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VOL. 43 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 14, 2019

‘There’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Knoxville’

Ale Trail showcases area’s best brews, camaradarie that makes it possible

By Kylie Hubbard

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Blackhorse Pub and Brewery in Knoxville sees the growth of breweries in Knoxville as an opportunity to educate consumers about different kinds of craft beers.

-- Photograph Provided

Scruffy City’s brewers are using their favorite pastime to bring consumers the best of craft beer.

With more than two dozen breweries in and around downtown, the Knoxville Area Brewers Association’s Ale Trail, which offers a list of breweries and taprooms in the Knoxville area, is littered with home brewers who have taken their hobby and turned it into a career, serving drinks for an average of $5 to $7, based on style and season.

“There’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Knoxville,” Balter Beerworks co-founder Will Rutemeyer says.

As with most of the founders of breweries in Knoxville, Elst Brewing, 2417 N. Central St., co-founders Chris Hall, Dan Leonard, Chris Sexton and Shane Todd have their roots in homebrewing.

The four tested batches on Hall’s pilot system before starting distribution in October. The smaller brewing setup allows the partners to test flavors before mass production, saving them from producing too much of a beer that isn’t popular.

“I think Knoxville probably gives a better opportunity to be a smaller brewery (based on) the price of the properties or rent,” Hall says, adding that buying a building was one of the partners’ biggest goals. Equipment for a building can range from $100,000 to $1 million.

The Elst Brewing taproom is set to open by early July, leaning on a community that has found success by combining resources, educating consumers and connecting with Tennessee farmers.

Homebrewing builds community

Rutemeyer, who co-founded Balter Beerworks, 100 S. Broadway, with Blaine Wedekind in February 2016, says the community is a major factor in their success. While relying on their experience – Rutemeyer as a homebrewer and Wedekind as a former distributor employee – the pair give credit to Chattanooga-based restaurant and brewery consulting company SquareOne Holding and other local breweries for boosting their business.

“I think Knoxville is unique in how friendly the breweries and craft beer fans are here,” Rutemeyer points out. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been helped out of a tight spot by another brewer in town.”

Equipment ranging from fermenters to coolers, technical advice and even key ingredients like barley and hops are passed around for anyone in a bind.

“We’re very lucky to have a group of brewers and brewery owners who are motivated to put out a great product and make a profit, but also recognize the importance and strength of having good relationships within the industry,” Rutemeyer says.

The community invitation extends across the state, too. Zach Easterwood, marketing and brand development manager for Nashville-based Fat Bottom Brewing Company, notes the brewery opens its doors and lab at 800 44th Avenue North to all, hoping to help bring in new consumers.

“That doesn’t happen with Fat Bottom being, you know, ‘We’ve got to be No. 1. We’ve got to sell the most beer,’” Easterwood explains. “It happens when a community comes together and helps educate, makes sure the beers are quality and makes sure everyone has the resources to succeed.”

Consumer education

With a boom in the plans and completions of breweries in town, competition is inevitable. But Brandon Crotzer, vice president of Blackhorse Pub and Brewery, says more breweries means more opportunities to teach consumers about the industry, brewing process and varieties of craft beer.

“A lot of guys are out there and they’re just in their own taprooms,” Crotzer adds. “People are learning a lot about craft beer and what they like. People see the different types of beers that everybody’s making.

“Everybody just gets the benefits.”

Some consumers are learning in the classroom, too. The University of Tennessee has offered specialty classes on brewing and the local scene in the past few years, and colleges across the country have started holding brewing courses for credit.

Brewery floor at Blackhorse Pub and Brewery

Christian Spears, founder and president of Nashville-based Tennessee Brew Works, found his brewery start while bartending as a student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. After graduation, Spears had the opportunity to go to London, where he learned international brewery techniques.

Bringing his knowledge back to the states, Spears headed South to find “a lot of people (who) were home brewing out of need.” This sparked the idea for Tennessee Brew Works, which Spears hopes to expand to Knoxville.

