Craft-Brewed Beer Is Catching on in Stores, Restaurants, Breweries—and Even at Home!
D ave Sergio says he and his brother Don were born to brew beer. “It runs in our blood, I think,” he says. Born in Wisconsin, the brothers moved to Tennessee as kids. By the time they reached adulthood, Sergio says, they’d grown attached to Sparta—a town of 5,000 people that bumps up against the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau—and decided to stay put. The adult brothers, both working in construction, also loved beer, brewed beer, and finally decided to get serious about it in 2007, when they got a license to brew and sell beer.
They named their brewing operation Calfkiller, after the scenic river that starts at the base of the Cumberland Plateau and runs through Sparta before draining into the Caney Fork of the Cumberland River. The river provides Sparta’s water supply. During their years in construction, Sergio says, the brothers rescued perfectly good materials—wood, windows, doors—that people were getting rid of.
“We never knew what we were going to do with it,” he says, but in 2010 they figured it out. They built a brewhouse by hand, mostly from those recycled materials. Three years in, Sergio says the brewing business is now booming, and Calfkiller’s varieties are available far beyond the edges of Sparta. The brewers tap local growers for ingredients for special beers: They buy honey from a Spartan beekeeper for one brew; another farmer provides the coriander for a winter offering called Farmer Dave’s White Winter Wizard Wit.
Small-scale brewing, or craft brewing, has long been popular in other parts of the country, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and the trend has ignited in Tennessee over the last few years. New breweries open their doors—and taps—every year.
Craft brewing received a boon earlier this year in April, when a new bill changed the tax structure on the wholesale of beer. Until the law went into effect in July, wholesale beer buyers paid a steep 17 percent tax. Now, that tax has been changed to a flat $35.60 per barrel—taxing the volume, rather than the price, of beer. While that’s still a high tax on beer, relative to other states, it’s a significant decrease from the previous rate.
Sergio says craft brewing’s popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. “People are wanting more out of beer,” he says. “They want more flavor, instead of drinking the same stuff their parents grew up on.”
The interest is evidenced, too, by the boost in beer festivals that feature local brewers. Nashville hosts a slew through the fall. September 6th brings the first annual Taste of Tennessee Craft Brewers Festival, held at the speedway at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville. The festival promises to host nearly twenty Tennessee breweries that will give visitors a chance to sample dozens of different types of beer brewed in the Volunteer State. The third annual Nashville Beer Fest follows close behind, held down on October 5th and featuring both local and national brewers. December 7th brings the 12 South Winter Warmer, a beer festival held in Sevier Park in Nashville.
Sergio thinks the burst in interest in craft-brewed beer resonates with the parallel rise in popularity of farm-to-table restaurants. In both cases, people are looking for resources in their own communities.
The green, cone-shaped fruit of the hop plant lends its signature bitterness to a beer’s flavor. Many brewers buy hops from suppliers who secure them from centuries-old farms in Europe or other parts of the U.S., but some local farmers and brewmasters are chasing a local hop crop. On a rainy day at the end of July, Linus Hall—brewmaster at Yazoo in Nashville—led an intrepid group of hop-gatherers at Sulphur Creek Farm in Scotsboro. The farm is a Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm, a few miles north of the Cumberland River. This was a Tuesday night, the night of the farm’s weekly potluck dinner attended by members of its CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, program.
Hall says that three years ago, farm manager Eric Wooldridge “thought it’d be fun to try to grow hops and connect with a local brewery.” Wooldridge secured hops rootstock from a farm in Maryland where the plants grew wild. He had them tested to identify the variety: “They’re kind of an old heirloom variety that no one is using anymore,” Hall says.
Hop plants grow as firm-stemmed bines—unlike vines, which use suckers to climb, bines stand on their own—that soar nearly 20 feet in height before the green flowers appear. (In Europe and in the Pacific Northwest, the plants can grow twice that high.) Hall uses Sulphur Creek-grown hops to brew Yazoo’s Preservation Ale, an American pale ale available only in small batches, usually in late September, and donates the profits from the beer back to the farm.
He says Yazoo is looking for local sources of other ingredients for beer, like wheat or barley, but “those types of grains don’t really grow well in this area.” Even if a brewer can grow barley, it has to be malted, which can take a considerable investment of time and resources.
Many Tennessee beer drinkers aren’t settling for the surge in small breweries and taprooms—they’re making their own. Stores like All Seasons or Craft Brewed in Nashville sell the supplies needed to start a home operation. Patrick Napier, who works at All Seasons, says there’s not one typical profile of someone who comes into the store and wants to start brewing.
“We see brewers from every background you can imagine,” he says. “Customers ask all the time, ‘Is it possible for me to make a beer that’s as good as what I can get in a brewery?’ Without hesitation, absolutely. It’s within anyone’s grasp to produce a beer that’s as good in quality or better than what you can get in a restaurant.”
Though it might take some practice—and some money—to get started. An aspiring brewer can obtain all the hardware and ingredients needed to make five gallons of home brew for $250 or less, According to Napier, ingredient kits, for making repeated batches, run about $30–$50, and the store also offers supplies for making smaller amounts, like one or two gallons. He says it’s easy to set up a brewing operation in a standard kitchen—“you can pull off your own style of brewing in your home”—though it would be wise to consult roommates, spouses, and partners first.
Napier says he and his coworkers count themselves successful if the people who come in looking for advice and materials start brewing—and come back repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Calfkiller’s Sergio encourages people who want to start making their own beer, but he says it’s not likely to point to a path to riches. “Do it for the love of beer and not for any monetary gains,” he says. “Make sure you love beer.”