Markum and his partner sell most of their beer in local taverns, but about five percent of the 700 gallons of beer they brew every month is sold to customers who crowd the tiny barroom on weekend afternoons. Like Markum and other local aficionados, they’ve tired of the anodyne product from the huge commercial breweries. “Generally, craft beers will have more body and more taste because they use more grains and more hops in making them,” Markum explained.
According to Markum, commercial beers like Budweiser and Miller are the result of a deal with the devil. The major brewers, he said, were trying to make beer “as cheaply as possible and make it taste just enough like beer so that it would pass…And, of course, it had alcohol in it to keep it from spoiling and to get you drunk.”
Markum’s enthusiasm for his pale ales, stouts, lagers, and IPAs is borne out by the taste and the buzz. American pale ales tend to be “hoppier” and have a higher alcohol content (about 5.5 percent) than British Bass pale ale. American IPAs are even “hoppier” and have a higher alcohol content (6.3 percent) than the pale ales, he said, chortling in delight. Like Gentry, Markum relishes making and sharing his product. But running a microbrewery is largely its own reward. Tennessee has the highest tax in the country on beer sold wholesale, and the profit on the small amount they sell in the taproom isn’t ever going to make them rich. So, after six years on Frazier Avenue, they’re moving into their own purpose-built brewpub on the Southside. Set to open by Christmas, it will feature 6,000 square feet of brewery space and 1,500 square feet of retail space, including a tasting room and a restaurant. The food will be designed to complement the beer rather than the other way around—Markum wouldn’t have it any other way.
Three other microbreweries have opened in Chattanooga during the past few years, bearing out the perception among local brewers that the market for craft beers is “exploding.” McHale’s Brewhouse on Ashland Terrace opened in 2011 and The Terminal Brewhouse on Market Street, adjacent to the Chattanooga Choo Choo, began brewing in 2009. A couple of years earlier, Chris Hunt opened the Moccasin Bend Brewery, whose motto is “Keep Moccasin Bend weird, and weird is good.”
Regarded as a kind of mad scientist, Hunt takes pleasure in stretching people’s perceptions of what beer is and how it should taste. “We take a style of beer, and then we put our twist on it,” he said. “For example, our chocolate stout; it doesn’t contain any chocolate, but we discovered a malt combination that mimics that chocolate taste.” They also brew a smoked porter with “a bacon flavor” called “smoked porker.”
Located in a warehouse built in the early 1940s of red wood and brick, it’s a relatively small brewery, producing between 240 ad 280 gallons a week. “We started off really small, and because of that we learned to brew a lot of different beers,” said Hunt, by way of explaining why he and his partner produced 45 different “brands” last year. This year, he intends to brew fewer styles, but his enthusiasm may well get the best of him.
Moccasin Bend Brewery produces stouts, ales, lagers and sours. “We’re the only brewery in town, as far as I know, to create a sour (a Belgian-style beer made from both yeast and a bacteria that gives it a sour taste). Anything Belgian, but especially the sours, are becoming really popular,” said Hunt. The tasting room (legally they can’t call it a bar) is tiny, just 640 square feet, but most people take their beer into the adjacent garden and eat from the food trucks parked nearby.
Chattanooga’s most recent brewpub, McHale’s Brewery, run by brewer Adam Hale and his cousin, is on Ashland Terrace. Like Hunt, Hale exults in experimentation, but he’s loath to step too far outside the norm. “I mostly stick to the basic ingredients. I’ve always been interested in seeing what you can do with just a small palette of grains and the hops with different yeasts…the way you treat the yeast can make such a big difference. I occasionally may put other things in there. One of our beers is called ‘The Clementine,’ that’s made with Clementine oranges. We were only using the zest. It gave it that kind of orange-y perfume.”
Big River became big money. But for the most part, so far at least, for the rest of these avid alchemists, their reward is the pleasure they bring to the growing number of drinkers they’ve introduced to a brew that everyone thought they already knew.