“As more people get involved, they bring more consumers with (them),” Spears says. “It’s kind of like gravity and there’s a lot of breweries in Tennessee now.”

A better-educated consumer is the biggest change that Rutemeyer has noticed in Knoxville since he began three years ago, and what he says has led to an almost doubling of breweries in Knoxville in the last five years.

“People are more open to meeting friends and family at a brewpub or taproom,” he says.

There’s still a plethora of consumers needing to be reached, Spears says.

“We still collectively have tons of opportunity to reach more people,” Spears says. “There are so many people out there that are still drinking what we call macro-beers and really don’t step into the realm of craft beer.”

Encouraging consumers to taste all that the Ale Trail has to offer, KABA provides a free passport for beer-drinkers to collect stamps as they hop from brewery to brewery. A completed passport allots for a reward.

“It’s really good for anybody coming to tour the area for that reason,” Crotzer says. “Or you’re in town and (want to see) what Knoxville has to offer and the surrounding area.”

Brewers offer support, philanthropy

Recognizing that they can’t win over every consumer, many breweries support the community through philanthropy and fundraisers.

Spears says Tennessee Brew Works picks a charity to receive a portion of every craft beer sold in the taproom for a designated period of time, with more than 40 charities in the books for 2019 so far. “We try to work hard to support the community that supported us,” he adds.

One of Spears’ favorite partnerships is with eighth-generation, family owned Batey Farms, which grows the barley for his brews in Murfreesboro.

“The No. 1 industry in Tennessee is agriculture, and the fastest-growing industry in Tennessee is brewing,” Spears explains. “It just seems crazy that we can’t marry the two.’’

This productive connection to Batey Farms has led Spears and his colleagues to encourage other brewers in the state to source 100% of their ingredients from in-state growers.

“It will help the agriculture community in Tennessee in the process,” Spears adds. “Ultimately, if things work out well, it’ll help the brewing and distilling community as well.”

Although Spears says he hasn’t heard of another brewery to switch to 100% locally grown ingredients, he notes that it’s a big “leap of faith” to invest solely in local farms, and some breweries might have their favorite company for ingredients.

“We’re all called breweries, but you’ll find that one of us is a little bit different than the other,’’ he says. “We have our own characteristics and character.”

In the community, Balter Beerworks hosts a run with the Knoxville Track Club each week, Rutemeyer says, in addition to hosting events such as a Dine Out for Education, benefits for local charities and the Helen Ross McNabb Center.

Each week, a beer’s proceeds benefit Legacy Parks Foundation, which helps to maintain natural spaces in Knoxville and with whom the brewery has worked closely since its opening.

Blackhorse Pub and Brewery also works closely with Legacy Parks, with its tropical session India pale ale Local Motion. The IPA is available at the brewery’s taproom, taprooms across the city and distributed to markets.

“What we’re doing is we’re going out to mass where we don’t focus on our own taproom,” Crotzer says. “We’re putting our beer out there for everybody to have so you can enjoy our beer if you just go and pick up off the shelf.”

‘It’s only going to get better’

With a handful of breweries and taprooms set to open in 2019, including Elst Brewing, Hall acknowledges he can’t see Knoxville’s brewery industry going anywhere but up.

“The quality of the beer, the variety and styles, and just the different personalities of breweries,” Hall says. “I think it’s all still on its way up.”

Looking back at the start of Balter Beerworks, Rutemeyer said a more mature brewery now lies in Knoxville, with at least 10 breweries and taprooms opening since their start.

“Consumers have confidence that they’re going to get a quality product and a good experience, so they’re much more willing to try out a new place,” Rutemeyer adds.

Knoxville’s influences are extending across the state too, as Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis continue to follow its example.

“Knoxville’s brewery scene has exploded over the past few years,” Easterwood says. “It really has been exciting to watch that city grow and then how the brewing scene has become a part of that.”

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