Crafting beer can be a hobby—or an all-consuming business
“It’s my day off,” Jack said to himself. “Time to get to work.”
After a quick breakfast and a cup of coffee, he retreated to his basement. His mind was racing with ideas for today’s batch.
“Maybe a new IPA? Perhaps a coffee stout—the coffee was just so good this morning!” he thought to himself. “I’ve got these new Saaz hops I just bought…a crisp pilsner would be nice, too!” Jack’s mind raced with the potential for his new brew.
Chattanoogans are relatively new to the brewery scene. In a town formerly dominated by plain, watery lagers, we are finally coming around to the crafty side of things and trying to make a name for ourselves as a city that appreciates great beer.
Jack is a home brewer with a passion for great beer. He takes pride in crafting his brews, creating distinct flavors, and will never be caught with a “light” beer in his hand. The world of craft brewing is an art form. You can’t just press a button and a delicious batch of beer appears before you. Much like a bistro-inspired chef, the craft brewer is dedicated. They take the time to create the best, quality product they can; no fillers, no adjuncts, just a pure imaginative beer.
“The sweetest sound is overhearing a stranger next to you at a bar enjoying your beer for the first time without ever telling them you made it,” says professional craft brewer Alexander Rivers.
Home brewing is a way for craft beer enthusiasts to create their own signature beers in the comfort of their own home, on their own terms. At what point is the home brewer able to make a living for themselves brewing and selling beer to everyone else? Having your very own brewery could be considered by many, such as Jack, as living the American Dream. What job wouldn’t be great where you get to create your own signature style of beer and drink it all day? But if you dig past the surface assumptions of the craft brewing industry, you’ll find it isn’t all fun and games, but more about hard work, determination, and a dash of insanity. Ask any dedicated craft brewer and they’ll tell you, “It’s a lifestyle.”
Jack excitedly descends into his basement with a full day of brewing ahead of him. This isn’t a brief affair for Jack; brewing his own blend will take patience and dedication. From the boil to the mash tun, to the fermentation tanks to your glass, brewing craft beers take time. The average brew time is about three hours, depending on what type of beer you’re making. This doesn’t include the time it takes to monitor the temperature of the mixture as it ferments and actually becomes its final product: beer.
“I love the fact that it’s an art form,” says home brewer David Kidwell. “I get to express myself through brewing. I enjoy the fermentation process of it; the natural carbonation that takes place to create the beer. It started as something I did with my dad, and I like the idea that it could turn into something more than a hobby, but for now I just enjoy making beer, letting my friends try it, and spending time with my dad.”
Craft brewing in the state of Tennessee can be quite the challenge. Those who have taken the leap from home brewer to production craft brewer have faced numerous roadblocks with state laws and guidelines along the way. When someone brews beer and perfects it to the level of opening their own brewery, they can’t just open in the City of Chattanooga. The city’s beer board prohibits the consumption of alcohol where meals or lunches aren’t served regularly. This can be a deterrent for would-be brewers in our city. If the brewery doesn’t sell food, customers cannot consume the brewery’s beer on the premises. In neighboring states, we find breweries without food, and they’re thriving. Breweries, when allowed to exist as they should, become exciting hangouts and just plain cool. They are spots to relax with a good beer, in a relaxed atmosphere made by someone who loves what they do.
As described, some state and city laws are hindering the creative brewing process. To better understand these laws we have to understand the history that created them.
We have gone from no in-state breweries in 1933 to 38 breweries in 2014. This resurgence has occurred in spite of the state laws governing the manufacture and sale of beer. Although Prohibition is historical trivia to most city folk, 25 of Tennessee’s 95 counties are still “dry”—some very close to Chattanooga. Tennessee did repeal the alcohol ban in 1933 (at least for beer), but beer was defined as an alcoholic beverage containing less than 5 percent alcohol by weight (6.3 percent by volume). When someone is referring to how much alcohol is in a beer, they are referring to the volumetric measurement, not the weight. This is how we get our ABV measurements, or Alcohol by Volume. This definition is still in the books and has been a hindrance to the state’s craft brewers. Craft brewers would have to purchase a distillery license just to make any beers over 6.3 percent ABV. Many craft beer enthusiasts and brewers consider “good” craft beers to exceed this percentage.
Our state also has the highest beer tax burden of any state in the United States. Arkansas’ tax per barrel rings up at $7.51 and Mississippi’s at $13.23, while Tennessee tops out at a whopping $37 per barrel (31 gallons of beer). In 2011, Sierra Nevada, a leading craft brewer in the country was interested in housing their east coast facility in Alcoa, TN but eventually chose its location across the border in Mills River, NC because of friendlier alcohol laws. We also have legislators who are opposed to the alcohol industry entirely; some even believing Prohibition should still exist. This should raise the question: “Isn’t this 2014?”
There’s hope, though. In 2011, the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild was formed to seek reformation in state laws that would benefit the industry and its consumers. As of now, 24 breweries are members of the Guild, including local breweries Chattanooga Brewing Co. and Terminal Brewhouse. The Guild has been effective in getting the tax structure changed, boosting smaller breweries in the state and providing hope of greater opportunities in the future.
In 2013, the TN Craft Brewers Guild helped introduce a bill to change the beer tax laws in Tennessee. The Fix the Beer Tax campaign was started and eventually implemented with the passing of the Beer Tax Reform Act of 2013, allowing beer to be taxed by volume rather than price. The new law has been in effect for almost a year now and the state has seen a return of brewers who previously pulled out of the state due to taxes.
Even more recently the TN Craft Brewers Guild was instrumental in getting alcohol limits raised to levels that would help put Tennessee breweries on a level playing field with out-of-state craft brewers. The Fix the Beer Cap campaign was passed on April 14, 2014. Under the new law, craft brewers in Tennessee with a high-gravity brewing license are allowed to sell everything they make at their brewery without additional licenses.
The bill will also allow liquor stores to start selling high-gravity growlers, effective July 1. The road ahead may be a long one, but the future seems to be bright for locally crafted beer here in Chattanooga and throughout the state of Tennessee.
Just as the sun dipped behind the mountain, Jack’s day of brewing was coming to an end. “Three new batches!” he said to himself.
They won’t be ready today, but he knows he’ll enjoy them when they’re finished fermenting. “You can’t rush a good craft beer,” he reasoned, eager to try his latest creations. “If I keep perfecting my craft, maybe I’ll have a brewery of my own someday.”
Mark Marcum: A Brewer’s Tale
Mark Marcum is now a professional craft brewer.
“I started home brewing after getting a kit for a Christmas present. Wasn’t really sure I wanted to do that, but I knew a home brewer and decided to give it a try. My first batch was terrible. Poured a lot of it out. My friend gave me some tips, and soon I was making stuff that I liked…good enough to try on my friends. After getting good feedback, I starting having fantasies of being a professional brewer. I enjoyed making the beer, I sure as hell enjoyed drinking the beer, and I seemed to be good at it.
“As I learned more about brewing, I expanded, with ever-more-complicated schemes and increased production until I had spent more than $5,000 and had a 10-gallon brew set with 30 gallons of fermentation tanks. My interest in going pro increased. I started having a yearly event that ended up growing to more than 200 people. The beer was free—folks paid for the food and party expenses.
“This ended up being my market testing, and after several years of feedback from this event, I was very confident about making a go of it. It was a big step leaving my regular job and starting the business, but I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to an engineer job. Once we started selling beer and I could go into bars and see our product on tap, I was hooked, as hooked as I was when I started making good home brew. The rest of the story is still in the works.”