I have had the pleasure of visiting Paducah Kentucky many times over the past 6 years or so. Located at the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers, Paducah is halfway between St. Louis, Missouri, to the northwest and Nashville, Tennessee, to the southeast. Hop in your rental car at Nashville’s BNA, and you are in Paducah in about 2 hours.
Supposedly named for an indigenous Chickasaw Indian Chief “Paduke” the town was officially laid out by William Clark (of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition) in 1827, and became a successful river town of strategic importance to the region.
Unfortunately, river towns are likely to suffer flooding, and Paducah was no exception. In 1937 the Ohio river flooded the town submerging miles of downtown. Huge floodgates were later installed to protect the town, but the scars of that flood can still be seen on signs and markers.
When I started coming to Paducah for my paying job in 2010, it was in transition to a sort of “arts town”. It was already home to the national quilt museum – attracting folk art fans from all over the country. The city decided to basically give some of the largely abandoned old homes near the center of town to artists – on the promise that they would rehab them. And an artist colony really got started.
But, at least up until 2015, Paducah was kept pretty dry – dry of craft beer that is. While some of the most popular brands (Sierra Nevada, Sam’s) could be sourced from local liquor stores – dominated by Bud Lite, Corona and the usual suspects – the picking were slim. Well, thankfully there was bourbon, so it wasn’t totally barren.
All of that changed in 2015 when not one, but two craft breweries opened in 2015 – First (by a month?) came Dry Ground Brewing, situated in a beautiful 75 year old restored Coca Cola bottling plant building, on the west side of town. Then about a month later, Paducah Beer Werks opened right downtown on 4th street in an refurbished Greyhound Bus terminal. These two breweries ended the dark times for beer appreciators in Western/Central Kentucky, hopefully forever!
My first experience was at Dry Ground – in the massive brick Coke complex visited in mid 2015. The place is immaculate and dominated by a huge natural wood bar, with the shiny stainless brewery equipment in the same room as the bar. Dry Ground had about 25 beers on tap – extremely diverse in styles and recipes, including Belgian Triples like “Adam’s Beard” (named after one of the brewers) and Saison’s, Bourbon Barrel Stouts (naturally) and a number of IPA’s (one named “”’37 Flood”).
The vibe of the place was one of friendliness, almost family like, bright with an open outdoor deck and large tables, and no TV. The beer was inventive and yet solid, as co-owners Ed and Meagan Musselman brought in a brewmaster with experience in NC and other areas of the country, Todd Walton. While there was no food available in the building, there are discussions of a pizza chain locating in the vast facility sometime soon.
Early this year I made it to the Beer Werks, and it was also very good, but a bit of a contrast from Dry Ground. Partners Todd Blume and Joey Dunlap decided that restoring the down town Greyhound terminal that had been derelict since 2010 would be a perfect location – large enough for a taproom restaurant and a music venue. The costly rehab probably also cost them the right to be the “first brewery in Paducah” by about a month, but they don’t seem to mind being #2.
The night I was there, the crowd was very mixed – with hipsters, locals and Millennial’s on dates all enjoying the beer and food. While the vibe was a bit more urban and edgy than Dry Ground, the beer was not. It was clear that Todd was interested in producing classic standard British styles, and not so concerned about crazy brew names or unusual styles or ingredients for his beers. His diligence has already paid off with a Bronze at the GABF for their classic and crisp Pale Ale, and some other awards for other styles as well. I found it strangely refreshing that the well inked bartender on that night said to me “I don’t really like IPA’s myself”, as she glanced up at the game on the large TV.
So what do we make of the more gritty urban “PBW” (Paducah Beer Werks) with the more standard, basic beer styles – and the seemingly more mellow and quiet Dry Ground with the crazy inventive beers – like “Moon Pie Rapture”? Well, like craft beer itself, it shows that there’s room for the classic and the new, enjoyed by the hipster and business person alike – emblematic of an industry that’s being inclusive not exclusive.
For a beer appreciator like me, and the lucky ones in the Paducah area, the dryness is over, let great local craft beer sail on in this rejuvenated river town.