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VOL. 42 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 10, 2018

From the furnace to the toast

Knoxville sculpter finds niche with beer glasses

By Nancy Henderson

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Glass sculptor Matthew Cummings was sipping craft brews with his drinking club buddies in Louisville, Kentucky, one Friday afternoon in 2012 when one of them started trying to talk him into making an official glass for the group.

“I was an artist with a capital ‘A’, so I was like, ‘I don’t make functional work,’” recalls Cummings, 35, founder of Pretentious Glass Co. and Pretentious Beer Co.

But the friend kept egging him on. So, Cummings created a tulip-shaped beer glass, accentuated it with carved “fingerprints” for gripping, and presented it to the guys.

“And they just started giggling,” he recalls. “I mean, this was a glass that made grown men giggle, literally. One of my friends was like, ‘This is so f---ing pretentious.’”

Pretentious or not, Cummings has tapped into a market thirsty for his glass creations and, more recently, hand-crafted beer. In Knoxville’s Old City, he operates a studio-gallery, a neighborhood pub and a brewery that opened early this year.

Growing up on the Tennessee border in rural south-central Kentucky, Cummings was intrigued by art but says, “There wasn’t really a sense of being an artist as a career. Best case, it was a hobby.” So, he decided to become an architect in a related, but more respectable, field.

At Centre College in Danville, he took all the painting and drawing classes he could, but when it came time to choose between ceramics or glass as his elective in his junior year, he says, “I honestly did not want to play with mud. So, I took glass begrudgingly. I wasn’t excited about it whatsoever.”

Matthew Cummings, founder and owner of Pretentious Glass & Brewing Co. works on different styles of glasses are shaped for different beers, accordingly, to best bring out the flavor and aroma of ales, lagers and many other beers.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

Immediately, he admits, “I fell in love with it, the intensity, how difficult the material was, how beautiful it was, and how much teamwork and athleticism were required.” He was so enamored that, after the class, he switched his major to glass sculpture/painting and, although he didn’t have a clue about how to do it, vowed to make a living at it.

His first exhibition, a thesis show held as part of his graduate studies in glass sculpture at Illinois State University, sold out. Louisville Speed Art Museum bought a piece, and Cummings began showing his science-inspired, abstract work at high-end art galleries along the East Coast. He was able to support himself, but the income was sporadic, and eventually his wife, who was studying to be a doctor, reminded him that “financial fluctuation leads to emotional fluctuation.”

By accident, the drinking-club challenge provided a solution to his unpredictable cash flow. Despite his friends’ teasing remarks, others gave a thumbs up to his fingerprint beer glasses.

“There was no such thing as craft beer glassware at the time. It was a problem that was hiding out in the open,” Cummings adds. After six months of research, prototyping and gathering feedback from industry mentors, he launched his new company.

“And whenever I went to name it, that moment kept coming into my head where my friend was like, ‘This is so f---ing pretentious’ and giggling,” he says. “Also, it was very tongue-in-cheek, because craft beer is traditionally an everyman’s or everywoman’s drink. It doesn’t have the cultural connotations of wine or whiskey.

Visitors are welcome to walk into the shop and watch the process as well as peruse different glassworks.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“But craft beer is getting to the point where, if you try to give a beer snob a Budweiser, they’re like, ‘Oh no, I don’t drink that macro stuff.’ So, it’s recognizing that I’m making expensive glasses for people to drink craft beer out of and, you know, kind of making fun of ourselves as well.”

In December 2012, Cummings opened an online Etsy store as a “side hustle” to help offset his studio sculpture expenses. Marketing directly to draft beer drinkers and being careful to keep his Pretentious persona separate from his hard-won reputation as a fine art sculptor, he peddled the glasses at pop-ups in shops, breweries and craft beer bars. His goal: sell 20 or 30 a month.

Seven months later, he was selling his wares at a pop-up event at Against the Grain, one of his favorite Louisville breweries, when his phone began blowing up with congratulatory emails and notifications of sales on Etsy. Pretentious Glass had just been featured on the Foodbeast and Huffington Post blogs.

“Literally, we went from selling 20 or 30 glasses a month to about 200 glasses that night,” says Cummings, who began working 60-80 hours a week just to whittle the back-order production delays down to three or four months.

A dozen other major national publications soon covered Pretentious Glass and Cummings’ Etsy site which saw 7 million hits. “Since then we’ve gone viral two other times, like over a million hits in a week,” he explains. “For the next two years, it didn’t slow down.”

