Surveying my surroundings — a jumble of old warehouses, graffiti murals and a craft beer pub manned by a bearded youth — I could be in one of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods or London’s uber-cool Shoreditch. But bellying up to a cold steel bar, which crouches low and lean within the cavernous brick-and-concrete box that is Ethereal Brewing, the bartender’s distinctive accent plants me firmly in Dixie.
“What are y’all havin’?” he says with a smile. Yes, sir, I’m in Lexington, Kentucky, all right.
This city of 300,000 is best known for its centuries-old traditions of bourbon production and thoroughbred racing. Yet it’s fast emerging as one of the hippest destinations in the Southeast, thanks to an up-and-coming craft brew industry that has inspired a wave of revitalization washing across Lexington. Together, eight breweries comprise the Brewgrass Trail.
Because Lexington law stipulates that breweries have to be in an industrial-zoned area, they’re usually slightly off the beaten track. As they open, they lure locals, tourists and other new businesses beyond the 19th century brick facades and antebellum homes downtown, introducing them to the less discreet charms of this Southern belle of a city.
Visit Ethereal’s home in the Distillery District, which had been mostly abandoned since 1977, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like peeking up Lexington’s hoop skirt and discovering a racy tattoo.
Once home to the James E. Pepper Distillery, the campus now encompasses another pocket-sized bar, a distillery producing legal moonshine — among other high-octane libations — and a furniture craftsman, with an ice cream shop and restaurant opening soon. But Ethereal, which hung out its shingle in November, attracts the most devoted crowd, including students from Lexington’s two universities, who are drawn by an array of Belgian-style beers made on-site.
At Country Boy Brewing, in an industrial park on Chair Avenue, the décor runs towards cement floors, cinderblock walls and mounted deer heads above the bathrooms. Beers boast cheeky names like Cougar Bait Blonde Ale and Shotgun Wedding and occasional offerings like a Jalapeno Smoked Porter and Warehouse Experiment #2, aged in Jack Daniels barrels.
Even on a weekday afternoon, the place is hopping. Lexingtonians are clearly a thirsty crowd, so it’s surprising that it took so long for craft brews to start flowing.
Daniel Harrison, one of Country Boy’s three founders, has a theory about this. “As Mark Twain once said, ‘When the world ends, I want to be in Kentucky,” because everything happens there years later, he explains, grinning through his beard.
Brady Barlow of West Sixth Brewing agrees that the craft brew scene had long been underserved. “My wife is from Fort Collins, Colorado, where there are 13 craft breweries for 130,000 people. Every time we visited, I’d bellyache to my wife, ‘Lexington really needs more craft beer.’ Finally, she said, ‘Well, why don’t you do something about it?’”
Like any smart husband, he heeded her advice. Barlow joined forces with three other businessmen who were brought together like a boy band of brewing by their love of craft beer. In 2011, the quartet swept in to save an abandoned 19th century bread factory, which they rechristened West Sixth Brewing the following year.
Today, they offer 16 of their own beers at the West Sixth taproom and distribute their products across Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. They’ve also opened parts of the 90,000-square-foot facility to house a hydroponic farm, a fish restaurant, artists’ studios, offices for nonprofits, yoga classes and even women’s roller derby practice.
Like Blue Stallion Brewing, which donates 10 percent of their taproom sales every Monday to a different cause, West Sixth donates at least 6 percent of all profits to local organizations every year. “We just want to make good beer — and give back to the community,” Barlow says.
Jefferson Street’s renewal dates to 2006, when restaurants began opening in clapboard houses that line the mile-long avenue. Today, it’s flanked by at least half a dozen eateries, a wine bar and Chase Brewing, which opened in December in an erstwhile gas station.
Chase stands diagonally to the Green Lantern, whose chief features are a pool table and a mural of green fairies cavorting on one wall. When I pop in around 5 p.m. one afternoon to snap a few photos, the buxom bartender admonishes me. “Some people here might not want their picture taken,” she rumbles.
Nervously, I scan the 50ish crowd, none of whom look likely to be wanted by Interpol. After I explain that I’m a journalist writing about Lexington, the atmosphere thaws noticeably.
Hank Jones, a lean, wiry fellow with a bushy silver mustache and a passing resemblance to Sam Elliott of “The Big Lebowski,” is the most gregarious of the bunch. “All this (renewal) started right after my wife and I moved in about nine years ago,” says Jones, a teacher and real estate developer who lives on Jefferson and West Main.
“We feel safe walking everywhere, although I haven’t made it to West Sixth yet,” Jones admits sheepishly. “I always stop here,” he laughs. “We’re the early crowd, and college students come in around 8 o’clock.”
Dallas Lockwood, a burly, woolly maned man with a name that a country music star couldn’t have coined more perfectly, has a history with the area going back to 1974. At that time, he lived at the intersection of Jefferson and Maryland streets, although the house has since been knocked down.
“It’s a whole lot for the better now,” Lockwood says. He, too, appreciates the authentic local feel you find here. “I walk in, and I know every person’s name in the bar.”
As I put my pen and notepad away, Jones offers to buy me a beer. Suspicion has given way to Southern hospitality, and I’ve been welcomed into the fold.
IF YOU GO
Stay: The Hilton Lexington Downtown is conveniently located in the heart of the city near several popular restaurants and bars. lexingtondowntownhotel.com
Tourism information: visitlex.com
Brewgrass Trail: Get your “passport” stamped at all eight breweries along the trail to earn a “Brewgrass Trail” T-shirt. visitlex.com/flavors/brewgrass-trail