Central Machine Works Resurrects Kentucky Common Beer With Help From the Smithsonian
If you've stopped by Central Machine Works Brewery recently, you may have noticed a curious type of beer stand out on the taproom menu. Sitting next to tried-and-true styles like Pilsners, lagers, and IPAs, you'll see something quite uncommon: the Kentucky common. Call it the "KC" for short, if you'd like. Clocking in at 4.9% ABV, this easy drinker pours out amber-colored and is described on the CMW menu as "a historical style, roasty, peppery with rich maltiness."
As the name suggests, the KC was first invented in Louisville, Ky., in the 1850s, making it one of the only beer styles originating from the United States. The Kentucky Guild of Brewers says that the KC quickly became the most popular beer in the Louisville area, accounting for 75% of beer sold. That is, of course, until Prohibition came along in 1920, putting the kibosh on the sale or import of alcoholic beverages. The 13-year period of temperance relegated very local, regional styles like the KC to the casks of history.
The style was nearly lost for decades, but in 2015 the Beer Judge Certification Program added the KC to its style guidelines, followed by the Brewers Association in 2021. That's when CMW's head brewer, Scott Rynbrandt, learned about the historic beer and decided to try brewing it at CMW, albeit without too much information with which to work. "In the style guidelines, they give you a description of how this beer is made, but it's vague," Rynbrandt said. "It says that it's an amber color, there's lots of corn in it, that it was typically brewed quickly, and that it was cheap beer meant for common folk to have with a shot of whiskey."
The challenge of resurrecting the KC at CMW seemed like a natural fit. The brewery has long had a connection to the past – its facility on East Cesar Chavez was formerly a metal fabrication shop built in the 1940s. And since CMW took over the location as a brewpub in 2019, it's brewed up historic beers based on recipes and styles traditionally made for workers around the world, like the San Francisco Lager and 60 Shilling Pub Ale.
"Bringing back these fun classic styles is baked into what we value at CMW," said Rynbrandt, who has put the KC on the menu for three years running. Years one and two went well, but they say the third time's a charm for a reason, right? This year, Rynbrandt has had a new trick up his sleeve – he recruited help from the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, to get the KC style just right.
Last July, Rynbrandt reached out to Dr. Theresa McCulla, curator of the Smithsonian's American Brewing History Initiative, to inquire about any historical records that could help guide his brewing. "I get a lot of different research inquiries from all kinds of people, but this kind of inquiry about a particular recipe or record of a historic style is one of my favorites," McCulla said. "A good number of brewers are reaching back for historic styles, some of which are not very well known today, so it's a lot of fun. It's kind of detective work to track down some records of these old beers."
Fortunately, McCulla found a book published in 1901 that included a description of the brewing process for Kentucky common beer. The book had been digitized by the Smithsonian, so McCulla was able to easily share it with Rynbrandt online. Pulling from this historic description, Rynbrandt tweaked his KC recipe, creating the beer available on tap at CMW today. "It wasn't until this year that I learned about the heritage corn varieties they historically had in the area, thanks to this actual recipe," he said. "Now I'm using heritage ingredients that haven't changed in a hundred years, which is where our recipe has really taken the next step."
McCulla notes the rarity of being able to bring a historic beer style like the KC back to life. "During the original KC's era, many brewers were immigrants from Germany, Austria, or the Czech Republic, and many of them didn't necessarily speak English, so if any records existed, they likely were not in English," she said. "Also, beer recipes were often not written down because it was just sort of day-to-day work. And it was not uncommon for breweries and other businesses to have fires at certain points in time, so many records from this era were lost."
Styles like the Kentucky common were historically brewed with speed as a priority. "I think the brewers who were brewing the Kentucky common were thinking of the customers who would be drinking it pretty quickly," McCulla said. "It was a quickly brewed product and quickly delivered to people who were eager to enjoy it pretty soon after it was made."
Even with the 122-year-old description of the method now in his arsenal, Rynbrandt says the KC is still a devilishly tricky style of beer to execute. Sticking close to what brewers would use back in the day, Rynbrandt uses black malt to give the KC its amber color. "Original brewers used black or roasted malt to get the color, but if you use too much it can be acrid, like black bitter coffee, so you have to be really careful with how you're adding it, because this is not a bitter beer," he said. "Balancing that black malt with the corn, getting the color right, and getting that bitterness right is tricky."
And because the heritage corn is pricey, the brewer only has a few chances to get things just right.
Challenges aside, Rynbrandt says he's loved brewing the KC at CMW and is happy with how it's been received among patrons. "The reception has really been cool, just to see people get excited about something that's both new and a classic," he said. "It was something I didn't expect anyone to like ... being a niche beer that no one's ever tried before, but considering that, it sells really well. We'll continue to brew it annually, and it's a really fun beer to submit to competitions because it gets judged along with all the other historical beers, so it's an underdog we can root for."
McCulla, who is based in Washington, D.C., hasn't been able to try CMW's KC yet, but has confidence in its quality. "I told Scott that I could tell it's going to be a great beer, because he cares so much about the ingredients and the process and looking back to history to make sure he's trying to do the style right," she said. "I think brewers like Scott who are creative and very thoughtful are creating beer menus that are incredibly interesting. And really it's the best time to be a beer drinker, that's for sure."
Central Machine Works4824 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/220-2340
Tue.-Thu., 4pm-12mid; Fri.-Sat., 11am-12mid; Sun., 11am-10pm; Mon., closed