Tom Eblen: Checking in on Lexington's new brewpubs

Lexington Beerworks opened at 213 North Limestone in January 2012, selling home-brewing supplies and offering classes on beer. It served craft beers from around the country.
Lexington Beerworks opened at 213 North Limestone in January 2012, selling home-brewing supplies and offering classes on beer. It served craft beers from around the country. Herald-Leader

Last week was American Craft Beer Week, so I thought it would be a good time for an update on three brewpubs that have opened in Lexington this year.

Better still, Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop was having a fund-raiser, a "bicycle progressive dinner" where a sold-out crowd of 70 people would pedal to all three brewpubs in one evening.

So — purely in the interest of journalistic research, of course — I signed up.

It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.

The popularity of local and unique food and drink has exploded. Wineries, boutique distilleries and craft breweries have sprung up everywhere. Lexington's new brewpubs will soon be joined by at least two more, one downtown on Short Street and a second in Chevy Chase. And don't forget Alltech, which has been brewing Kentucky Ale downtown for a decade.

While Americans' beer consumption has declined slightly during the past 30 years, the number of small, independent breweries has risen from a handful to about 2,000, according to the Brewers Association. Still, they account for less than 6 percent of total U.S. beer sales, indicating a lot of room for growth.

Craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs are gaining popularity for many reasons: they are popular local hangouts; they support local economies and engender regional pride; and, most of all, their brews taste better than industrial beer.

The first stop on our two-wheeled tour was Lexington Beerworks, which opened Jan. 13 in a renovated old building at 213 North Limestone. The company's three partners — Mike Vincent, Greg Leimer and Jason Wolf — are Lexmark marketing guys. They wanted a side business to indulge their home-brewing hobby and introduce others to making and appreciating craft beer.

Lexington Beerworks serves craft beers from around the country, sells home-brewing supplies and offers twice-monthly home-brewing classes. Unlike the other two brewpubs, they don't make significant amounts of beer on premises.

Vincent said the place is designed for craft beer geeks and novices. The most popular item is a flight of four samples of different beers for $6.

"We try to recommend beers that people will like, and if they do like them, hopefully they'll come back," he said. "So far, we've done better than we expected."

After a couple of samples and appetizers from Fork in the Road Food Truck, our group pedaled over to Chair Avenue, off South Broadway, to a concrete-block building that used to house batting cages. It is now home to Country Boy Brewing.

This small brewery was started on a shoestring by three Kentucky country boys who wanted to take their home-brewing hobby to the next level. Jeff Beagle, Daniel Harrison and Evan Coppage make small batches of seriously good beer, which they serve in a bar on site.

They have made 17 different recipes, 11 of which are on tap now. "We're not afraid to experiment," Harrison said. "People have been appreciative of the riskiness of what we're trying to do. Business has been great."

The country boys now have enough equipment to make eight barrels a week, but that will increase to 12 in June. When production capacity can outstrip demand at the bar, they plan to find a retail distributor, Beagle said.

After a couple of samples and a big slice of Goodfellas' outstanding pizza, we pedaled back to where we started the ride: West Sixth Brewing, at West Sixth and Jefferson streets, for two beer samples and desserts from Two Birds Bakery in Midway.

West Sixth was launched April 1 by Ben Self, Joe Kuosman, Brady Barlow and Robin Sither. The brewery, which is housed in one corner of a former Rainbo Bread bakery, makes all of its beer on premises at the rate of 45 barrels a week.

There are now six beers on tap, following introduction of a premium double IPA last week. "The taproom has given us a place to experiment and see what people like," Self said.

A seventh beer — an Imperial Stout — will debut in a couple of weeks. West Sixth's flagship IPA also is sold at the brewery in cans and growler jugs. Clark Distributing will begin this week making cans available at retail locations around Central Kentucky.

"We've been much busier than we could have imagined," Self said. In addition to making money, the partners also want to give back to the community. They plan to donate 6 percent of net profits to local charities, support local organizations and be an example of environmental responsibility.

How many brewpubs can Lexington support before the market is tapped out? None of these entrepreneurs knows, but they see no sign of it happening any time soon.