In 2014, Cummings’ wife was offered a medical residency in Knoxville, where her family lives. The timing was right for Cummings’ career, too. “Louisville had like 14 breweries and four glassware studios downtown at the time, Nashville a similar situation,” he says. “So, it seemed like it was perfect on both fronts. It would be good for the business because it wasn’t complete market saturation [there] yet.”

Cummings opened a studio, gallery and his first brick-and-mortar shop in the Old City and hired more glassblowers to help him meet the relentless demand on Etsy. In 2016, he added the adjacent Beer Co., serving house-brewed craft beer, sodas and kombucha in handmade glasses.

About six months ago, he opened an onsite brewery that produces beers ranging from Pineapple Creamsicle and Ale Ale Cool J to PuppetMaster Whiskey Barrel Vaudevillian and So Tell Me More About This Futbol. Most are sold on tap, although Cummings recently launched his first limited-edition bottle and can releases for customers to take home.

On Friday and Saturday nights, patrons can order a cold one, sit in the secluded beer garden connecting the brewery and the studio and watch Cummings and his team blow glass. They can also peruse the gallery, which not only showcases Pretentious glasses, but Cummings’ more elite sculptures. Thanks to his talented, dependable crew, he is starting to do more fine art again, which, he says, is “fricking wonderful.”

“I personally have made thousands upon thousands upon thousands [of beer glasses],” he acknowledges. “It’s just not where I need to be putting my creative energy into right now.”

Nevertheless, Cummings still makes all the company’s custom and new designs as well as “exceptionally tricky” signature pieces like the Ale Glass with its graffiti-style moustache motif and the Dual, a cylindrical container with two separate chambers that meet toward the lip. Cummings calls it his “solution to a half-and-half.”

Matthew Cummings, founder and owner of Pretentious Glass & Brewing Co., shows off one of the beer glasses he has created.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“I’ve seen professional bartenders mess up that drink,” he adds. “So, anyone can do it, which makes it incredibly simple. And because they’re side-by-side, you get the aroma of both at the same time, not just the one on top. It lets you mix beers that would normally never separate, and it looks beautiful.”

Because most of his sales occur during the Christmas holidays, Cummings is reticent to predict how well his company will do this year. “But,” he says, “you can definitely say we are one of the top Etsy shops in the world by revenue. … We sell out every year.”

He attributes his company’s success, at least in part, to luck and good timing. “We were just at the right place at the right time,” he says. “Etsy was getting big and the Makers Movement has been building up around us at the same time. I purposely set the Etsy shop up to be full of sound bytes, so all of the glasses have a story. So, we made it to where it was very shareable.”

Although the Pretentious storefront is a big tourist draw – “There really isn’t anybody that does this like this in the world,” Cummings says – regular locals often check in for new designs and buy multiple gifts for friends.

“The support we’ve gotten from Knoxville has been tremendous, and way bigger than I would have ever thought possible,” he adds. “Nobody that works for me is in this to make a bunch of money. We’re in this because this is what we want to do. This is what we’re passionate about. When you buy something from us, you’re doing more than just buying a glass. You’re paying us to continue doing what we love.”

A sock fanatic – Cummings collects fancy footwear adorned with everything from beer and whiskey glasses to unicorns and narwhals, a species of arctic, tusked whale – he describes himself as “focused, stubborn and obsessive about completing things, thoroughly and in the best possible way.

“You’ve got to be a bit stubborn, because I was blowing glass for like 11 years before I started the beer glass company,” he adds. “It is very difficult to be a full-time artist, and I tried a million different things to try to find something that would give me a little bit of a cushion and not be so paycheck-to-paycheck. … In hindsight, it looks like this beautiful, simple thing happened, but there were so many complete failures before that, and the stubbornness of not giving up for over a decade, I think, is a big part of the mindset.”

“He is an artist through and through,” says Zack Roskop, owner of Knox Brew Tours, who met Cummings at a pop-up Christmas sale. Roskop introduced himself, offered to help fold boxes, and the two became fast friends.

“Everything he does professionally and personally is with style, intention and expression – his fashion, his beer, his social media, all of it,” Roskop adds. “He doesn’t half-ass anything.”

Cummings recently purchased a mobile glassblowing furnace, with plans to demonstrate his craft on the road, and is working on a large order for Blackberry Farm. He is also perfecting his photography (he takes all of his own Etsy product shots) in an effort to up his social media game.

“My hobbies always have a point,” he notes. “I’m not the kind of person that does things that are frivolous or that don’t have an end goal. … But honestly, if something magical happened and I did not have to work ever again, and I could choose what I filled my day with, I would blow glass and I would make beer.”