Gentry was about to give up on the idea when someone suggested that he talk to Tim Hennen. Hennen and his brother, Johnny, had run Yesterdays, a very successful bar, restaurant, and music hall in the 1970s and 1980s. With Hennen as his partner, Gentry finally successfully lobbied to change the law, and the two opened Big River, offering four craft beers along with a full menu. It was, according to Gentry, an almost instant success. “The difficulty in the early days,” he said, “was just the sheer volume—keeping up (with the demand).”
Initially they had four beers on tap—wheat, amber, pale ale and a stout. Their success was predicated as much on Gentry’s talents as a marketer as on Hennen’s skills as a restaurateur. From the outset the challenge was to convince their customers to try something new.
The solution was giving it to them free of charge. Every customer was offered a small taster glass of any of the four styles of beer they were serving. Within a few weeks of opening, Gentry was brewing between 1,200 and 1,500 gallons of beer every week.
Some of his early attempts at brewing were less than successful, but customers were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and as he began to get the hang of it, he developed a devoted following. A mix of art and science, craft brewing on the local level is a personalized profession. Like a good chef, each brewer produces a slightly different product—sometimes every time he or she brews a batch. But for his loyal customers, that was part of the fun.
At the end of their first year in business, Gentry and Hennen wanted to celebrate. Gentry suggested a block party centered on the parking lot adjacent to the brewpub on Broad Street. “We called it ‘The Southern Brewers’ Festival’, said Gentry, giggling at the memory. “We did it on a lark, just for fun. We put a small stage in the corner of the parking lot, erected some tents…and we ran out of beer in about two hours.” They had to roll all of the empty kegs into the basement of Big River and fill them from the brewpub’s tanks.
The annual festival has become a fixture, raising thousands of dollars for charity and showcasing beers from breweries all across the country. This year’s festival is scheduled for Saturday, August 24.
Within a few years the Big River franchise had grown to 33 locations across the country and Gentry was worn out. Tired of traveling, he decided to open his own restaurant, The Blue Plate. Initially, he was reluctant to add craft beers to the menu. But after selling his share in Big River he decided to add a pub to the restaurant. Now the Blue Plate shares the space with Local 191, Gentry’s new brewpub, selling “two or three” of Big River’s beers along with craft beers from other local brewers. The pub has 12 taps in all, but Gentry isn’t brewing.
Someday that may change. “I miss working with the recipes, and sharing those recipes with the guests at the bar,” he said a little wistfully. “That connection between the guests and the brewer is really dynamic.”
A Brew For What Ales You
Like most of the brewers in Chattanooga’s microbreweries, Mark Markum began as a home brewer. He was given a home brew kit for Christmas 1999 and began making five-gallon batches that he shared with his friends. In 2007, he and his partner Jonathan Clark opened the Chattanooga Brewing Company in a 1,200-square-foot-store front on Frazier Ave. on the North Shore. After nearly a century, the grand dame of Chattanooga brewing was reborn.