40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 49: Bluegrass Brewing Co. — an ideal brewpub? Also, the Lite-Free Zone

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 49: Bluegrass Brewing Co. — an ideal brewpub? Also, the Lite-Free Zone

Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 48: F.O.S.S.I.L.S. newsletter antics, Typo’s Brewpub, and True Beer Freedom.

Author’s note: No images this time, just words. The featured photo of beer writer Michael Jackson and brewer David Pierce was taken in the brewhouse at Bluegrass Brewing Company during Jackson’s visit to BBC in the autumn of 1994, a year after the brewpub’s founding. Of the thousands of photos in my possession, disturbingly few depict BBC, which was a favored hangout of mine during the 1990s and beyond. This paucity may seem unusual, but why would anyone bring a film camera to BBC to document an utterly anonymous Wednesday evening in April of 1996? Our present digital ubiquity of smart phones aside, the vast majority of human history has gone entirely unrecorded visually; not only that, but back at Rich O’s, staff always knew which customers were not present in the event of a landline phone caller asking for them, even when they were seated, drinking, ten feet away. We had it good, and didn’t know it. 

From the vantage point of 2024, it is clear that the contemporary era of beer and brewing in the Louisville metropolitan area dates to 1992 – 1994.

David Pierce had brewed a batch of hoppy cream ale at Charlie’s Restaurant circa 1989-90, then he opened the Silo’s brewhouse in 1992 before moving to Bluegrass Brewing Company (Shelbyville Rd. in St. Matthews) the following year and finding a long-term home.

The Irish Rover debuted in 1993, bringing a genuine Irish pub to town, and while Baxter Station had been around since 1989, by 1994 we just took for granted there’d be 20 or more thoughtfully chosen beers on tap.

Neither Louisville Slugger Field nor its on-premise brewhouse had yet to be built, and while the next locally-operated brewpub built to last wouldn’t land until 2000 (Cumberland Brews), a sprinkling of other area bars and restaurants began dipping their toes into a wider world of beers. It was great sport trying to determine who was pouring which beers during a time just before the internet’s intrusive immediacy became a thing.

The F.O.S.S.I.L.S. (founded 1990) and L.A.G.E.R.S. (1989) homebrewing clubs were stable and growing. New Albanian Brewing Company’s (NABC) Pizzeria and Public House eventually came to fruition in the new millennium, but from the moment I stepped aboard at Rich O’s BBQ in 1992, the transformation was underway.

The Silo brewpub was a necessary first step for David Pierce; unfortunately, ownership proved tragically unhip to better beer’s possibilities — hence David’s move to BBC, which was owned by high school classmate Pat Hagan and his family (as well as other investors from Southern Indiana, not Kentucky, a fact I never hesitated to mention).

I was completely biased toward BBC from the start, and while visits there were not frequent enough during the first few years given the heavy demands on my time at my own beer business, when it became possible to have a weeknight off my whereabouts were easy to predict. I’d be at my “local” pub, 16 miles from my house, thanking my friends for driving because in the beginning I hadn’t yet “graduated” from my post-seizure medical restrictions.

David’s beers at BBC were invariably wonderful. Decades later, many are indelible in my memory. However, this doesn’t mean I always agreed with every aspect of the brewpub’s management, and I stuck my nose into their business a lot more than I should have. Blame it on over-zealousness and the rationalization that after all, I was a beer journalist of some obscure variety in addition to being The Publican.

I was also on a mission to rid crappy beer from my vicinity, and at times this made me a wee bit prickly. 

Following are three articles reprinted (and only lightly edited) from the pages of Walking the Dog, which taken together close the book on the pivotal year 1993.

The first praises BBC’s arrival.

The second expresses annoyance at the proximity of mass-market beers at this amazing new brewpub.

The third explains the rationale behind the Lite-Free Zone at Rich O’s, better known as the best remembered facet of my openly stated determination to cleanse my own workspace of beers that contradicted the pub’s very reason for being. It was a war I had no chance of winning outside the friendly confines of our own joint, but there comes a time when matters or principle must be heeded.

Bluegrass Brewing Company Opens

(Walking the Dog #38, Nov. 1993)

Louisville’s (and David Pierce’s) second brewpub in a year is up and running at 3929 Shelbyville Road.

