I was late to the beer game. In my early 20s, my alcohol consumption consisted primarily of hard liquor — shots and cocktails. My first beer came years later, in the form of a Bud Light which, needless to say, did not impress. But as my 20s progressed, I developed a fondness for IPAs, and now I’m a regular beer drinker. As my interest has grown, so has the beer scene around me.
When I moved to Louisville in 2016, there were 34 breweries spread throughout the Bluegrass State. Five years later, the industry has seen exponential growth; there are 90+ in operation today. I wondered, in a place known as Bourbon City, is the booming craft brewery scene here to stay? If you ask Michael Moeller, John Ronayne, and David Satterly — co-founders of Louisville Ale Trail — the answer is a resounding “yes.” All three are Louisville natives, each with a beer background, working together to promote the city as a beer vacation destination.
“One of the narratives that we try to tell is that Louisville has always been a beer city,” John says. “If you go back pre-prohibition, we were on par with [places] like St. Louis and Milwaukee.”
Michael adds that both beer and bourbon were booming for the same reasons: great water and accessibility via the Ohio River. Unfortunately, after prohibition, only a handful of breweries remained. “A lot of this trend of microbreweries got started out in the West Coast and on the East Coast with [companies] like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada,” John says. “It eventually kind of came back [toward] the Midwest, and Louisville latched onto it. It took a while to kind of gain traction, but … it seems like five years ago we reached that tipping point where it just kind of became part of the culture again.”
As breweries began growing in popularity, Michael started to notice a trend during his travels. “I had seen passport systems all around the country in bigger cities and bigger metros, and it always made sense,” he says. But when he discovered an ale trail passport in Dayton, Ohio — a city that had roughly the same number of breweries as Louisville — he decided it was time to create Louisville Ale Trail. He, John, and David officially launched the LLC in January 2020, and have since gotten every brewery in town to join the program. Passports are $10 and available for purchase online or at participating breweries. The pages are filled with short bios of each brewery, recommendations and tips, and of course, spaces for trail-goers to get their stamps.
“We’re about to release some new stamps,” Michael says. “Somebody that we now have a relationship with is Louisville Slugger Museum. We’re using the bat nubs, which are leftovers from the bats … they gave us a whole bunch to make stamps out of. That’s just part of the story of how we’re trying to make Louisville smaller, in a way.”
Once a passport has at least 10 stamps, it can be redeemed for a handcrafted Louisville Ale Trail Barrel Stave bottle opener. There’s also an option to collect stamps from every brewery for a chance to win beer money in the form of a $300 Louisville Ale Trail VISA gift card.
“We’ve had a few people from Chicago send in passports,” John says. “[They took] a beer vacation. And we had some other people from Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida … everybody’s looking for an excuse to go out and do something fun — and we’re going to try to make Louisville be [that] excuse.”
Michael says that Louisville Ale Trail is different from other city passport programs in that they are independently run. “A lot of the passport programs around the country are either run by a tourism arm of the city or a state or city brewers’ guild,” he says. “We have the support of both here, though, so we’re happy.”
David adds, “A lot of the larger cities have these programs, but … we’re independently funded. That’s kind of where we drive the value; you actually have to purchase the [passport], as opposed to just getting it for free.”
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Although the passports are what started the whole venture, they’re just one part of the big picture. “There’s the Louisville Ale Trail passport, and then there’s the Louisville Ale Trail entity,” Michael explains. “The passport is one product that we have; Beer Week is another product; Louisville Beer Appreciation Day is another product.” The trio also plans to continue monthly beer collaborations with various breweries and host more beer dinners.
“Our biggest thing is just forming different partnerships. That goes with the breweries, [and] that goes with nonprofits,” Michael continues. “We have some plans to start roping in third parties into our monthly collabs … We want to make this as community-oriented as possible.”
John adds that nationwide craft beer is becoming more diverse, and they would like to bring more of that diversity to Louisville. “It’s all about community,” he says, “and it’s all about hanging out with your neighbors, and it’s all about building bonds over beer.”
All photos courtesy of Louisville Ale Trail.
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