When your job is what you love ...

Beer fans turn their passion into profits – if they have a good head for business

Friday, July 13, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 28
By Hollie Deese

Angie Wilson knows what tourists want. “People want to do what the locals do. I do. People want to experience things, and they want to go to places that maybe are not the typical spots on the map, and the breweries fall right into that,” says Wilson, Visit Knoxville’s senior director of marketing.

“I think it’s part of that overall desire to taste local flavor, and I mean that literally and figuratively,” Wilson continues.

Knoxville’s 14 or so craft breweries have become quite a draw for tourists, particularly outdoors enthusiasts, and Visit Knoxville promotes tours and an “ale trail” to follow on their website. Of the more than 6,000 craft breweries across the country, nearly 70 of them are in Tennessee.

Small and independent brewers employ more than 125,000 full- and part-time employees nationally and generate more than $3 billion in wages and benefits, paying more than $2.3 billion in business, personal and consumption taxes, the Brewer’s Association reports.

In East Tennessee, craft breweries and outdoor activities seem to go hand in hand, with many of the breweries catering to the mountain bike and hiking crowds.

“I think especially the mountain biking scene is really into craft beer,” says Tom Fitzmaurice, one of the owners of Geezers Brewery. “That’s part of the interest that we got started, and started to brew.

“It’s pretty typical for mountain bikers after a big ride to go get some beer. It’s probably less common in other outdoor type venues but mountain biking and downhill mountain biking which we also do, it seems like more. The scene in Knoxville has blown open both outdoor trail building and micro-breweries on the scene.”

Geezers is six months out from a taproom right now, and the company is working on wholesale distribution. For now they are producing half barrels and quarter barrels for distribution through Eagle Distributing, covering the whole region including Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Maryville and the Knoxville area, even dipping down into Oak Ridge.

“Several of the breweries that have opened put their big investment in a taproom,” he says. “We’ve put our investment in a system, so we’ve got a 15-barrel system and we can on one day pump out 60 kegs of beer.

“So based on the research we did, we’ve got a system that can handle the kind of growth that we need to see whereas the people with smaller systems they get locked up and they struggle with just feeding a taproom.”

Wilson agrees the mountain biking and craft brewery connection is a plus for the Knoxville area.

“I think that’s part of the economic impact, the people that are coming here to ride our trails,” Wilson points out. “That’s that same customer. We’ve got the only double black diamond mountain biking trail in the region.

“So the person who’s coming here to hit the trails or go paddleboard on the Tennessee River or in the quarries here, they’re having an economic impact that includes the beer scene.”

Wilson points to the Smoky Mountain Brewery, which is still in operation and is part of the Calhoun’s Copper Cellar Restaurant Group, as the area’s first brewery.

“We’ve had people brewing beer here, even on a restaurant level, for quite a few years now,” Wilson adds. “But the explosion over the past three years has really been impressive, and we have somewhere between 12 and 15 local breweries at this point.”

Geezer’s Brewery, located just north of downtown Knoxville, is in the process of converting their brewery into a taproom where beer enthusiasts can enjoy a cold brew fresh from the barrels.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

There is great collaboration between the breweries and the distilleries, too, Wilson explains, with two that are part of the Tennessee Whiskey Guild working with brewers to develop unique products by trading out barrels to create new concoctions.

“People love the scene here,” Wilson says. “It’s just laid-back fun. A lot of the breweries get involved in social causes and pint nights and things like that to promote different organizations here.

“People have asked, especially within the tourism industry, how we compete with Asheville. I’m like, ‘Nobody has to compete with anybody. You just have to make people aware that you have it, that you have something here.’”

“Because it’s not Nashville’

Nick Giordano got his start in East Tennessee working for A Head for Profits, a company that cleans beer lines and installs draft beer systems.

When the head of sales for Mill Creek Brewing Company, based in Nolensville in Middle Tennessee, was looking for an East Tennessee sales rep, they turned to Giordano.

For a year, he covered Knoxville to Johnson City to Chattanooga, then was moved back to Nolensville where their taproom and production brewery is located. The beer is distributed across the state, as well as in Kentucky and Alabama. Indiana will be added soon. But Nashville and Knoxville remain their biggest markets. Their new 12South taproom in the old SloCo restaurant space opens this week.

“It’s been really neat watching it grow,” Giordano says of the explosion from Knoxville to Chattanooga to Nashville. “It’s a really fun energy going on right now.