Comparisons with the Silo are inevitable, and I will discuss these in greater depth in the December issue of Walking the Dog. In the meantime, here are my initial impressions, as formed during the brewpub’s and restaurant’s “soft” opening on October 30.

First and foremost, BBC’s beers and food are excellent.

The kitchen is visible to drinkers and diners, who can watch Chef Paul Atkins’s crew prepare meals. Although I lack the ability to rate the food in specific terms, the menu seems creative by area standards. Also, this isn’t the Hofbrauhaus, so don’t expect groaning platters of meat and potatoes. Instead, be prepared to choose between appetizers like Malaysian Chicken Skewers, Pilsner Poached Prawns and a variety of brick oven pizzas; Ale-battered fish, Jamaican Pork and Rosemary Chicken sandwiches; a Snow Crab Caesar entree salad; and entrees ranging from Smoked Duck Ravioli to Mazatlan Mahi. On the 30th, praise for the food was universal, and I can honestly recommend BBC for dining. It will be left to our areas professional restaurant critics to deliver the final judgement.

Naturally most readers are more interested in the beers. Dave’s opening day lineup includes Kolsch, Alt, Pils, Porter and Pale Ale. The latter occupies the slot reserved for seasonal or specialty beers. A Mead recipe has been approved by the Feds, and this will be something to look forward to late next year.

The beers are good, and they should improve. BBC’s Kolsch and Alt are very close to what I would call the higher-volume, commercial formulation of these beers in Germany – this, as opposed to the way they’re made in the brewpubs of their native German cities. Cologne and Dusseldorf, respectively. The Porter strikes me as a good session beer, with a pleasantly dry overtone somewhat like bittersweet chocolate. It could stand a bit more body. The Pils pills reminds me of the many Czech pilsners that occupy a broad tier beneath that of Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Staropramen and a few others. I wasn’t able to get a good reading of the Pale Ale, my palate having been reduced by numerous samples of the preceding.

In the final analysis, the best reason for being encouraged by BBC’s beers is the fact that distinct styles of beer are being brewed and identified as such, in a way that is designed to emphasize diversity of flavor.

Most of us have heard the story of how the Silo’s owners began by instructing Dave to make a beer like Miller Lite, and a beer like Killian’s, and so on. At BBC, Pat Hagen is telling Dave to add hops. The owners in the beer makers are the same, and this illustrates a commitment to beer that should result in the worst potential excesses of unknowing or absentee management being avoided.

But I have one tiny, nagging concern that is best raised in the form of a question. Why would a brewpub – by definition a place that makes and sells beer on the premises – also sell bottles of Miller Lite and Budweiser? Until I deal with this issue next month, I urge all F.O.S.S.I.L.S. to give BBC a try.

Appended to the preceding was a quote by beer writer Michael Jackson, as gleaned from a guest spot on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

“If you’re going to drink beer, drink beer. I absolutely refuse to say anything nice about light beer. In fact, it irritates the hell out of me to see the word ‘light’ on anything.”

In the following issue, I got wordy about why BBC’s guest swill bothered me so much; don’t pander to cluelessness — educate! However, this very essay concentrated my thinking, and led to a next logical step of taking away the training wheels.

The Ideal Brewpub: Lite-Free by Design

(Walking the Dog #39, Dec. 1993)

“While we were waiting for a table at the Bluegrass Brewing Company one busy midweek evening, a beer-loving friend and I gazed with disbelief at someone in the bar who was drinking Coors Light. Why would anyone go to a brew pub, where a variety of flavorful, fresh, rich draft beer is available and order a bottled light beer? It’s like going to a French pastry shop and eating a stale Twinkie.”
— Susan Reigler, from her review of Bluegrass Brewing Company (Courier-Journal Scene, Nov. 27, 1993)

Yes! I’m grateful to Susan Riegler for her triumphant analogy; I’ve tried for weeks to come up with one as succinct and devastating to America’s pervasive lightweight mentality as Reigler’s “French pastry versus stale Twinkie” masterpiece.

By now many of us have had the opportunity to visit bluegrass Brewing Company, the second Louisville brewery to open in a year, and practically all of us agree with Reigler’s very positive assessment of David Pierce’s house brewed beer and Paul Atkins’s creative menu.

