LEXINGTON, Ky. - Given my surroundings - a jumble of old warehouses, graffiti murals, a craft beer pub manned by a bearded youth - I could be in one of New York's trendiest neighborhoods or London's uber-cool Shoreditch. But as I belly up to a cold steel bar, which crouches low and lean within the cavernous brick-and-concrete box that is Ethereal Brewing, the bartender's distinctive accent plants me firmly in Dixie.
"What are y'all havin'?" he drawls with a smile.
Yes, sir, I'm in Lexington, Kentucky, alright.
For years, this city of just over 300,000 has been best known for its centuries-old traditions of bourbon production and Thoroughbred racing. At Keeneland Race Course, live racing in April and October is so popular "you can't get anything done at work, because everyone is at the 'Oval Office,' " quips Mary Quinn Ramer, president of the VisitLEX tourism bureau.
Yet, Lexington has proved it is as hip as it is historic, thanks to an up-and-coming craft-brew industry that has inspired a wave of revitalization across Lexington. Together, these eight breweries constitute the "Brewgrass Trail."
Because Lexington law stipulates that breweries have to be in industrial-zoned areas, they're usually slightly off the beaten track. As they open, they lure locals, tourists, and other new businesses beyond the 19th-century brick facades and antebellum homes downtown, introducing them to the less discreet charms of this Southern belle of a city.
Visit Ethereal's home in the Distillery District, which had been mostly abandoned since 1977, and you'll see what I mean. It's like peeking up Lexington's hoop skirt and discovering a racy G-string and tattoo.
Ethereal kick-started the development boom at the former James E. Pepper Distillery in late 2014. It attracts a devoted crowd, including students from Lexington's two universities, drawn by an array of Belgian-style beers made on the site. Pepper Campus has been expanding ts attractions, and the ramshackle assortment of brick and concrete-block buildings beside the Middle Fork River now house the pocket-size Break Room bar, a distillery producing legal moonshine (among other high-octane libations), a furniture craftsman, the Crank & Boom ice cream shop, and the Middle Fork Kitchen Bar restaurant.
A mile southeast in an industrial park on Chair Avenue is Country Boy Brewing, whose decor runs toward cement floors, cinderblock walls, and mounted deer heads above the bathrooms. Beers boast cheeky names such as Cougar Bait Blonde Ale and Shotgun Wedding and occasional offerings such as a Jalapeno Smoked Porter and Warehouse Experiment #2, aged in Jack Daniels barrels. Even on a weekday afternoon, locals line the long wood-topped bar.
Lexingtonians are clearly a thirsty crowd, so it's surprising that it took so long for craft brews to start flowing.
Daniel Harrison, one of Country Boy's three founders, has a theory about this. "As Mark Twain once said, 'When the world ends, I want to be in Kentucky, because everything happens there 10 years later,' " he said, grinning through his beard.
Brady Barlow of West Sixth Brewing, a five-minute drive from Country Boy, agrees the craft-brew scene had long been underserved. "My wife is from Fort Collins, Colorado, where there are 13 craft breweries for 130,000 people. Every time we visited, I'd bellyache to my wife, 'Lexington really needs more craft beer.' Finally, she said, 'Well, why don't you do something about it?' "
Like any smart husband, he heeded her advice. Barlow joined forces with three other businessmen, who were brought together like a boy band of brewing by their love of craft beer. In 2011, the quartet swept in to save an abandoned 19th-century bread factory, which they rechristened West Sixth Brewing the following year.
These days, they offer 16 of their own beers at the West Sixth taproom and distribute their products across Kentucky and Cincinnati. They've also opened parts of the 90,000-square-foot facility to house a hydroponic farm, a fish restaurant, artists' studios, offices for nonprofits, yoga classes, and even women's roller derby practice.
Like nearby Blue Stallion Brewing, which donates 10 percent of each Monday's taproom sales to a different cause, West Sixth donates at least 6 percent of its net profit to local organizations every year. "We just want to make good beer - and give back to the community," says Barlow, who has helped transform the once-lonely intersection of Jefferson Street and West Sixth into a hopping destination.
Jefferson Street's renewal dates to 2006, when restaurants began opening in clapboard houses that line the mile-long avenue. Today, it's flanked by at least a half-dozen eateries, a wine bar, and Chase Brewing, which opened in December 2014 in an erstwhile gas station.
Chase stands kitty-corner to the Green Lantern, whose chief features are a pool table and a mural of green fairies cavorting on one wall. When I pop in around 5 one afternoon to snap a few photos, the buxom bartender admonishes me. "Some people here might not want their picture taken," she rumbles.
Nervously, I scan the 50ish crowd, none of whom looks likely to be wanted by Interpol. After I explain that I'm a journalist writing about Lexington, the atmosphere thaws noticeably.
Hank Jones, a lean, wiry fellow with a bushy silver mustache and a passing resemblance to Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, is the most gregarious of the bunch. "All this [renewal] started right after my wife and I moved in about nine years ago," says Jones, a teacher and real estate developer.
"We feel safe walking everywhere, although I haven't made it to West Sixth yet," Jones admits sheepishly, then laughs. "I always stop here."
Dallas Lockwood, a burly, woolly maned man with a name that ought to belong to a country music star, has a history with the area going back to 1974. At that time, he lived at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Maryland Avenue, although the house has since been knocked down.
"It's a whole lot for the better now," Lockwood says. He, too, appreciates the authentic local feel you find here. "I walk in, and I know every person's name in the bar."
As I put my pen and notepad away, Jones offers to buy me a beer. Suspicion has given way to Southern hospitality. I've been welcomed into the fold.
For general tourism information: www.visitlex.com
To learn more about the Brewgrass Trail, and how to earn a T-shirt by getting your "passport" stamped at all eight breweries along the way: www.visitlex.com/flavors/brewgrass-trail/