Named one of America’s best adventure towns by National Geographic, Knoxville, Tennessee, has a reputation for its stunning mountain scenery, outdoor sport culture, friendly people, and of course, University of Tennessee football. But there’s something brewing in Knoxville that tastemakers predict will change how you’ll think of the city and how you drink in the city. With about a dozen new craft breweries in the works, plus some well-established local favorites, Knoxville, Tennessee, is building a name for itself as one of the best craft beer towns in the Southeast. If you’re a Vols fan making a weekend out of a Saturday pilgrimage or a cyclist keen on a post-ride tour de brew, Knoxville is a refreshing spot for an educational beercation.
A Long Time Brewing
The meteoric rise in popularity of craft beer over the last decade is no secret. Yet even with its sizable population and a built-in market of sportsmen, locavores and university grads, Knoxville sustained only a few craft breweries during that time. “There was a void in terms of craft beer,” says Adam Ingle, founder of newly minted Alliance Brewing Co. “There’ve been a few breweries in town, but not enough.” Citing updated laws, he explains that until recently, “Tennessee had the highest taxes on beer of any state,” making it hard to profit from or even start a brewery. “People want a place for good craft beer. They’ll go to Lexington, they’ll go to Asheville, they’ll go to Atlanta, but they shouldn’t have to.” He says recent revisions to zoning and tax regulations have been a good start to building the thriving beer culture growing today.
Rather than see each other as competition, the city’s small group of inveterate craftsmen welcome the new brews on the block. The old adage, “A rising tide raises all ships,” has become the mantra of a movement; the spirit of teamwork and camaraderie is strengthening the craft brew community. “Everyone gets along,” says Brandon Crozer of Blackhorse Pub and Brewery, and points to Knox Brew Tours as the mobilizing force behind the Knoxville Craft Beer Partnership, a group of nine breweries working together to grow the craft scene. Their first project: a now famous Honeysuckle Saison. “Zach at Knox Brew Tours, he really got us all together and pulled everyone in on the project,” Crozer adds, confident that the community will continue to grow. The brewers are in the process of starting a Knoxville Brewers Guild, an effort that the guys from Saw Works Brewing, founded in 2010, are largely credited for initiating. The market is ample and varied enough to share. With personalities and specialties as varied as the brewers behind them, each brewery offers patrons a different flavor of Knoxville. New
Tastemakers Bring Bold Flavors
The first few years were tough for the pair of cousins that founded Saw Works Brewing Co. Two years in, they changed their original name, and with it their whole approach to beer. Their first efforts were good, but they wanted to make something different, with deep roots in the community itself. Saw Works partnered with local farms, which likely inspired later breweries to seek the same kind of grassroots relationships. Then, Saw Works took beer to school, and helped give rise to a new generation of tastemakers.
A lot of college students with a penchant for after-hours social events joke that they are “majoring in beer.” But the partnership between South College and Saw Works proves that beer school is serious business. Similar to art school programs, students learn the science, history, and techniques of the craft, then master nuances and hone their skills by brewing their own product. Creativity, dedication and business savvy are celebrated, and guests to the Raw Cuts tasting room at Saw Works are invited to sample class stand-outs for tastings that are truly one of a kind, and as limited edition.
Two new breweries in particular seem to have taken Saw Works’ passion for collaboration and deviant flavor profiles to heart: Crafty Bastard and Alliance Brewing.
Crafty Bastard (fellow ’15 hopefuls call them “Crafty”) is on a mission to create “the most unique (beer) in Tennessee.” Deviations from traditional styles, such as a pale ale with rich smoked porter notes and citrusy IPA finish (the Hawaiian BBQ Smoked Pale Ale), may seem like beer blasphemy to a purist. But while each of Crafty’s upcoming brews promise a novel drinking experience and bold flavors, they’ll also prove incredibly drinkable. The first batch set to finish in late 2015, but Crafty’s velvety Russian Imperial Stout with a knock-your-socks-off 10.5% ABV and its Salted Caramel Coffee Porter—made with local Three Bears coffee—seem well worth the wait.