It is my fervent hope that the brewpub’s continued success will convince its beer-friendly management to take the next logical step and suspend sales of those American bottled beers that are by their very nature, antithetical (that is, directly opposed) to the BBC’s reason for being. This isn’t intended to imply, as some have suggested, that no bottled beers be sold. There is always a valid case to be made for the sale of seasonal specialities and even novelties like those not being brewed at BBC (Crazy Ed’s Chili Beer, Belgian lambics, etc.)

Philosophically, and aesthetically, chili beers and lambics are not at odds with the ideal mission of the brewpub. However, the Buds and Lites of the world stand in stark opposition to the brewpub’s proper cultural milieu. Not only that, but these mainstream American beers and the bogus beer culture that have engendered are the very reasons why brewpubs like the Bluegrass Brewing Company are necessary.

This article is a brief attempt to survey the ideal philosophical and aesthetic foundations of the brew pub in late 20th century America, and to demonstrate the efficacy of an enlightened brewpub management policy that recognizes the irreconcilable differences between its own house-brewed beers and those products of America’s mega-brewers, and adheres to a strict and necessary segregation between the two.

Ideally, the theme of a brewpub should be its beer. This might seem self-evident, but nothing can be taken for granted in America, where the insidious influence of fast-food “culture” has led to increased consumer expectations that they be able to enjoy the availability of the lowest-common-denominator at all times.

The lowest-common-denominator, mass-market mentality is manifested in many products and services that the majority of Americans now take for granted. From the far-flung, generic fiefdom of McDonald’s and to the marvels like McRibs that it has spawned, and from the wasteland of conventional television to the lookalike products advertised on its mind-numbing sitcoms, America has succeeded in eliminating the quality of diversity and flavor from vast chunks of the daily lives of its citizenry, who cooperate enthusiastically in this castration of taste because successive generations of consumers have forgotten what quality really means.

The Brewpub as Antidote.

By its very nature, the brew pub stands in opposition to the lowest common denominator, mass market reality of big-time American brewing. The brew pub symbolizes a conscious effort to break with the generic blandness of America’s Lites and Buds, and to restore the tradition of local specialization. The brewpub is but one aspect of a movement toward substance, a trend that embraces a new generation of coffee houses, bakeries, organic food shops and the like.

It is the uniqueness and novelty of on-premise brewing that sets the brew pub apart from its more conventional competitors. Ordinary bars serve ordinary beers, but a brewpub makes its own and the beers it brews are its house specialty just as a steakhouse specializes in steaks or a seafood restaurant specializes in fish. This notion of specialization is central to understanding the brewpub’s role in beer culture because it implies a recognition: in terms of retail or service businesses, selectively ignoring certain consumer preferences in favor of concentrating on designated strength is a perfectly legitimate strategy.

Beer should be the specialty of a brewpub, but this is not to suggest that the brewpub should be restricted to beer. Naturally, most brewpubs serve food, and there are many dining paths to be legitimately followed, from pub grub to nouvelle cuisine. A variety of factors determine whether the brewpub will also serve liquor and/or wine. Neither of these are incompatible with a proper emphasis on beer, which remains the brewpub’s reason for being.

However, it is my view that the sale in a brew pub of Lite, Bud or any of the mega-brewed beers – ones that by their very existence demand a need for more brewpubs – is to commit a serious error and to make an unnecessary philosophical compromise.

Why? Basically, there can be no coexistence between beers like Miller Lite and beers like those brewed in the vast majority of responsible brew pubs. They are mutually exclusive, like oil and water, and to suggest that sales of the former enrich the coffers and permit the on-site brewing to continue is to openly and irrevocably disavow the spiritual nature of good beer and the sanctity brewing it, and to brazenly contradict the brewpubs whole reason for existing.

Specialization vs. the Mass Market.

The question is this: Why sell Lite or Bud (or both) in a brewpub, which by its very nature is devoted to making and selling its own beer?

The answer usually goes something like this: “We’re not just a brew pub, but we’re also a restaurant and a bar, and we must try to please every customer who walks through the door.”

