Some traditions can’t really be explained. Ten years ago, when Bluegrass Brewing Company Taproom and Production Brewery on East Main created Bourbon Barrel Stout, a tradition came about: the Blessing of the Beer.
Phil Dearner, co-owner of the brewery, was a part of creating the tradition of bringing members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to the taproom to symbolically kick off St. Patrick’s Day festivities. But even he can’t remember exactly how it happened. And now it’s an annual tradition, with crowds getting bigger each year. He does know one thing about the blessing ceremony.
“It’s a great excuse to drink beer,” he says.
Of course, this year it’s also a way to celebrate Bourbon Barrel Stout’s 10th birthday. As such, the AOH and BBC crew will meet at the taproom Thursday, March 12, at 5 p.m. to get the tradition started. Father Joe Fowler will bless the barrels holding the precious liquid, after which the first keg will be tapped.
“It’s cool,” Dearner says. “You’ve got all the AOH guys in their kilts and their lanyard things they wear. They’re all decked out to the nines. You’ve got Father Fowler, who is in his Catholic priest attire. He’s got his holy water and his incense. You’ve got the bagpiper. All that inside a taproom like we’ve got creates a huge ambience of, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
He then adds, “To see Father Fowler back there actually blessing the beer, it’s really cool, especially with the painting of the Last Supper we have back there. With him standing in front of it makes a really cool picture.”
After the blessing and tapping are celebrated with a pint of Bourbon Barrel Stout (or two), the congregation then proceeds, with a single barrel of the blessed beer, to O’Shea’s in the Highlands at around 6:30. That keg will be tapped, and that will lead to a couple more ceremonies.
State Senator Jeff Donohue will present the AOH with a framed copy of the resolution making the month of March Irish American Heritage Month for the entire state of Kentucky. After that, it’s the annual knighting ceremony. Last year, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was knighted. This year, it will be Dearner who is inducted into the Knights of St. Patrick.
“It’s a great honor for me,” Dearner says, calling it the “highlight of the evening.”
He says this because he’s an improbable choice for the honor.
“To be a member of the AOH, you have to have a direct bloodline back to Ireland,” Dearner explains. “I’m a mutt, so I don’t. Each year they pick up to three people and … knight them into the Knights of St. Patrick. Somehow they chose me this year.”
He notes that BBC has a long relationship with the Order of Hibernians, expressing respect for the charity work the organization does with the Boys and Girls Haven and other causes, not to mention the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade (on Saturday, March 14), which is something the entire city can enjoy.
The remainder of the Thursday night ritual at O’Shea’s can be spent listening to Celtic band Highlight Reign and enjoying a special menu of Irish favorites, including corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and Guinness stew.
And, of course, there’s the beer, which many Louisvillians may not realize is fairly well recognized across the region.
“If you go to places like Virginia or Tennessee and you say ‘Bluegrass Brewing Company,’ they might know who you’re talking about,” Dearner says. “If you say ‘BBC,’ they’re more likely to know who you’re talking about. And if you say ‘Bourbon Barrel Stout,’ they’ll say, ‘You’re those guys who make Bourbon Barrel Stout.’
“Leave it to Kentucky boys to do Bourbon Barrel Stout right.”
Dearner says his hope is that the tradition continues to grow until it becomes a day-long event with greater involvement from the city of Louisville. Until then, enjoy a pint of stout to kick off St. Patrick’s Day. The blessed beer won’t last long.