By: Jennifer Justus
Ask Kent Taylor about changes in the craft beer scene in Nashville, and he'll take you back to 1994, when he co-founded Blackstone Brewing Company.
"It was Bud country," he said. And even when he would serve guests his lightest beer, they would sometimes ask for a "real" beer instead. "We might have been ahead of our time."
Cut to 2013 and you'll find Blackstone joined by thriving craft breweries like the 10-year-old Yazoo Brewing Company, which had its highest volume in sales last month, and the 2-year-old Jackalope Brewing Company, which reached 100 percent production in October of last year and will add canned beer to its repertoire thanks to a mobile canning unit rolling into town this fall.
New breweries have popped up, with several more in the works, including HonkyTonk Brewing Co., Tennessee Brew Works, Black Abbey Brewing Company and Little Harpeth Brewing. Beer bars have opened, too (Craft Brewed and The Filling Station), with others set to open (Hops + Crafts and The Hop Stop).
The Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild formed in 2011 and led the charge to update beer tax laws that took effect this month (though we still have the highest beer tax in the country). And it seems anyone wanting to learn more about craft beer won't have to look far for an opportunity to sip.
"We have a beer festival or an event (to take part in) every weekend from mid-August through October," said Jackalope co-founder Bailey Spaulding. "That's a lot."
The craft beer movement has been booming across the country, especially in cities like Portland, Ore., and Denver. (Tennessee has about 30 breweries in the state, for example, while Portland has more than 50 in the city alone).
But despite a recent Beer Institute study ranking Tennessee low in beer consumption, Blackstone recently topped the list as fastest-growing craft brewery in the country in an interactive map prepared by The New Yorker.
Taylor, who also bottles beer for other companies on a contract basis, shrugs it off as just "math" and "a fluke," preferring instead to keep his head down and moving forward with his goals. It's a sentiment that seems to be echoed in town as beer makers work hard just to keep up.
The folks at Jackalope, for instance, said they've spent a solid six months making as much beer as possible to keep up with demand in Nashville.
"We'd literally be kegging a beer and sending it right to our distributors," said co-owner Steve Wright. "Well, this is the freshest beer in Nashville. I feel pretty sure of that," he remembers saying.
"Thankfully, Nashville is still pretty thirsty."
Jackalope installed bigger fermenters this spring to double production over the course of the summer, and plans to add another fermenter in late fall. They'll also begin to can beer through a mobile canning operation that will start up in Middle Tennessee later this year, following a trend that has taken off in Colorado and Oregon.
Popular among craft brewers, canned beer doesn't allow light to enter and has less oxygen than bottles. And it's easier to recycle, has less overall packaging and costs less to ship, just to name a few benefits. Buying a canning line can be a big capital expense, but contracting with mobile canning companies helps offset that cost.
"But if (you) had done it three or four years ago, you would have been too soon. Nashville wasn't ready for it," said Jackalope co-owner Robyn Virball.
After 17 years in business, Blackstone opened a new brewing facility and bottling operation two years ago. "We're just doing what's been done 100 years ago," Taylor said. "If it makes better beer, we'll do it," he said. Otherwise, the company keeps the bells and whistles at its facility at a minimum.
Meanwhile, Neil McCormick said Yazoo has kept its focus local rather than expanding, even regionally.
"We want to make everybody here as proud as possible to work with us," he said.
A creative explosion
Beyond the growth at current breweries and new ones on the horizon, David Wingo, a craft beer aficionado (who calls himself "just a lowly beer drinker"), adds that breweries are bringing interesting beer options to the table.
"There's gonna be a lot of diversity in the Nashville beer scene that we didn't have before," he said.
Little Harpeth Brewing, for example, plans to specialize in German-style lagers.
"I've been (home) brewing German lager pretty much exclusively for about 12 years now," said Steve Scoville, head brewer at Little Harpeth. Along with founder Michael Kwas, he'll also offer options such as Chicken Scratch, an American Pilsner made from malted barley, locally grown corn and America's only native hop variety. "That's another way we try to tie our brand and deliver products that are really related to the history of Middle Tennessee," Scoville said.
Meanwhile, Black Abbey will focus on Belgian-style beers, and Tennessee Brew Works will offer a variety.
And even though Yazoo isn't new, the brewery continues to challenge beer drinkers by bringing in new programs such as its "Embrace the Funk" series, a collaboration with local home-brewing expert Brandon Jones. The crew has been developing sours, wild ales and lambics with yeasts that could "shut down (a) brewery," McCormick said, if they aren't contained and isolated properly.
Some of these "funky" beers also sit in white wine, red wine, whiskey barrels and 30-year-old estate rum barrels from Jamaica that the brewery has acquired, adding tart complexity that you wouldn't get from traditional beers.
"Very few breweries in the United States are approaching sours and wild ales like we are, because the program takes a year or three or four years to get running at any size volume," McCormick said. "People that enjoy these types of beers understand that there's only going to be so much of it. It's small-batch."
A collaborative community
When it comes to the interest in craft brewing, operating brewers look to the new breweries and beer bars as examples of the growing popularity.
"It's exciting. There are tons of new breweries coming in ... it's booming," said Virball.
Matt Leff, who organizes beer festivals and events in town through Rhizome Productions, said having breweries significantly adds to the culture. Picking up a six-pack doesn't make the same impact as visiting the place where beers are made and speaking with the people who make them.
Plus, the collaborative spirit of Nashville and the craft beer culture as a whole help keep the competition healthy.
"I think there's room for everybody," Wingo said.
Taylor noted that craft beer drinkers are not brand-loyal, after all. They're category-loyal.
"They'll try everything on the market," said Blackstone co-founder Stephanie Weins.
Taylor said he considers their job to mean getting people into the craft beer bucket - more so than the Blackstone brand's bucket.
The information between brewers also flows freely.
"We will tell anybody anything if it helps them make better beer," Taylor said.
Other brewery operators say the same. In 2011, a group of local breweries created the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild. Their first meeting took place at Blackstone with Jackalope's Spaulding (who has a law degree) writing bylaws and Yazoo's founder, Linus Hall, as president. They work together on legislative issues such as coming to a recent compromise for a flat tax on beer rather than one tied to the cost of the beer.
"This past year ... one of the main things other than the tax was laying down guidelines for festivals," McCormick added.
The guidelines help protect brewers from feeling pressured to participate in every one of the growing number of festivals and to focus instead on the ones that help sustain the industry.
Leff, who says he focuses on quality, not quantity, at his festival, started the East Nashville Beer Festival three years ago. He caps attendance at 2,000, but has sold out the festival every year. In March, for instance, the festival sold out in 15 minutes.
Leff leads brewery and beer bar tours through Gray Line, and he added the 12 South Winter Warmer, a December festival coming up on its third year, as well as the Brew at the Zoo, which just completed its second year. Leff heads up Nashville Craft Beer Week, too, which offers a variety of events such as dinners culminating with the East Nashville Beer Festival.
"Part of my mission is to build Nashville Craft Beer Week to reach all demographics," he said. "When there's visibility of craft beer and local breweries, people are at least going to give it a try."
The interest in all things local also has played a natural role in the popularity of craft beer.
"More and more people are coming into the bars and asking for what's local," Spaulding said. "That used to never really be a thing."
And as the local restaurant scene grows, so does the local craft beer scene.
"The three years that I've been here, this city has drastically moved forward," Leff said, "and it's not stopping."
Contact Jennifer Justus at 259-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.