The most obvious rejoinder: It is already impossible to please every customer, and to attempt to do so when specializing as a brewpub is worse, as it risks a dilution of the irrefutable foundation of the business. In other words, the very fact that beer is being brewed and sold on premise indicates specialization, (again) just as one might reasonably expect a restaurant billing itself as a steakhouse to specialize in steaks, or a seafood restaurant to offer seafood. If the customer is able to understand that this ultimate destination is a brewpub, then he is able to understand that beer is being brewed there, and he should be able to understand that this fact is the brewpub’s specialty.

While pleasing the customer is the first priority of all businesses, there is a limit to what can reasonably be done to please the customer, and that limit is fixed at the point beyond which any effort to please begins to actively negate – indeed, to tear at the very foundation of – the business’s reason for existence.

Any business is aware of things it cannot do for fear of damaging its credibility, and ultimately, its profitability. The brewpub’s reason for existence is house-brewed beer, and in almost all cases this implies a stated desire to brew beer that is different from the output of America’s major brewers, who after all, can mass-produce lowest-common-denominator beer on a much more efficient basis than a brewpub. But of course this shouldn’t prevent brewpubs from brewing Kolsch.

Thus, the problem with a brewpub that tries to appease the minority of Lite or Bud-seeking customers while rationalizing “we must try and please all customers” is that brewing on a brewpub scale is incompatible with “all” customers from the very beginning. It is incompatible both by definition and intent. To exist for the purpose of being different than Bud while at the same time stocking Bud surely ranks as a curious form of self-denial in terms of the brewpub’s face to the public, almost as though the brewpub is admitting to a lack of confidence in its own product to generate the profits necessary for survival.

A Controversial Proposal.

As for the customer who visits a brewpub and orders a Miller Lite, two questions are relevant: Why would the customer do such a thing, and why should he or she be rewarded with a bottle of Miller Lite for behavior that is anti-social in the context of brewpub beer and brewing culture?

As an abstract entity, the customer certainly is entitled to every consideration, and as an abstract entity, the customer is always right. However, as anyone with retail experience will tell you, reality paints a wholly different picture. The customer isn’t right to indulge in behavior that is detrimental to others, such as abrasive public drunkenness, brawling with fellow customers, vandalizing the premises, and other obvious examples of boorishness or destructiveness.

Similarly, I see no reason why the customer should be given the right to openly state his hostility to the conceptual basis of the brewpub, and by extension to the very idea of good beer itself, by being permitted to consume a Miller Lite from atop a barstool that is within spitting distance of a tap from which good beer brewed on site is flowing.

There need be neither confrontation nor ugliness to achieve this end. It isn’t necessary to berate anyone or to attempt an explanation of philosophy that is far beyond the scope of the prevalent Liteweight mentality. It is simply necessary to remain true to the principles that preface quality brewing as we, America’s beer enthusiasts, know them by steadfastly refusing to trade in inferior beer. The customer is not being denied a choice. Rather, he is being denied the means by which to bludgeon the very essence of house brewed beer.

Would a restaurant owner offer a customer a baseball bat and encourage him to vandalize the restaurant’s physical setting – tables, chairs, banisters and bathrooms? It is unlikely. Why, then, would a brewpub offer customers Miller Lite, the open consumption which in a brew pub setting constitutes a philosophical attack on a brew pub, and a contemptuous vandalizing of the brewpub’s reason for being, one just as tangible and vicious as setting a fire in the kitchen or pouring sugar in the gasoline tank at the restaurant owner’s car?

In the end we return to the question of profit. A business obviously must make a profit, and the restaurant business is a difficult one in which to profit and to remain profitable, so can the sale of Lite and Bud be explained on the basis of necessity? Perhaps the owners of the Silo could provide a definitive answer to this question, since they seem to have base their entire plan of operation not on their house-brewed beer, which has been good and remains good, but on the sale of mainstream bottled beers.

But I’m confident that the Bluegrass Brewing Company having staked out territory in a “high-end” niche of the market, and having established the reputation from brewing and dining excellence practically overnight, will soon have the confidence and financial stability to eschew the relatively meager returns afforded by the Liteweight segment of the market and concentrate instead on expanding their mandate for quality brewing in Louisville. Once again, I encourage all F.O.S.S.I.L.S. members to give BBC a try. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Obviously the planet remained beyond my reach, but our own workspace was another matter. For Opening Day of 1994 at Rich O’s, there would be a principled polemical salvo and a move unimaginable in metro Louisville at the time: the Lite-Free Zone.

