If you do a search online for Kentucky Common, you don’t turn up much. There are a couple of homebrew forum discussions, a Wikipedia page, and a reference to the 1901 Wahl & Henius Handy Book of Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades. The Handy Books is the only actual period reference, and it doesn’t tell you a lot. It says that Kentucky Common had a grain bill of malted barley and about 25 to 30 percent corn. Some sugar color, caramel or roasted malt was added for coloring. It had an original gravity of somewhere around 1.045, translating to around 4.5 percent alcohol under normal fermentation conditions. Hopping was moderate at one-half pound per barrel. It wasn’t fined or filtered, leaving it with a “muddy” appearance.
This lack of information is one thing that lead Summit brewer Eric Harper to select the Kentucky Common style for his second entry to the Summit Unchained Series, Old 152. Asked about this choice he said, “Nobody makes it. Nobody knows anything about it. You can’t have any preconceived notions about what it is. You can’t say I did it wrong, that’s for sure.”
Harper’s approach to the style was to take the scant historical information and riff on it. As the beer was originally made in Kentucky, he took a cue from the bourbon makers and used a mash of corn, rye and distiller’s malt. A portion of caramel and Victory malt added color and some toasty notes. He hopped the beer with Cluster hops, a variety that is native to the US and that 19th-century brewers would conceivably have used.
Some descriptions of the style make reference to a “sour mash,” another nod to the bourbon industry. Harper says that part of his mash was sour. “At a whisky distillery they are fermenting the entire mash.” he explained. “And then they take a portion of that fermented mash that’s got yeast and whatever bacteria and they add that back to the next batch. So that portion is the sour mash, and they are using that as a ph adjustment. We don’t ferment on the grain, and even if we did we don’t have an old batch of this beer around.” Given that limitation, Harper lowered the ph of his beer by adding acidulated malt, malt that has been treated with lactobacillus, an acid-producing bacteria that is found naturally on malted barley. This lowered the ph of the mash to far below the norm at Summit. “There is some confusion when I talk to people about it that the beer is going to be sour.” he added. But this notion of Kentucky Common as a sour beer is not borne out in the historical literature, and Harper’s version is definitely not sour.
So is Old 152 “to style?” Who knows? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. Release events started yesterday and run all week long.
Here’s my notes:
Aroma: Toast and caramel with tootsie-roll chocolate notes. Vague hints of spicy and catty hops add some high notes. Like a delightful baked good.
Appearance: Reddish amber with a slight haze. Good stand of off-white foam that sticks around in a thick layer on top of the beer.
Flavor: Toast and tootsie roll lead off with a bit of caramel adding sweetness. Rye spice comes in the middle. Bitterness is moderate, with spicy hop flavors that are almost prickly on the tongue. Light citrusy (lime?) and almost-lactic-tart notes peek furtively in and out of the background. Layered. Finishes quick and dry with lingering toastines, like toasted bread crust. Clean, crisp, and Lager-like.
Mouthfeel: Medium to medium light body. Medium carbonation.
Overall Impression: What a tasty, easy-drinking beer. The toasty malt at the forefront puts this one right in my wheelhouse. It’s Altbier-like, except with the wrong hop flavors. It’s a winner in my book.