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In Pursuit of History: Brewing a Kentucky Common

Posted by homebrewdad on 4/14/2016 at 01:03:36 AM

Just after Valentine's Day, one of the awesome guys on my brewing email list sent out an link to's "Trending American Retro Beers" article, and mentioned how he thought that the Kentucky Common would be my sort of beer. Now, I had heard of the style before, but after reading about the beer (they describe the commercial example as "caramel-forward, with low hop bitterness and a lightly mineral finish to keep it refreshing"), it woke the beer recipe muse in my head.

We discussed various ideas, argued on whether or not sour mashing was an appropriate measure to take, and kicked around the idea of various extra steps (such as boiling down first runnings). I found myself looking at a fair number of recipes online, reading through the BJCP guidelines for the style, and seeking out what historical notes I could find for this beer (Wikipedia's entry was a great starting place for research)... and soon enough, I was sold on trying to brew a Kentucky Common.

First off, I decided to *not* incorporate a sour mash. From what I could tell, all ideas about sour mashing came from the notion that, hey, bourbon from the area obviously incorporated sour mashing, so beer brewing had to do the same, right? However, I could not find a single historical source that suggested a sour mash was ever employed. Instead, it appeared that this beer was produced and packaged quickly, with an emphasis on making an affordable, easy to produce, refreshing beer. The BJCP style guideline is very much in this camp - it clearly specifies "no sourness", which fit with what I was wanting to brew. Likewise, I elected to skip any lengthy extra steps in this brew, as they just did not seem to be associated with the style.

Most homebrew recipes I found seemed to include at least a little rye in the mash as another nod to the historical alcohol production of the region. From the homework that I have done, it appears doubtful that rye was actually used much (if at all) in any commercially produced Kentucky Common beers... but this time around, I decided to diverge a bit from history. My thinking was pretty simple on this one - I felt like a lightly hopped grist of six row, corn, and a tiny bit of darker grains for color was going to give me essentially a somewhat darker cream ale. Now, I know that cream ales are easy to drink crowd pleasers... but in my book, they are extremely boring. Furthermore, rye happens to be one of my favorite "secret ingredients" in beer; I get this tasty, earthy/spicy flavor from it that I find works well in a ton of beers.

After a fair amount of homework on the style, I felt like Revvy's well reviewed recipe was close to what I wanted to do, but I wanted a little more caramel and rye flavor than I felt his beer would give. My plan was to brew a beer with all American ingredients, preferably those local to the region; another brewing friend was "kind" enough to introduce me to Riverbend malt and their heritage rye... but sadly, I had to let my lust for that go unfulfilled, as I couldn't source any of it. I debated several varieties of roasted grains (black patent, Carafa III, roasted barley) for color, but ended up going with chocolate rye (which, admittedly, is not American in origin) for the job in the hopes that the flavor it might give would play well with what I was going for.

One of the absolute toughest things for me to do was to NOT scale the grain bill up. As a huge fan of more intense malt flavors, I seldom brew ANYTHING that weighs in at less than 6.5% - 7.5% ABV. In fact, with a target of less than 5% ABV, this would officially be the "smallest" beer that I had ever brewed. I was pretty concerned about ending up with a boring, watery beer, but decided to give it an honest shot. I mean, "Imperial Rye Kentucky Common" just seems a bit silly.

I considered several different yeast strains, but settled on WLP810 (San Francisco Lager, aka steam beer yeast) as my choice. I had several really good brewers try to talk me out of that one, suggesting that I go with a common ale yeast or a cleaner lager/hybrid yeast... but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of 810. My plan was to ferment it at the warm end of its range so as to emphasize ester production; I thought that some fruitiness would play really well in this beer I was envisioning.

Finally, I went with nugget hops for this recipe. It would appear that historical versions of this beer used native, spicy hops - and nugget fit that bill perfectly. Some beers may have also used imported Saaz as a finishing hop, but I decided that my chocolate rye was the only non-US ingredient I would use.

I placed the order with my LHBS, and decided to go ahead and round up my hops to the next full ounce, figuring I'd toss the leftover half ounce or so in at flameout. My final recipe follows.

