How To Brew Kentucky Common

by Steve Thanos Updated on July 10, 2021 American Beer Brewing Recipes

Kentucky Common also known as “Common” or “Dark Cream Ale” is one of the few truly American beer styles.

However, the style is rooted in the influx of German and Irish immigrants currently living in the region in the mid 1800s. 

Kentucky Common

The original recipe was a low alcohol beer, similar to an American cream ale, except with a handful of dark and caramel malts to darken the beer. Also, the recipe called for a mix of six–row malt and some native corn. 

Earliest Known Recipe

The earliest known recipe was included in the second edition of American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Associated Trades by Robert Wahl & Max Henius.

In this book, it gave a detailed description of making a Kentucky Common, which also included grain bill, mash temperatures, boiling, and fermentation notes. 

A Beer for the Working Class

This beer was quickly gaining popularity with the working class. One of the reasons was the quick turnaround of this beer after brewing it.

Breweries were able to brew this beer and turn it around and sell it after only a short six to eight days. This is unheard of in the brewing industry. It is really a great way for brewers to start profiting off the fruits of their labors. 

Cost of Beer

The cost of beer itself was another reason for this beer’s popularity. A barrel of a Kentucky Common could be sold to publicans for a mere $5/barrel, which equated to only a couple cents per pint.

Comparatively, a barrel of stock ale would cost about $12/barrel and a barrel of lager would cost about $8/barrel. 

Short Shelf-Life

The quick turn around did have a downside. Due to the quick turn around of this beer, it also contained a shorter shelf-life.

However, these Louisville brewers made it work and the beer became the go-to beer of the locals right up to prohibition. 

Popularity of the Style

The Kentucky Common style all but died after prohibition. There are still some breweries still making the style, but the popularity is nothing like it was in the heyday of this style.

Style Profile for Kentucky Common

Appearance

The color range of a Kentucky Common can usually range from amber-orange to light brown. Head is white to off white in color and head retention is usually poor.

Beer is usually clear, but some haze may develop due to short conditioning time. 

Aroma

The aroma consists of malt consisting of low toast, caramel, bread, and grainy biscuit along with a corn-like sweetness.

There are medium-low hop aromas. With a clean fermentation, a possible slight berry-like ester will develop. There is no sourness to the aroma, but low DMS is possible and acceptable to standards. 

Flavor

The beer’s backbone is medium sweet grainy maltiness with low to moderately-low bread, toffee, caramel, and/or biscuit-like character. Hop character is medium to low in flavor.

Hops come across as spicy and floral. Moderate to low bitterness is soft and balances out the sweet malt. Light fruitiness.

The beer’s finish is dry and has a low flinty or sulfate character. No harsh bitterness or sourness. 

Mouthfeel

High carbonation with a moderate light body. Soft mouthfeel and creamy texture.

Tips for Brewing your own  Kentucky Common

Grain

This grist for a Kentucky Common is usually fairly simple. A majority of the grist is made up of 6-row. If 6-row is nowhere to be found, then 2-row can be a substitution.

However 6-row has more enzymatic power and should be considered for this style. 23-35 percent of corn. Corn can come in a variety of ways. The easiest to use would be grits, flakes, and sugar.

Specialty malts consist of a small amount of caramel and roasted malts to add character and darken the color. Usually these make up 1 to 2  percent of the grain bill. For added flavor, Rye malt or flaked rye can be considered. 

Hops

Usually, American hops were used for this beer style. Cluster was the choice of hop for both bittering and flavor additions.

A few other hops exist as replacements for Cluster, these include: Galena, Nugget, and Crystal hops. 

Yeast

  • White Labs: Cream Ale Yeast Blend (WLP080) or American Ale Yeast Blend (WLP060).
  • Wyeast: American Ale II (1272); Kolsch (2565) or California Lager (2112).
  • Imperial Yeast: Imperial Dieter (G03) or Imperial Flagship (A07).
  • Dry Yeast: Safale American Ale Yeast US-05 or Danstar Nottingham Ale. 

 Kentucky Common By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 11 – 20 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.044 – 1.055 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.018 FG
  • IBU Range: 15 – 30
  • ABV Range: 4.0 – 5.5% 

Martin Keen’s  Kentucky Common Recipe

Grain

  • 70%               7 lbs     Pale Malt
  • 20%               2 lb       Flaked Corn
  •   5 %              8 oz      Flaked Rye
  •   2.5%            4 oz      Black Malt
  •   2.5%            4oz       Caramel/Crystal 40L

Hops

  • .5 oz        Cluster – 60 min
  • .5 oz        Cluster – 20 min

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   California Lager Wyeast #2112

Directions

  1. Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins
  2. Boil for 60 mins  

Transcript: Today I’m brewing a beer that was popular in the Southern US states in the 1800’s. It’s a dark cream ale. Today, I’m brewing Kentucky Common.

My name is Martin Keen. I’m taking the Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks.

Now, Kentucky is considered a southern US state. I also live in the south. I’ve been here for well over a decade. So it would seem conceivable that I could pull off a passable Southern accent by now, but y’all know that is definitely not the case, not at all. So I’m just not going to try it.