Light No More in ’94 – Rich O’s Introduces Kentuckiana’s First Lite-Free Zone

Walking the Dog #39, December 1993.

On January 3, 1994, Rich O’s will discontinue the following American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers: Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft Light, Bud Light, Michelob Light, Coors Light.

We will continue to carry Amstel Light, a low-calorie Dutch beer with better-than-average character for the genre. Also, we will continue to carry Clausthaler, a German non-alcoholic beer with surprisingly full flavor, as well as Sharp’s and O’Doul’s.

This change will apply to Rich O’s only and not to Sportstime Pizza.

There are three reasons for this decision.


American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers make up a very small portion of the beer sold at Rich O’s. Our resources are better allocated for the imported beers and American microbrewed beers that make up the bulk of our beer sales.


Every business has a business plan, and we are no exception. The foods and beers we sell reflect choices we have made with regard to the type of restaurant and pub we want to be and the type of things that we’re reasonably able to do. Some foods and beers, such as American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers, simply do not have a place in this plan.


Our beer list is intended to reflect the stylistic diversity of the world’s best beers, and we are committed to the broad perspective that embraces a different beer for every season, mood and occasion. Furthermore, we are committed to educating the beer-drinking public as to the merits of the world’s great beers, whether those beers are brewed in America or abroad. From the perspective of beer appreciation, American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers can play no role in the educational mission we have chosen to pursue.

It is our sincere desire that this decision be viewed not as an impediment of choice, but as a gateway to greater appreciation of beer, one of the world’s noblest libations.

Why a Lite-Free Zone at Rich O’s?

For many, the question is obvious. Why would Roger and Amy seek to deprive customers of their choice of libations by prohibiting the sale of American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers in Rich O’s?

To put it in the simplest of term, the answer is that we cannot in good faith and good conscience sell something that we don’t believe in personally, and we don’t believe in American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers.

We sincerely believe that American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers are a corruption of the essence of beer as beer was meant to be, and we view these beers as symbolic of the way in which America’s brewing giants have adulterated the essence of beer in pursuit of higher profits and more pervasive power over their markets.

We understand that all this may seem to be a bit much to the casual beer drinker, yet we earnestly hope that the absence of American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers be viewed not as a hardship, but as an opportunity to set off in pursuit of the perfect pint.

There is a different style of beer to suit every food, occasion and mood. We firmly believe that one’s self-worth as a beer drinker need not be defined by unwavering allegiance to a solitary style, or brand; rather, enjoyment and fulfillment can derive from the joyful recognition of diversity and an eagerness to embrace the knowledge gained accordingly.

In the final analysis, it is for the greater good in terms of awareness and knowledge that we take the admittedly unprecedented step of instituting a Lite-Free Zone, although we risk offending those of our customers who prefer American low-calorie (“light”) lager beers.

Perceptive readers will note that my bets were being hedged, as one might sit on the Sportstime Pizza side of the building and drink all the Lite they wanted. Full “flavor” American corn and rice abominations also continued to be sold at Rich O’s, albeit market-priced insanely high to discourage consumption, and trust me, the all-time record price paid of $8.50 paid for a Budweiser by a baffled and angry stranger sometime around 1995 (but yes, he slapped down a king’s ransom for the “king” of beers, which struck me as appropriate) was absolutely ludicrous even by extortionate ballpark or concert venue standards of the present day.

And I reveled in every moment. The Lite Free Zone attracted more patronage than it repelled. They’d bring their friends, guffaw about the Lite Free Zone, then order a Silver Bullet as though saying aloud “that’s hilarious, now get back to the customer always being right.”

I’d suggest in reply that they earnestly re-examine their premises, and offer them principled alternatives. More often than you’d imagine tough love made converts to Carlsberg, and later Pilsner Urquell.

When NABC’s brewery opened in 2002, all these watery and degrading insults to my beer intelligence were summarily ejected from the building, and for a while there we’d sell two or three kegs of Spaten Premium Lager per week. As it turned out, vindication tastes pretty good, too.

Next: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 50: Charlie Papazian goes AWOL as we contest AB’s aggression against Budvar.

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 49: Bluegrass Brewing Co. — an ideal brewpub? Also, the Lite-Free Zone
21 years later.