Fat Bottom initially had some quality issues
I heard from a lot of folks after Fat Bottom launched that they were getting a really uneven drinking experience. One batch would be good, another not so much. Ben Bredesen, Fat Bottom's founder, was up front about it when I asked him about what's changed since they opened up the brewery in the old Fluffo Mattress building:
Consistency and quality. We had a lot of quality issues when I first opened up. It was in the mode of we had been under construction for 10 months and it was like "Oh, crap, we've got to start selling some beer" to get some cash coming in the door. We started rushing things out. About two months in, I had this epiphany that bar owners were getting pissed off and people weren't liking the beer. I just realized that if we didn't fix this, I wouldn't have a brewery in a year. And so, we settled down, shrunk back, dropped some accounts and focused on consistency.
Jackalope and growth
Jackalope is on schedule to produce 5,000 barrels of beer next year, a staggering number for a microbrewery in just its fourth year. But popularity can bring problems, and if a brewery isn't careful, it can grow itself right out of business. Founders Robin Virball and Bailey Spaulding talked about the perils of being a popular small business.
Virball: Sam Adams does a special thing [giving loans to small breweries], but only for breweries that are at least a year old. Because there's a time for breweries when there's this demand and you're growing, but you're out of money that you started with, and you're like, "How do I do it?" because you need more money. It's always difficult.
Spaulding Understanding cash flow is important. We were at a point where six months after we were distributing, we were at 100 percent capacity because we grew much faster than we thought we were going to. That's why now, the tanks are coming in when we're at 90 percent capacity, because you learn from your mistakes. We were in a position where we needed a lot of money, so we did a second investor round.
The importance of locality in the craft beer boom
When I was talking with the Tennessee Brew Works guys — Christian Spears and Garr Schwartz — their take on the explosion in craft breweries was that it was cyclical. Schwartz, in particular, saw it as a 180-degree turn from the 1950s and '60s, when bringing in things from around the world was the chic thing to do. Now uniqueness is found from local things, not global ones.
People's attitudes have changed, particularly about globalization. Now I can go on Amazon and order something from China or the Philippines. Back in the day, everybody ate and drank everything local, and then they wanted something that was global. Now people are saying, "What happened to people that can actually make stuff?" And the thing that differentiates is that things like local produce matters. They want local produce, local beer. Things that are perishable are things that they can differentiate. That shift is all across the world. They're starting to understand that if they support local business, it helps the economy, too. People want people who can make things again.
Yazoo and wild yeasts
Some of the most interesting beer in town, right now, is being done by Linus Hall and Brandon Jones as part of the Embrace the Funk line of beers, where they use wild yeasts and bacteria to brew in what you'd call the lambic style of beer if you were in Belgium (just don't call it that here — lambics are specific to a place, which is why Hall and Jone call them sour or wild beers). These are aged in oak casks like wines and never turn out the exact same way every time.
And are you controlling the yeast on these? Or are you letting the windows stay open all night?
Jones: We've done 100 percent spontaneously fermented beer here. Back in 2012, we did one. It was the last beer of the day at FunkFest. It was as traditional as possible. We've left unfermented wort out overnight and let what was in the air inoculate into it. We let that cool down to 50-55 degrees. Once it got there, we put it in the fermenters and let it sit for 18 months.
Hall: It was funny. We were putting in some big fermenters and we ended up cutting a hole in the roof and had a crane out here. So I was just stressing because we only had about 6 inches of clearance on either side of everything and the wind was howling around. Everybody in the brewery is just puckered up and Brandon comes in and says "Oh, cool! Are you guys gonna leave that open tonight?" [laughs] He came back later with this beer, and I said, "What are you doing?" and he said, "This is my opportunity! You've got this hole in the roof and there's all this stuff floating around out there. The conditions are just right!" Everybody else is worried about these tanks, and he's like "This is PERFECT!" I think the beer turned out really nice. It was Tennessee's first 100 percent spontaneously fermented beer.
The nice thing about modern science is that biologists have been able to identify all the genomes of all of these different strains of brettanomyces [yeast]. And they've been able to identify what's going on in the interactions. Not 100 percent, there's still a little black magic. But you can isolate the strains and have a more controlled way of pitching them back in. Which is good, because we can't just open ourselves up and let things happen. We're not in the Zenne Valley [in Belgium], but thanks to advances, you can work in certain characteristics.