Now, today is feeling a bit like a novelty today. I’m going to do this whole brew day in a single day. Uh, that is actually an anomaly because for reasons of kettle souring, just overnight mashes, I’ve generally been splitting my brew day in two, but I’m going to do the whole thing at once today.

And I am going to be mashing this bit at 152 Fahrenheit, which hang on, I ah yes that is 67 Celsius.

Now Kentucky common is one of those rare breeds of beer style that really is native to the United States. Think about an American cream ale with some darker malt. And you’re about in the ballpark.

So the original gravity for this one aiming for around about 10 49 original gravity around a 4.5% beer. In terms of ingredients, 70%, my base malt that is two row pale malt. And then to that, I’m adding 20% of flaked corn. Then 5% is flaked rye and two and a half percent each of black malt and caramel 40.

Now Kentucky common art, dark cream ale originates in Louisville, Kentucky, and was popular in the 1950s. In fact, by 1970, 75% of all being produced in Louisville was this style. But after prohibition, the beer fell away in popularity and into obscurity.

Of course, craft beer has helped bring it back to life. Now there seems to be some debate as to whether the Kentucky common is sour like to lactobacillus, which kind of makes sense, right? Similar to like the sour mashes of Kentucky whiskey.

But it seems that was never actually the case. And I have enough other sour beers to keep me busy anyway. And I think the BJCP guidelines agree with me. It’s not a sour beer.

Now I want to try something clever with packaging with this brew. Take this keg, right now, it’s just full of nothing. If I were to put beer into it, well, the beer would go into this vessel and to mix with what’s already inside there, which is air. And cold side, oxygenation, generally not good for the beer.

So one good practice is to fill this keg up with sanitizer and then flush it out with CO2 so that the CO2 replaces all the sanitizer. Now we’ll just have a keg full of CO2 and we can displace the CO2 with beer.

The clever part here is rather than using my CO2 tank to do that. I want to try doing it using the CO2 that’s generated during fermentation.

Now this beer is a total cluster fest, it’s cluster all the way it’s. So I’m adding in at the start of the boil, cluster to get to around 14 IBU of bittering.

And then with about 20 minutes to go that’s when I had a little bit more cluster to just give a little bit of a floral and black currant kind of tone to the beer.

I’ve cooled the wort down to about 60 Fahrenheit or 16 Celsius. And then I’ve added in as my Wyeast 2112, that is California lager. So this is a lager yeast, which I’m going to ferment relatively warm for a lager yeast at 60 Fahrenheit.

Now, I’ve got here, a keg and this keg is filled to the brim, to the brim with sanitized water. So this is just water and star san. And what I’m going to do is hook it up to this, which is a gas manifold.

Now this gas manifold has a pressure gauge on the front there, and it has a PRV, a pressure relief valve, and a post here to connect to gas quick disconnect.

So what I’ve got is a jumper cable here, which is just gas to gas. I’m going to hook up the gas from here into the gas, in of my keg, that’s filled with liquid.

So what should happen here is pressure is going to build from the fermentation. It will get sent through this here and placed into this keg. Now, when that happens, I’m going to take my second jumper cable, which is just a liquid to liquid connector. And I’m going to connect the out from this keg to the out of a empty keg.

So now the pressure should push out the liquid into the second keg. We need to then have a methods to get rid of the pressure that’s in this keg. You could use the pressure relief valve and kind of lock it. T

his one doesn’t have any sort of keeping it open lock. So I’m just going to use this, which is connected to nothing and will effectively mean that the pressure can escape.

Oh, and I should say that credit for this whole thing goes to Marshall Scott who describes this whole procedure up on the brulosophy website.

You look like a woman in your hoodie. Yeah, it looks great on you. Nice shirt. Thank you. So look, we launched the, the, um, much store and people have been like buying stuff. It kind of blows my mind that there are people walking around around the world, like wearing stuff that says the Homebrew challenge on it.

Isn’t that crazy? It’s really cool though, to think about. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

So, um, this beer is part of the historical beer style category. Okay. And last week we tried Gose, which is a style you’re familiar with, but from here on in, we’re going to be doing a lot of styles that probably you haven’t heard of. Cause I hadn’t heard of them. Okay.

And that includes today’s style. Okay. Which is Kentucky Common. Never heard of it. Right. Does this look like a true Kentucky common to you? Sure. Yeah. Yeah. It looks like a, like a dark log to me. Smells malty. Does that smell some malt in it? It smells fruity to me, really?

Smells like malt fruit. Oh yeah. The well-known malt fruit. What’s a malt fruit? I don’t know, this.

Let me try it. Yeah. You got anything else to say? No? Okay. Wow. That’s really like smooth light. A light mouthfeel, right? Yeah. Cause like the past couple of beers we’ve been doing, like when we’re doing the single, Dubbel, tripel, quad beer, those were like a lot going on in the mouth feel. There was a lot of tastes to pick out and this one just overall like simple. Yeah, yeah. In the best possible way.

There’s a lot to be said for a cold, refreshing, simple beer, right? Yeah. Yeah. I, I really am excited for you to try it next week’s beer. Cause I can’t wait to see your reaction. We are definitely moving into obscure and saying that and uh, it doesn’t get much more obscure than next week’s beer.

Okay. I’m nervous. You should be. Oh great. Okay. But until then, Cheers!

Steve Thanos: Former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.