sure it was fermentable. It gave us such a nice characteristic. The huge difference between ours and other people’s beer is the spice comes through after the barrel-aging comes through. We wanted have something to represent who we are. And who we are, I think, are the barrel-aging experts of the brewing industry.”
How would you describe the Lexington craft-beer scene?
– “Overall, Kentucky has grown in a spotty way. Only because of distance, Louisville hasn’t been that close to us, but we’ve been in pretty close contact with people from Against the Grain, BBC and breweries like that. But around here, the craft-beer industry has grown. It’s good for all of us. We don’t look at it like we’re fostering another competitor. We look at it like we’re growing the craft-beer industry. Because Dr. Lyons created the atmosphere of helping other people, we were the first ones to host a beer festival where all the brewers of Kentucky were invited. All, but one, came to our first craft-beer festival. It was awesome. We leveled the playing field by creating a separate booth for everybody to distribute their beer and everybody looked the same. The only difference was the beer. They weren’t judged by their marketing. I think we’ve continued to grow the community. I would like to think of Alltech as a mentor to the others.”
There’s lots of developments for the brewery. Can you tell me about them?
– “We’re putting in two new brewhouses, here in Lexington. One is really designed for our tour system. It’s designed to do smaller brews, about 30 hectoliters per batch. That gives us more flexibility to do smaller brews of different types of beers and we have the option to make whiskey on that system, too. That’s a unique brewhouse system that we’re calling our ‘brew-stillery.’ The second brewhouse will be twice the size of the other one. It’s going to have the capability of more than 100,000 barrels of production per year. When we add the two together, by the end of 2015, we’ll have 140,000 barrels of capacity. So, we’re pretty excited about it and we’re able, then, to keep our product stream going as smoothly as possible and as streamlined as possible, without losing our diversity of products.”
When does construction start and when do you expect it to end?
– “Construction’s already started at the other site. We’re actually building a building over the one we already have. We have a new brewhouse already ordered from Germany, that’s coming in as a kit. Within two months after that, this one’s going to be installed, here. Everything’s going to happen within June and October, this year. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I heard Alltech is also building a new brewery in Eastern Kentucky, as well.
– “We’re building another 25 hectoliter system that makes beer, bourbon whiskey and moonshine at that facility, down in Pikeville — home of the Hatfields and McCoys. The distillery’s going to be called Dueling Barrels. That brewhouse is about the same size as our Cross Street facility, where our tour system is. We’re partnering with the state of Kentucky and local Pikeville municipality for that project and we’re excited the whole thing is coming together, creating jobs in Eastern Kentucky and creating visitor awareness to that area. It’s probably scheduled to open in the Spring of 2016.”
Many Nashville breweries are canning their craft beer. Is your beer available in cans?
– “We experimented with cans about a year and a half ago, but we decided to enter the canned market in a different way. Now, we’re looking at doing cans, again. Probably by June, you’ll see cans coming out.”
Can you tell me a little about the Alltech Brewing and Distilling Academy?
– “We’ve designed this particular lab, so that it’s a teaching lab. Everything about this lab is equipped to test beers and whiskeys from the very beginning — the grains and mashing process — all the way through to a finished beer or whiskey. We’ve got a teaching area and a hands-on lab, where they look at things with a microscope to microbiological plating to high-pressure liquid chromatography HPLC type of operation, to analyze the beers and spirits, so that you know what exactly your fermentation did. So, we’re teaching the art of fermentation and kind of passing on our legacy and background knowledge, which is pretty much everything that Alltech is built on, from our brewing sciences through our animal nutrition side: Everything we do is fermentation-based.”
“We’re just now launching our first course this month. We’re pretty excited about it and it’ll be ongoing, because the faculty members are people here, who are actually doing the work, of making beer. Ken Lee and I actually graduated from brewing school together. He’s our Master Brewer. We’ve been brewing together for 40-odd years. Frankly, it’s part of our passion. It’s what we do. We love making beer and whiskey. We’ve been doing it all of our lives. Those of us who are in this are basically the people who are passing on our knowledge to people who get to come to this school. We’re adding to this school crisis management, the finance of a brewery and capital expenditures, marketing, media management and social media. We’re trying to put all of it together, so that people who may want to start a business up can come to one place and learn about both the nitty-gritty of what it takes to make the product versus what it takes to sell and market the product. We’ve got 18 people within Alltech who have Masters Degrees in brewing or distilling or higher, so we’re utilizing that staff as our faculty.”
How did Alltech get its start with distilling spirits?
– “Dr. Lyons also is a distiller. Dr. Lyons worked for Guinness and then Irish Distillers. Once we had a brewing system, he thought he could make distiller’s mash the same way as he made brewer’s mash. It’s just a matter of having the equipment to make the proper grains mashing. So, he decided to make an Irish whiskey here, in the States, because it was something that nobody had tried before. He brought two beautiful Forsyth stills from Scotland and we stuck the stills inside our brewhouse. We didn’t have a separate distillery. In 2006 we started brewing and distilling. I got to be involved in that project, as well. By 2012 we built the new distillery and moved those two stills and started actually making distilled spirits full time.”
Alltech sponsors the Kentucky Ale Brew-Off. Please tell me the details of this event.
– “One of the fun things that we do over the years is the Brew-Off. We work with BOCK (Brewers of Central Kentucky) every May and sponsor this Brew-Off. The idea is to get people to come up with their own brew formulas, but we have to put some limitations on them, so that it can be judged within certain parameters. We have it as a festival, where they they bring all their homebrewing equipment and they brew on our property. We want to foster creativity and to promote craft brewing. We’ve created this contest where we have 40 brewers make whatever beer they want within the realm of ales, but they have to use the brewery’s water and yeast. We allow them to ferment them however they want and send them back to us for evaluation. We use our own taste panel, plus the flavor people from the Bock Group, including the previous year’s winner and we’ll pick a winner. Then, we’ll bring that brewer in and take that beer and brew a big batch of it. We will license the beer and package it off into kegs and put it into establishments around Lexington.”
“Ken and I both grew up in a system where brewing is a fraternity. Some craft brewers don’t treat it like that, but most of us who came from the roots of the old brewing industry will always treat it like a fraternity. If your passion is the same as my passion, why shouldn’t we help each other? We’ve done lots of things to help each other. It goes both ways. We have good relationships with the other craft brewers in town.”
What does 2015 bring for the brewery?
– “We’re doing lots of stuff this year. We’re developing new seasonals every quarter, that’s part of the fun for us, brewmasters, because we love doing that. We came out with a special beer for March Madness called the Platoon Pack. It is a six-pack, with three bottles of White Belgian Ale and three bottles of Blueberry Ale. They’re both Belgian-style ales. It’s not a seasonal but it is a limited-edition release.”
“We have a new brewhouse going in at the Visitor’s Center and a whole new building being built around the building we have now. Just a couple of months behind that, we’ll have a new brewhouse, here, at the production facility. We’re going to be three-quarters of the way through the development project in Pikeville. We’re very proud to be a part of developing business in Eastern Kentucky and I’m excited to make my first moonshine about this time, next year. Also this year, we are still building a new Irish-style whiskey distillery just a block away from Guinness on St. James Street, in Ireland. That will probably be operating about the same time as Pikeville. We’re putting a pilot plant in here, for the school. It’ll be a 50-liter system that is going to be able to make any style of beer you want. Part of our classes will be incorporating that. Kicking off the academy is going to be pretty fun and pretty cool and will set the pace for education of brewing, here in Kentucky. UK, Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky Universities will partner with us. This is going to become a center of education for brewing.”