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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. Livability.com 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.
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.
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.