The Story of Sterling
The ‘Beer of the South’ is back, thanks to two Kentucky brothers
BY CHRIS CAMPBELL
The recent craft beer boom has been driven largely in part by the desire of individuals who are passionate about their craft to create something unique yet tasty, and then go from there. While that’s not to say that brewers as a whole don’t have larger plans than just brewing a batch with the hopes of selling it, their care for the art of brewing usually trumps all else. Lexington’s own craft beer movement has featured breweries that brew good beer and have built a brand around the product. Both Country Boy and West Sixth have garnered a loyal fan base, and have slowly built their brand in much different manners, but with equally pleasing results (and in the case of West Sixth, with a now-infamous recognition tied to their logo). It’s rare, then, to search our local beer scene – as well as the national craft beer revolution landscape – and find a beer whose brand is immediately recognizable, yet the beer isn’t.
If you’re from Central Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Southern Ohio or in some neighboring southern states, chances are that you’ve at least heard of – if not had the pleasure of drinking – a Sterling beer. Established in 1863 in downtown Louisville, the Sterling brand lasted as a viable entity from that date all the way until the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Brewed primarily in only two places in its existence (Louisville and Evansville IN), Sterling became a household brand in greater-Louisville, as well as in other southern markets, earning the tagline “Beer of the South” during its heyday.
The company was ahead of its time in terms of using slogans, taglines, jingles and even unique products. The wide-mouth bottle was first introduced by Sterling, and they also produced collectible cans, portraying Kentucky Derby Winners on limited edition printed receptacles. As a result of their creative use of regionally-themed marketing, they developed a very loyal local consumer base even up until the demise of the beer.
As regional beer brands declined in the 1990s, Sterling went through several owners, before finally ceasing production at the Evansville Brewing Company in 1997. The brand was subsequently sold to the Pittsburgh Brewing Company which filed for bankruptcy in 2005.
While the story of a local, semi-small market, now-defunct beer is not unique, the story of its resurgence is.
Louisville native Todd Jackson, and his brother Ken, discovered that the Sterling brand was for sale. The two had grown up during the peak of Sterling’s popularity and fondly recalled the Louisville-based marketing slogans that ranged from radio and TV advertisements, to the “Sterling Quality Pledge” which was stenciled on each can.
Nostalgia got the best of them, and they purchased the Sterling brand in February of 2012. Sterling was now back in the hands of two Louisvillians, who developed a plan to not only bring back the recognizable red and white logo, but to resurrect the beer itself.
After acquiring the brand, the brothers began to research the brew and realized that they had much more than just a piece of Americana…they had a brand name of a product that at one time was produced at a clip of 900,000 barrels annually (Evansville Brewing produced Sterling and a few smaller brews). Word of their new acquisition spread quickly and soon Todd was getting emails, texts and calls about vintage memorabilia that people in the area had in their basements, bonus rooms or garages. “It was amazing how many people in the area had Sterling stuff around the house. It ranged from a single beer can to collections of dozens of bottles, signs and flyers.”
There was clearly a deep-seeded nostalgia for the Louisville-based beer, but Todd, now president of Sterling Brewers LLC, decided they needed to do more than just research old relics and talk about old times. He decided to bring back the beer. But, with the original recipe long-gone (and some would argue the last iteration of Sterling was not much better than palatable), he set out to design a beer that gave a nod to its predecessor, while improving on it.
“The craft beer scene is heavy on taste and alcohol content. We wanted to produce a quality beer that is both highly flavorful, but moderate on alcohol – and accessible. In short, we wanted a beer that would satisfy a sophisticated palate but also be highly drinkable…and there just isn’t a ton of that type of beer out there now like that.”
So instead of copying an old concoction, or following a trend in a niche market, the new Sterling concept was to find a balance between craft and the common man. “We really wanted to make a high quality tailgate beer. Something that you could session (that is, drink several of), without sacrificing flavor.”
Easier said than done.
The Jacksons’ pet project began to gain momentum, and what started as a novelty began to take shape. Research was done to find out who could write the recipe, and leads down multiple avenues took them to current Director of Education at the Siebel Institute (World Brewing Academy) John Hannafan. He served as a consultant to write the recipe, and presented test batches of Sterling. The resulting pilsner was a nod to pre-prohibition style brew techniques where locally-sourced American ingredients met with old world brewing practices. After four batches, Sterling Beer Company knew they had a winner.
Once the recipe was secured, Goose Island and Great Crescent presented the first pilot batches. Since Sterling didn’t yet have a facility to brew their own product, the obvious choice was to find someone else to brew the recipe at their own property. After what Todd describes as “incessant begging,” the award-winning Bloomington Indiana-based Upland Brewing brewed their first batch. Sterling is Upland’s only contracted beer.
Now that Sterling actually existed once again in liquid form, Todd turned to River City distributing in Louisville to get their product to the masses. They were an appropriate choice, as they were Sterling’s original Louisville distributor; in fact, in the middle of the 20th century, they sold at least 1 million cases a year for 50 straight years in the city alone. The first few orders came in, and in March of 2013, Sterling finally was pouring from the taps once again.
The novelty of Sterling returning, coupled with the beer’s popularity as an actual viable entity (it’s really good!) fueled a fast-paced growth throughout the Louisville area as well as southern Indiana – specifically Evansville, and southern Ohio. Now in at least 75 bars in River City, Sterling is set to get on tap in Central Kentucky. Look for the recognizable Sterling logo to be popping up on tap handles in Lexington this month. (It will also be sampled at the Kentucky Kicks Ass Brewfest on October 19.)
What’s the next step for this old fledgling?
“We plan on canning this winter. We’ve been meeting with some can manufacturers and have a pretty cool design which we think will complement the progressive, yet retro feel of our beer.” Added Todd, “Right now, we’re just excited to have it in our own fridge. All the rest is really just a bonus.”
Central Kentucky Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Kentucky for Kentucky will present the Kentucky Kicks Ass Brewfest on Saturday, October 19, 2013 at the Grand Reserve on Manchester. Sample from 11 of Kentucky’s breweries. There will be three to five varieties from each brewery and a few special releases. Featuring: Against the Grain, Apocalypse, BBC, Blue Stallion, Country Boy, Cumberland, Fall City, Kentucky Ale, Lore, Sterling, and West Sixth. Food By: Hardwood Pizza, Fork in the Road, and Louisville’s Grind Burger. Music By: The Jarflies, Warren Byrom & the Fabled Canelands, and Bear Medicine. Benefiting: Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
This article appears on page 6 of the October 10, 2013 print edition of Ace.
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