CINCINNATI -- A Queen City brewer is diving deep into Ohio River history to craft a new beer that pays homage to both the region’s past and the few unique American beer styles that still exist.
The Listermann Brewing Company will release its Colonel Plug beer at an event at the brewery Friday evening as part of its Ohio Riverboat Pirate beer series.
Head brewer Kevin Moreland said he had been looking to bring back the beer styles that were made before Prohibition, especially one that might be one of historical significance to the area.
“Colonel Plug is something very special to me. … When I came to Listermann as a homebrewer, I always had this fascination with ‘What is America known for in the craft industry?’” Moreland said.
He said America has mostly taken styles from the rest of the world and out its own unique spin on the brews. Moreland said he wanted to go deeper than that and see what styles Americans created that are unique to just our country.
While researching the beer styles that America actually produced as a homebrewer, Moreland said the “Kentucky Common” style kept coming up. While Kentucky might not be known as a beer state in recent history, back in the early days of flatboats and bourbon, it was producing beer right along with the stronger spirits.
Moreland said the areas around Covington, Newport and Louisville were actually big proponents of the style. Kentucky Common is classified as a sour mash beer.
At first Moreland wasn’t able to find very detailed information about the beer, but after looking over the notes of Listermann Brewing’s owner, Dan Listermann, the name of another local homebrew legend kept coming up.
Ray Spangler is the founder of the Bloatarian Brewing League and the 1987 homebrewer of the year.
It turns out that Spangler was known for winning awards for a wide variety of beer styles, and that one of those styles was Kentucky Common. Moreland said he tried to contact Spangler with little luck but a few days later Spangler walked through the door saying he’d like to help develop the beer.
After talking with Spangler for a while, Moreland said he found out that they had their work cut out for them.
“This is one of the hardest beer styles I’ve ever brewed. It’s also the one I’m most happy with because it really gets in depth with how beers were made back then. There’s no easy way around it -- you have to go back to authentic methods to make this beer,” Moreland said.
The methods of making Colonel Plug include an 18-hour mash. Most beer mashes only last about 45 minutes to 60 minutes to 120 minutes depending upon the beer style.
“Basically what you have is unfermented sugar once you do a mash, and then you’re supposed to sparge and rinse all your sugars over to your boil kettle. But when you do the 18-hour mash, you basically take that sugar and convert it to an acid. The acid will take that sugar and make the beer sour. Then you sterilize the beer by boiling it,” Moreland said.
While learning about the style, he said he liked it for its history but it wanted to bring some more of “that Bourbon County aspect” to it and make a flavor that will be something a modern beer drinker would be interested in.
“When you make bourbon, you’re basically making beer first. So we used six-row (grain), corn, and honey malt -- you normally either find rye, honey or some side note to bourbon to give it color or unique flavors before they distil it -- and we put that together and did an 18-hour mash, and I was in here three times during the evening checking pH because it can go totally haywire on you,” Moreland said.
Spangler was also at the brewery during this entire process, dispensing his knowledge and helping them get the style right.
Once they got the correct pH and taste, Moreland said they boiled the beer the next day and took the beer and pitched it with Listermann’s house ale yeast and put it in American oak barrels to ferment.
“Not charred, just plain oak. That’s how beer was stored back in those days. We wanted to bring some of that aspect back into the beer,” Moreland said.
The brewers said the process was reminiscent of the old photos of men working at the Hudepohl and Burger breweries when workers would roll the barrels of beer into lagering tunnels or out for delivery.
Moreland said the name Colonel Plug comes out of research that Spangler had done while developing his own beers. Plug was apparently of the real characters from the flatboat days on the Ohio River.
“Colonel Plug used to go down the Ohio River and stop next to boats that might have things that he wanted such as coins, gold or anything that was useful that could make money for him. What he would do is pull up aside them, drill holes underneath the boat, … and then put plugs in the holes he
would drill so the boats wouldn’t sink automatically,” Moreland said.
The boats would then go down the Ohio River and Colonel Plug would hijack the boat and hold the travelers hostage. If the travelers wouldn’t do as Plug asked, he’d pull the plugs.
Since most people would be afraid of losing their lives, they would jump overboard while Plug waited. Once his victims were gone, the robber would put his wooden plugs back in before the boat sank.
“It was a great story and I think every great beer needs a great story,” Moreland said.
The brewers said Plug was well known up and down the river and would travel as far as Louisville and Illinois during his exploits.
That’s why they chose to use Colonel Plug as the first in their Ohio River Pirates series. The next two beers in the series will feature other members of Colonel Plug’s crew.
Moreland said the next beer will be a sour that is aged in port wine barrels.
Meanwhile, beer lovers can get Colonel Plug on draught at the brewery and in 750ml champagne bottles to take home. Moreland said they produced an initial five-barrel batch for the special release.
Tasting notes for the beer include an oaky character, a subtle malt flavor and tartness from the sour mash with a clean finish. Moreland said it’s a sessionable beer that is in the 6% ABV range.
The release party for Colonel Plug will start at 5 p.m. at Listermann Brewing at 1621 Dana Ave. It will also feature local bluegrass band Blue Caboose.