June 6, 2013

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Beer’s bumpy—and now booming —ride through Chattanooga history

After giving alcohol the cold shoulder for much of the last century, Chattanooga is now embracing it as never before. The city has five independent craft beer breweries and will soon boast its first whiskey distillery. recently placed Chattanooga at number 10 on its list of the Top 10 beer cities in the country; and Brent Stott and Larry Vance, owners of a company called Chattanooga Brew Tours, run visits to the city’s breweries for locals and tourists alike in a 14-seat school bus. 

To find a similarly thriving beer-brewing culture in Chattanooga, you’d have to go back 100 years. Between 1892 and 1909, the huge Chattanooga Brewing Company covered an entire block of Broad Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets downtown. Charles Reif, the son of a German immigrants from Cincinnati, moved to Chattanooga in 1890 when his father bought the Sunny South Brewery from Conrad Geise. 

All brewed well until 1909, when the so-called “drys”—members of the American Temperance Society anxious to stem the tide of alcohol in the state—managed to get a law passed halting “the production of intoxicating beverages for sale in Tennessee.” 

Of course, it’s one thing to pass a law and quite another to enforce it, particularly if most people don’t like it, as appears to have been the case. An 1837 report by the Tennessee state legislature on “tippling houses” in Tennessee suggests just how easy it was to sell liquor. That report found that virtually any entertainment establishment had the authority to sell “spirituous liquors.” Liquor licenses, according to the report, were “granted to almost every one applying . . . enabling all who chose, to indulge occasionally in a social glass.” This situation seemed in line with the desires of Tennessee’s citizenry. As the report noted, “Scarcely an instance of complaint was heard, that the rights and privileges of any citizen were curtailed, or his liberties infringed upon.”

That most people not only didn’t like Tennessee’s 1909 anti-liquor law, but often ignored it, is borne out by Paul Isaac, in his history of the period. According to Isaac, enforcement of the unpopular law required periodic “clean-up campaigns.”  One such campaign was carried out in Chattanooga in February 1911, when “one hundred and seventy-five persons, including three members of the city council, were indicted, and the next year over a hundred more were fined, for selling intoxicants in Chattanooga.”

Reif wasn’t a revolutionary or a scofflaw; he just wanted to make some money. In 1909, he changed the name of the company to the Purity Extract and Tonic Company and began marketing “near beer,” soft drinks and bottled water. With the passage of national prohibition in 1930, beer brewing completely dried up. Ten years later the Purity Extract and Tonic Company sold its huge brewing and bottling plant to Coca-Cola.

It was more than 80 years before brewing beer resumed in Chattanooga—and even by the 1990s, it proved a difficult challenge. Until 1993, when Rob Gentry, along with his partner, Tim Hennen, opened Chattanooga’s first brewpub, Big River Grille, it was against the law to brew beer in any county with less than a million people, and as a result, the only parts of the state with a brewpub were Memphis and Nashville. It was only after spending months lobbying the legislature to get the law changed that Gentry and Hennen opened Chattanooga’s first microbrewery.

Gentry began the fight. He’d originally intended to revive the Chattanooga Brewing Company but couldn’t raise the required capital. It had been at least two generations since anybody had conceived of a brewery in Chattanooga, and with the law making it all but impossible to run a brewery and sell the beer directly from the premises, his concept held little promise. 


June 6, 2013

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