When asked about possible collaborations with other breweries, Alliance Brewery auteur Adam Ingle mentioned “Crafty” immediately. While he didn’t go into detail about the potential Alliance/Crafty co-“hop” project, his excitement was contagious. The breweries share things in common, including a multi-staged soft opening and a passion for complex yet accessible flavor. Alliance Brewing’s 12-tap tasting room will serve 10 of its own brews, and two rotating guest features, but for now are serving brews from other local craftsmen. Where Crafty Bastard’s creations are about chameleonic variety with every sip, Alliance Brewing will offer variety between each tap. With styles described as ”all over the place,” there will be something for everyone; Adam even mentioned gluten-free options on tap, the Holy Grail for beer drinkers with wheat allergies. Next round, they hope to have more joint efforts, perhaps with the local coffee shop on the same block, or the bakers that repurpose Alliance’s spent grain in their muffins and pizza crust.
Arts and Drafts
Matthew Cummings founded the Pretentious Beer Glass Company a while ago, but his business is diversifying in an interesting, very DIY way. It’s hard to tell whether his passion for beer or for sculpture came first, but now they are one in the same. An MFA graduate and glass sculptor, Cummings started making glassware for a few beer-drinking buddies. He had enjoyed beer for a long time, but when he started digging he found that a key element was often glossed over: the glass. Just as Champagne is served in a flute and white wines must be served in stemware, different beers should be served in different glassware that optimize the flavor profile, nose and pour. Some may not care, or even notice if a Belgian Quad is served in a pint glass, but Cummings is particularly attune to the nuanced difference the right glass can make. Connected to his new glass studio, the brewery he plans to open in 2016 will give him the chance to make the perfect glassware for each variation of beer. If you are interested, stop by his glass shop and chat about the daring and surprising flavors he hopes to bring out in his signature style, the American-style Belgian. Heavily involved in Knoxville’s brew movement, Cummings recently finished a set of tables for the taproom at Alliance Brewing.
Tennessee Traditions: College Football and Crowd-Pleasing Tastes
Woodruff Brewing Co. makes up the “brewery” half of the Downtown Grill and Brewery in downtown Knoxville’s Woodruff Building. Thrice rebuilt and allegedly cursed, the building is a surprising setting for the success story of Knoxville’s oldest operational brewery. Tommy Hidgon sums up the Woodruff Brewing philosophy succinctly: “Good beer, traditional beer, on a consistent basis.” Higdon is one of Woodruff’s beer experts. The brewery’s hoppy IPAs and malty ales are crowd pleasers, and pair nicely with another tradition celebrated at Woodruff and Downtown Grill: UT football season. Downtown Grill and Brewery is a great game day spot. Saturday gridiron animates the 100-year-old building. Or, if you have seats at the game, the downtown location is easily accessible from the school or stadium, close to hotels and even on a free trolley line. In other words, an ideal place for the after party.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the other open or soon-to-open breweries worth a visit in Knoxville: Smoky Mountain Brewery in Turkey Creek is located in West Knoxville. Although there are several Smoky Mountain locations, it’s by no means akin to big-name corporate breweries. A pint of any of Smoky Mountain's offerings dance with craft beer flavor and attitude. Plus, Turkey Creek is a local destination for a day of shopping.
Blackhorse Pub and Brewery was one of the brave breweries to set up shop in Tennessee prior to loosened restrictions started in 2013. In 1992, Black Horse beat the odds, then they doubled down; Knoxville is Black Horse’s second location. Accessibility to UT campus and expertly honed and consistently good craft beer have helped Blackhorse thrive. Blackhorse cans and distributes its products, and it’s available from retailers and bars in Tennessee. If you’re not a big beer drinker, you might still like at least one of its selections like the Vanilla Crème Ale with a rich sweetness that warms rather than overpowers. Another Black Horse exclusive was crafted in honor of the UT 2015 Football team; sporting team color Orange, it is a refreshing Weiss beer to pair with the laid-back enthusiasm of their particular football crowd.
The up-and-comer Schulz Brau focuses specifically on perfecting traditional styles that stand the test of time. Regulated by purity laws including the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, the brews from Munich and other Bavarian Germany towns are considered among the finest in the world. The brewers at Schulz Brau figure maybe there’s something to these old school beer rules, and plan to concentrate on brewing old-German styles when it opens in 2015. Schulz has already brewed and shared its Altbier, Oktoberfest and Dunkleweizen at local festivals with rave reviews.