“I think specifically in those markets, because it’s not Nashville and there’s not a million and a half people, most of the breweries are smaller. But I think in a lot of ways that has given them the ability to rely less on producing a lot of beer and more on being able to do really high quality things.”

Giordano was Mill Creek’s fourth employee in 2016. Today they have 25 with more to hire as the company expands distribution to Indiana at the end of the month, then plans to slowly open up in different markets in that state. The goal is to not spread themselves too thin so they can’t keep up with production. It is a delicate balance.

“We are kind of in this weird transition period where we can often, but we don’t can often enough to have full-time staff, so we’ve been really fortunate to have a good crew of about five people that work part-time on our canning line,” Giordano says.

“And even just in the brewing side of things, I think as with anyone right now, finding quality employees is hard. It’s been a wild ride.”

Cheers for Chattanooga

When Cassie Farmer walked into new Chattanooga brewery Hutton & Smith just a few weeks after it opened in 2015, she already got a “Cheers” vibe from the brewery.

Hutton & Smith lets you bring your own food. Your dog can tag along, too. It felt like everyone already knew each other, and she wanted to be a part of it.

Today she handles their marketing and media.

Robert Noto, co-owner, has invested his time into founding Geezer’s Brewery as something to do after he retires from Y-12 Laboratory in Oak Ridge.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“I’ve always been a beer drinker,” Farmer says. “I barely like spirits or wine or anything. It kind of feels like a natural place for me to be. I worked at a distillery before this and it was cool to learn about all of that, but I never was the science-fair type. I was like, ‘Hey, have y’all had this beer yet? It’s so good.’”

Hutton & Smith is owned by Melanie and Joel Krautstrunk, who moved from Las Vegas in 2013 and opened the brewery in 2015, choosing Chattanooga over other locations because of the area’s abundance of outdoor activities. The brewery is named after James Hutton and William “Strata” Smith, the fathers of modern geology. The brewery embraces a rock-climbing theme.

They started out on a seven-barrel system and within four months had maxed out their capacity.

“There was no way we could take on any more accounts at that point in time,” Farmer acknowledges. “What was initially a 3-4 year plan turned into a two-year plan for us.”

Now they are on a 30-barrel system, brewing 60-barrel batches. They bought their own canning line and the plan is to be distributing the cans statewide soon.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for us to be a very successful regional brewery ... I think faster than we probably realize ourselves,” Farmer says.

Chattanooga has seven breweries right now, including family operation OddStory Brewing right across the street. By the end of the year there will be nine.

“Chattanooga has a cool thing where people want to see local stuff and so they’re really supportive of the local beer theme, and receptive to it,” Farmer adds.

From hobby to business

When Carl Meier moved to Nashville in 1999 from upstate New York, his wife was working on her master’s degree at Vanderbilt, leaving him with some time on his hands. With her encouragement, he joined a local homebrew club, the Music City Brewers, to meet some new friends who shared his love for home brewing.

In that club of amateur brewers: Linus Hall, founder of Yazoo Brewery; Steve Scoville, one of the founders of Little Harpeth Brewing; Ken Rebman, founder of Czann’s; and Karen Lassiter, who was the head brewer at Bosco’s then and now heads up Corsair’s Beer Lab.

Meier also met John Owen and Mike Edgeworth in that club, who became his business partners in Black Abbey Brewing. The three home brewers began to enter – and win – brewing competitions across the region. In 2009, they won a silver medal in the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrew Competition, the largest homebrew competition in the world, with a Belgian style abbey ale.

“At that point, we decided we should think about writing a business plan,” Meier says.

They did, then incorporated in 2011 and brewed the first batch of Black Abbey in August 2013. When they opened five years ago, there were approximately 2,000 breweries in the United States. Today that number has more than tripled, with close to 40 breweries just within a 50-mile radius of Nashville.

“That’s a pretty radical change,” Meier explains, adding Black Abbey has been holding its own with steady double-digit annual growth in volume.

“We have a philosophy that I like to refer to as ‘deep, not wide,’” he says. “We feel like it’s really important to do a good job of servicing your home market. So that has been our philosophy since the beginning, to make sure that we’re providing the folks here in Nashville not only with enough beer, but with a high-quality experience.

“Making sure the taproom is open and well-staffed, then when people come to it, they get a Black Abbey experience, and when they then purchase the beer on the market, whether that’s at a bar, restaurant, or at a grocery store to take home with them, that brand and that experience is consistent throughout.”