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Batch Size (gallons)5.5
Recipe typeAll Grain
Style10B. American Amber Ale
Original Gravity1.052
Final Gravity1.015
ABV4.86% (basic)   /   4.85% (advanced)       [what's this?]
Color15.1 SRM
Boil Time60 min

YeastWhite Labs WLP810 (San Francisco Lager)

Pale Malt (2 Row) US5 lbs 8 oz48.9%2
Rye Malt2 lbs 8 oz22.2%4.7
Corn, Flaked2 lbs17.8%1.3
Caramel / Crystal 60L 12 oz6.7%60
Rye, Flaked 4 oz2.2%2
Chocolate Rye Malt 4 oz2.2%250

Nugget (First Wort).75 oz6013%17.9
Nugget (Boil).25 oz1013%2
Nugget (Steep/whirlpool).45 oz2013%3

for complete recipe (with details like mash and fermentation temps), click here

Is this a true "historical beer"? Nope. I don't represent it as such (I've actually had a beer nerd or two be concerned that I was somehow cheapening the style by not sticking precisely to the very best guesses we have about the historical versions). However, I do consider it to be historically inspired, if that means anything.

The trip to the LHBS was a little interesting. First off, I had to substitute two row for the six row - my LHBS is usually superb on having everything in stock, but they were very low on six row... and what was on the shelf had some weevils in it. The LHBS guy trashed it and explained that I wouldn't have any conversion issues, that the two row had more than enough diastatic power for my recipe - which I already knew. I hadn't chosen six row for the diastatic power, but for the historical connection and flavor... but, meh, whatever.

We talked about what I was brewing, at which point, he let me know that he doesn't believe in Kentucky Common as an actual beer style. In his opinion, he feels like the recent trend to resurrect historical beers is a little silly, that if those beers really existed, they would have been commonly known before now. I found this to be an odd idea to hold; I mean, IPAs were hardly known in the US twenty years ago, but the explosion of craft beer in this country has driven them to be the single most popular non macro beer style for sale. It seems to be pretty provable fact that a ton of beer culture was lost in Prohibition, and what with the resurgence of craft beer, it's only natural that we start looking more to the past for inspiration. I even pointed out that there are, in fact, actual brewery logs available that discuss the style... but he appeared to remain unconvinced. Oh well.

He did ask why I would bother with four ounces of flaked rye in this batch, and I told him that I had planned on toasting it. Whoops, he had missed the part of my order where I asked for that to be bagged by itself; once again, oh well.

After I got home, I got a starter going. I decided that, since I was using ale temps (roughly 60 degrees F or so) for this batch, I would use an ale pitch rate for this beer. As always, I overbuilt my starter a bit to ensure that I would have some clean yeast on hand if I wanted to use the strain again in the future. This required one step up due to the age of the yeast, but since I started my starter on a Thursday (with a brew day of Sunday), I had plenty of time.

Brew day rolled around, but sadly, my four year old son - and most active brewing buddy - was not feeling well, so I stated off solo. Luckily, my eight year old son and two year old daughter decided to get involved, so I didn't have to go the entire thing alone.

Brewing helpers
Serious tasks call for serious help.

The day naturally started with a typical Olan mistake. I employ Bru'n Water to help me hit my pH and flavor minerals, and it has served me really well. Typically, I save a copy of a previous beer's spreadsheet, then swap to the new intended target profile (brown malty, yellow bitter, etc), input my recipe, play with the salts a bit, and go with it. This is convenient, as it saves me the trouble of having to re-input my local water mineral concentrations every time, and helps reduce the chance of me mistyping something. Yep, you probably know where this is going...

I remember thinking to myself that I needed more lactic acid than I had expected, especially since this wasn't a super pale beer... and just before I mashed in, I realized why. This batch was supposed to be 5.5 gallons, but I had copied a spreadsheet from a 7 gallon batch. Whoops. I dumped the mash water, figuring that I didn't need to concentrate my salts like that, and started over.

From there, things picked up a bit. I came in basically right on target for my mash temps, and ten minutes in, my measured pH was 5.47 versus my target of 5.42. Not too bad for a hack! I tossed a blanket over the cooler and went about my business of prepping sparge water, giving the kettle and hosing a rinse, etc.

It was then that I noticed the leak. Sometimes, my ball valve doesn't seem to perfectly seat on my mash tun (which is a pretty typical cooler conversion job). Every time I've seen this in the past, I just sort of wiggle the valve a bit while pulling out - this causes the rubber washer inside to seal properly, and the problem is solved. I performed this practiced maneuver and tossed a towel under the cooler, then went back to my other tasks.

