DANVILLE — Welcome to "the city of thirsts."
The Boyle County seat is often billed as "the city of firsts" because it was home to Kentucky's first constitution, the first college west of the Alleghenies, the first public school for the deaf, the first successful operation to remove an ovary, and on and on.
But the new nickname, coined by alcohol-related entrepreneurs in town, comes from Danville's growing reputation as a place to make, sample and sell craft beer — that is, beer produced by independent and passionate people who see the drink as something to be savored, not guzzled.
The city of more than 16,000 residents has two microbreweries, several restaurants that serve craft beers, and in late September held its second downtown Oktoberfest that attracted hundreds to sample feisty little ales. One microbrewery, Lore Brewing Co., also sells kits for enthusiasts to make their own beers and wines at home.
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"It's a reflection of how Americans are approaching their beer," said Brian Holton, owner of The Beer Engine, a Danville brew pub that sells its own homemade ales and other craft labels. "Even through the recession, craft beer sales have gone up across the board. Budweiser sales are down. Americans are getting more educated about their beer."
The craft-brewing industry in 2010 grew 11 percent by volume and 12 percent by retail dollars, according to the Brewers Association, an organization that promotes small and independent American brewers. Meanwhile, full-calorie Budweiser, the self-proclaimed "King of Beers," saw its sales drop 30 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to a September report by 24/7 Wall St. During the same period, sales of Miller Genuine Draft slumped 51 percent and Michelob fell a staggering 72 percent.
In Danville, the expansion of alcohol sales is the single biggest factor in the city's small but growing beer scene. For more than 50 years, the city had prohibited the sale of alcohol. But to hear local residents tell it, booze was easily obtained from bootleggers or by driving to nearby "wet" towns like Springfield, Lawrenceburg or Nicholasville.
Then, in November 2002, Danville voters approved the sale of alcohol by the drink in larger restaurants. Finally, in March 2010, voters approved the expansion of alcohol sales to include bars and liquor stores.
Entrepreneurs seized the new opportunity. In June 2010, less than three months after the referendum to expand sales, Colin and Melissa Masters opened Bluegrass Pizza & Pub on Main Street.
"We put eight microbrewed beers on tap," Colin Masters said. "Outside of Lexington and Louisville, there really aren't many places in Kentucky where you can get this kind of beer."
Soon, other alcohol-friendly restaurants and watering holes sprang up. A survey found that the expansion of alcohol sales resulted in the creation of 60-plus jobs and more than $800,000 in downtown investment alone since the March 2010 election, said Adam Johnson, executive director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"To have two local craft breweries like that really helps," Johnson said. "We get a lot of visitors from the Bourbon Trail," a driving tour of six distilleries stretching from Bullitt to Woodford counties. Johnson is among those who hope to get a "Brewgrass Trail" started that would promote events at independent breweries; a Facebook page devoted to Brewgrass Trail news debuted in late October.
In late August, Lore Brewing Co. on Danville's west side began selling its beers to the public in "growlers," which are half-gallon glass jugs that customers take home and then bring back to purchase refills. Lore's beer is also distributed to local bars and to restaurants in Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green and elsewhere.
The company makes five different beers; its "Intergalactic IPA (India Pale Ale)" is made from Galaxy hops imported from Australia. (India Pale Ales are a style of craft beer that is generally stronger, paler and "hoppier" than a pale ale.)
Lee and Ashley Rossman are in the process of expanding Lore Brewing to increase its production capacity and to add a bottling line.
But before they began selling their craft beer, the Rossmans opened a home-brew supply store in May for people who wanted to make their own beer.
"Obviously, there was nothing like this in the area," Lee Rossman said. "So we decided to strike while the iron was hot."
Homebrew kits with a fermenter range in price from $74 to $125, and the ingredient kits range from $25 to $36, depending on the kind of beer the customer wishes to make. The Rossmans also sell wine-making kits that cost $70 to $100.
"I've had 90-year-old ladies come in here and say 'I've been wine-making my whole life,'" Ashley Rossman said.
Meanwhile, the target demographic for a craft-beer maker is 25 to 35 years old, she said, "usually people who have just got out of college, and they want a higher-quality beer."
The Rossmans made home brew for years, and "now we're just trying to pass the torch," Lee Rossman said. "There's no better way to understand craft beer than to make it yourself. And since it's so easy to do, with the malt extracts and pelletized hops, there's no reason someone who cares about beer should be intimidated by the process."
"If you can make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, you can make beer," Ashley Rossman said. "It's just as easy."
Those searching for ready-made craft beer — as well as wines, cheeses, bourbons and chocolates — can find it at a downtown store called V the Market. The V stands for "vie," the French word for "life," and is a carryover from Studio la Belle Vie (which marketed itself as "Celebrating your beautiful life"), a portrait-photography business also operated by Mary Robin Spoonamore.
V the Market sells growlers and has beer tastings. And it has about 280 different labels of beer for sale, including some from Belgium, Germany and Mexico.
Spoonamore sees the popularity of craft beer as an outgrowth of the "buy local" movement.
"I think people want a face behind what they're eating and drinking," she said. "And not only a face, but a crafts person who is trying to create that beer into a certain flavor profile, a beer with character, that's interesting, and that delivers more than one flavor, just like wines that have a 'fore palate,' 'mid palate' (terms referring to the initial and secondary tastes and sensations when taking a drink) and what happens in the finish.
"Beers can be that complex as well. It just adds to the magic of your eating/drinking experience, to drink a beer that brings all those things to the table."
Other local retailers, such as The Bottle Shoppe and Liquor Mart, also sell craft beers with names such as Dogfish Head, 400 Pound Monkey, Dead Guy Ale and In-Heat Wheat. (Liquor Barn will soon open a new store in the former Kmart off the U.S. 127 bypass in south Danville.)
Holton, owner of The Beer Engine, said craft beers not only echo the styles of European beers with hundreds of years of history, but take hold of those styles and change them "like a new, refreshing form of art."
The Beer Engine, tucked away in a former warehouse and office space, is open Thursday through Sunday nights. Its five craft beers are "only brewed here; only served here," but it also sells other labels, such as New Albanian Brewing Co. from New Albany, Ind. The brew pub's "Lincoln Harvest" is made from hops that Holton and a friend grew in neighboring Lincoln County.
Open since February, The Beer Engine officially seats only 25, but the recycled building materials used in its construction lend lots of character. The floor is from an old tobacco warehouse. The wainscoting was made from panel doors turned on their sides. The table tops, bar tops and vanity tops are the lacquered lanes from a Paris bowling alley. The ceiling has repainted tin, and corbels supporting a shelf were salvaged from an 1800s-era house in Danville.
Holton, who also works as a nurse in the emergency room at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center, did most of the renovation work himself. It was his dream to own and operate his own pub.
"I love being able to talk to people about beer. They come in and they've never had a pumpkin beer," he said.
Holton said he's interested in collaborating with someone else on making a new brew, possibly with some of the other businesses around the area.
"That's the fun thing about the craft-brewing world," he said. "It's friendly and it's family ... It's a very friendly environment of small businesses that support each other."