Meier had started home brewing in 1993 in his Cornell college dorm room, a hobbyist whose tastes were more expensive than his budget. But his big conversion moment happened after taking an Introduction to Wine and Spirits class his senior year out of hotel school, something he and many others signed up for because they got to drink in class.

Some of the craft breweries in the Knoxville area

Abridged Beer Company

100 Lockett Road, Knoxville

Alliance Brewing Company

1130 Sevier Avenue, Knoxville

Balter Beerworks

100 South Broadway, Knoxville

Blackhorse Pub & Brewery

4429 Kingston Pike, Knoxville

Crafty Bastard Brewery

6 Emory Place, Knoxville

Downtown Grill & Brewery

424 South Gay Street, Knoxville

Elkmont Exchange

745 North Broadway, Knoxville

Geezers Brewery

225 E 5th Ave, Knoxville

Hexagon Brewing Company

1002 Dutch Valley Drive, Knoxville

Hops and Hollers

937 N Central St., Knoxville

Last Days of Autumn Brewing

808 East Magnolia Avenue, Knoxville

Pretentious Beer Company

133 South Central Street, Knoxville

Schulz Brau Brewing Company

126 Bernard Avenue, Knoxville

Smoky Mountain Brewery

11308 Parkside Drive, Knoxville

“They brought in this all-star cast of lecturers, and one of those guest lecturers was Michael Jackson, the beer critic,” Meier says. “At that point, I was in western New York, so we drank a lot of Labatt. He blew the lid off beer for us by pouring Celis White and Brooklyn Brown, and Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter. Just some really amazing beer that we walked out of there saying, ‘I can’t believe beer really could taste like this.’”

Meier no longer brews on a daily basis but is still involved in recipe development when the company is working on seasonal releases, much of it still coming out of their homebrew recipe book.

“We like to brew beer that you can sit down and drink a couple of beers and enjoy them one after another,” Meier points out. “I feel like the craft beer world, in general, there’s so much beer out there that everybody wants to experience all of it, and that means everybody’s sort of changing.”

Yazoo needs more room

There were four brew pubs in Nashville in 1999 – Big River, Market Street, Bosco’s and Blackstone. Some of those are now gone, but there are dozens more, with booms in Chattanooga and Knoxville, too, and even a slow-growing scene in Memphis.

When Hall opened Yazoo Brewery in October 2003, he was the first local operation to really focus on wholesale and packaging. Today, Yazoo is the largest brewery in the state, though his business model has not changed a whole lot in 15 years.

“We have a taproom for people who want to come by and taste the beers or take a tour, but we were always focused on trying to get our beer out into as many venues and retail outlets as possible,” Hall says.

Originally, Hall focused on Davidson County because of the way state laws work. A company can actually distribute the beer directly in the county where it is made. Otherwise, you have to go through a distributor.

“So for the first year we delivered beer in the back of my pickup truck to bars and restaurants,” Hall recalls. “Then we signed with a local distributor, Lipman Brothers, and they got us out into the surrounding counties around Nashville. We just kept branching out. So we distribute now in Tennessee and Mississippi, and a few other markets like Charleston, South Carolina.”

Production has steadily grown, too. Yazoo produced about 1,000 barrels in its first year. Last year, it was around 25,000. And with no more room to add equipment, Hall is in the process of building his next brewery off Myatt Drive in Gallatin and moving out of his longtime Gulch location by next month. That property was listed for sale for $9.75 million and is under contract.

The new location will offer Hall the possibility of expanding and possibly add a canning line.

“I’d say we have about double the space,” he adds of the new location. “With breweries, a lot of the times if you can go higher with tanks you can use a lot less square footage. So, we’ll have a 10- to 15- foot higher ceilings.”

He anticipates to be fully up and running in the new space by this time next year.

Growing people in-house

Despite the number of growing breweries across Tennessee, there is still a long way to go to catch up with areas like Asheville, which has more breweries per capita than any U.S. city, with more than 100 options.

Plus, staffing remains difficult in Nashville like any other hospitality industry.

Hall says it is hard to find and keep skilled workers simply because of the increase in competition and has had about six people go off to be head brewers at their own place or another brewery over the years.

“Just like the restaurant scene in Nashville, there’s a lot of new places opening up,” Hall continues. “So, we’ve had a few people that had brewing experience at other breweries or gone to brewing schools to get an education. But for the most part, we just start people off in the kegging line, and then they kind of pick up that up and we trained them on different aspects. I guess a lot of it is just growing people in-house.”