Before I moved from Indianapolis, IN to Knoxville, TN I found myself looking into the local beer scene. Having grown up in an area where I had access to phenomenal local and national brews, I was eager to see what East Tennessee had to offer. In doing so however I realized I was living on the wrong side of the Smoky Mountains. Just a two-hour drive on interstate 40 would take you to the epicenter of beer for the southeast, Asheville, NC. With New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues all setting up shop on the right side of the mountains, there must have been some reason to why a city like Knoxville wasn’t chosen for east coast operations. With access to the Tennessee River, a growing population, and a food scene that’s eager to shy away from national chains, it seems Knoxville would be an ideal location at first glance, but then it is the other side.
Outdated & Changing
Tennessee has historically been one of the highest states for sin taxation. With this, the state has skirted by with interesting alcohol laws. Unfortunately for the beer drinker, the craft climate in the Volunteer State has been rather dry with some exceptions that have managed to gain national attention like Blackberry Farm, Wiseacre, Yazoo, and Yee-Haw.
Luckily, in January the beer cap for the state will rise from 6.3% to 10.1% ABV, allowing more opportunities for Tennessee breweries to experiment and distribute. More important though is what this change will mean to breweries looking to expand their distribution to the Volunteer State. Grocery stores will be impacted the most from this arrangement and I am sure I will witness an influx of new SKUs hitting the shelves in January.
I recently was doing a route and bumped into Mike, a Lagunitas sales rep (formerly of Allagash), who talked to me a little bit about what his journey has been like over the last several years. This conversation, which occurred outside of a regional restaurant, lasted only about 10 minutes, but in those 10 minutes we talked about what his previous role was like and what it was like to sell beer in Asheville. His words in a hyper condensed form were, “It’s Nuts.”
North Carolina has some of the most progressive beer legislation in the country. This legislation has benefited both the local breweries that have seen tremendous growth, in addition to the new kids on the block like New Belgium’s new 127,000 square foot facility.
In a recent Brewbound Brewtalks of Asheville, it was mentioned that 10 MILLION tourists visited the city in the past year, most likely to see the new expansive operations and enjoy the outdoors. As a fan myself, I hope to visit Asheville in the next couple months to understand this movement in the south.
So what does the other side look like if you visit it then? What would a beer drinker have to look forward to after all of these reasons pointing towards interstate 40 east? You can look forward to a slow growing craft beer scene in most instances and passionate southern hospitality.
When you arrive to Knoxville, TN you immediately will notice the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair as well as the Tennessee River flowing right beside the city. There are no hundred-person lines to try beer at a taproom and no bottle or can releases where visitors stretch around the block. Knoxville hasn’t been caught up in that scene yet, but it may in the future. Everything moves a little slower in the south and relationships are formed with the people whom you sit next to at the brewery you decide to visit. For most, this may be just what the doctor ordered; egos left outside and a comfortable climate to talk about beer and what it means to the community.
The two breweries I have been visiting since moving here are Crafty Bastard Brewery and Alliance Brewing Company. These two find themselves in a scene they are shaping. The regulars they have earned have allowed for business to open around their space. Whether it is a coffee shop down the street or a running company, they are making an impact in small business growth.
Experimenting with Brettanomyces strains and cocktail inspired brews, these two are able to maneuver unlike some breweries even twice their size. These are the perks of being a microbrewery.
Outside of what they brew for themselves, they’re contributing to the learning process of the home brewing community. Aaron, the head brewer at Crafty Bastard, recently brewed an amber base he portioned off to a number of home brewers who would in turn add their own twist. Because of the fermentation constraints on these breweries, tapping into the home brewing scene allows for faster recipe development and execution.
The market in East Tennessee isn’t saturated by any means and I haven’t even covered some of the biggest players. These two are a point on the map for travelers passing through to give a chance. They may not have the reputation yet, but all breweries started somewhere and these two have a promising future if they continue to focus on brewing unique beer without sacrificing quality.
New Rigs On The Block, Mostly
There are several new brewhouses operating in the Knoxville area and one that is particularly different. Balter Beerworks and Schulz Brau Brewing Company both opened their doors this year to the community. Both feature plenty of new stainless thanks to strong financial support, while some systems have a more earthy approach. Saw Works Brewing Company located just north of Old City is the oldest microbrewery at just six years old. Although, when looking at their system of brick and wood, one might think it was even older.
Personally, I will continue to work on improving my writing and photography. But, as a new voice in the Knoxville beer community, I will be interested to see in a year what growth lies ahead for all of these young breweries on "the other side."
Writing & Photography by yours truly.