Soon enough, the mash was done. I picked up the cooler... and realized that my towel was SOAKED. Oh, crap. I rushed it outside, got my kettle positioned, and started the draining. I'm guessing that I lost somewhere between a pint and a quart of sweet, beautiful first runnings in the process, and I began to worry about missing my gravity as I watched the darned thing continue to drip.

Fortunately, I do use a Brew Bag as my filter, so I proceeded to squeeze the grain like it owed me serious cash. I then quickly dumped in the sparge water, gave it a hurried, violent stir, and drained that... making sure to once again follow up with some serious bag squeezing.

From there, things seemed to return to normal. All three of my boys joined in to do hop additions (the four year old started to feel better... and dude, you can't skip out on hop additions!), and I ran into no further problems. I did decide to boil for just a bit of an extra time, figuring that if I boiled off a bit more, I could more or less ensure that I hit my intended gravity, even if my volume was a tad low.

Adding hops
Hop additions are a highlight of brewdays.

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. My goal was to collect 5.5 gallons of 1.052 wort; I ended with 5.25 gallons of 1.053 wort. In my book, that is close enough; in light of the leak issue, I was willing to chalk this up as a success (pending the final tasting, of course). I hit the beer with 60 seconds of pure O2, pitched my yeast, and stuck the airlock in place.

Aerated wort
Funky stuff!

My normal fermentation chamber (an ancient mini fridge coupled with an STC-1000) was tied up lagering a Munich Dunkel, so I employed my Son of a Fermentation Chamber (and frozen 2 liter bottles of water) for the Kentucky Common. I figured that minor temperature variances would be okay, as I pretended that they would make it somehow more "authentic". Truth be told, though, I'm always a little wary of not using my "real" fermentation chamber, what with the fact that I know it will stay within one degree of my target temp.

Active fermentation took around four days; the beer made a pretty (though relatively small) krausen. Swapping ice bottles out twice a day kept the temperatures pretty steady - I usually measured between 59 degrees F and 61 degrees F, though we had one cold day, and the beer dipped to 57 degrees F. Once activity slowed, I let the beer free rise to the ambient temp of 65 degrees F and left it there for around four days; I figured that this would encourage complete fermentation and act as a diacetyl rest, if needed.

Fermenting beer
Krausen is beautiful stuff.

After that, I cold crashed the beer, added gelatin, and kegged it (having just finished the final pint of an IPA keg the night before). I ended up with a little over four and a half gallons of beer, with a final gravity of 1.016. Since WLP810 is listed as topping out at 70% attenuation, I felt like I had once again nailed my target.

So... what's the verdict? Was this a silly experiment? Was I going to be choking down five gallons of boring beer?

The beer pours a gorgeously clear, warm amber with some serious orange hue to it. I get about a finger's worth of off white foam, which recedes to cap pretty quickly, but leaves a ton of sexy lacing. The first few pints were a tad cloudy (no big shock there), but once I got to number five or six, it cleared beautifully.

Finished Kentucky Common!
Super potato pictures that don't show the clarity, but this is some beautiful beer and sweet lacing.

Aroma is fairly mild, mostly a sweet maltiness. There is some caramel for sure, as well as a little spiciness.

Flavor... wow. It's a little grainy/sweet up front, which I expected, and has some serious fruity esters - but not in a bad way. That earthy/tangy/spicy rye character is pretty obvious (which is exactly what I wanted). There's more bitterness than I figured there would be, which balances the sweetness really nicely. I get way more caramel flavor than I thought that I would, what with only 12 ounces of c-malt in a 5.5 gallon batch. The finish is plenty dry enough to encourage the next pull from the glass.

The beer has a light, soft body, and is super easy to drink - even for a lightweight like me.

Honestly, I'm just floored that a sub 5% ABV beer has this much flavor. I've been on a huge IPA kick recently (and will probably be brewing one next time), but this beer is just so darned good and drinkable, yet has so much going on. I feel like this is easily one of the best beers I have ever brewed, and am placing it near the top of the list of my imaginary brewery's flagship beers.

Is my "Kentucky Common" an authentic historical beer? Nope. Am I glad that I brewed it? You bet.

Tags for this post: Kentucky, common, historical, beer, homebrew

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