Always looking to promote the Nashville craft-beer scene, I made sure to visit one of Nashville’s newest breweries: Black Abbey. As I entered the brewery, I discovered a festive tap room, completely packed on a Saturday afternoon with multiple tours of the facility taking place. I met up with Black Abbey Brewing Company President Carl Meier, who welcomed my interview.
In this Beer with a Brewmaster column, Mr. Meier discusses working together with local Tennessee breweries to expand the microbrewery scene, previews two upcoming brewery-sponsored events and explores the idea of using blueberry Pop-Tarts as a home-brewed ingredient.
What brought you to the beer industry?
– “I’m a long-time homebrewer. I brewed at home for North of 20 years. As a competitive homebrewer, I entered competitions all over the country. I brewed a lot with my business partner, John Owen. He and I got tired of sending recipes to competitions that we won and decided maybe we were onto something and we should build a plan around it.”
What were some of those crazy homebrewed recipes?
– “You know, the thing about homebrewers is that you learn pretty quickly. You get a wild idea and you think, ‘Man, I could make beer out of blueberry Pop-Tarts.’ But then, at the end of the day, you’ve got to drink five gallons of beer you made out of blueberry Pop-Tarts. I made a blueberry Pop-Tart witbier. I’ve made a smoked-pumpkin saison — that was pretty good, actually.”
“I made a lot of really insane things over a long homebrewing career. But I also learned it’s important to make beer that is palatable, not just to yourself but when you have friends over and they’re like, ‘Great. Thanks for the Imperial Barley Wine made with avocados.’ Entering competitions was very, very helpful for us in terms of crafting recipes that not only appealed to our palates, but also were palatable within stylistic guidelines and were generally unique, but approachable. You want beer to be unique in its own right; you also want to try to do something that’s not just a clone of something someone else does. You still need it to be very approachable so that people can drink two or three of them instead of four ounces and then asking for something else.”
Tell me a little about that smoked-pumpkin beer.
– “I don’t think cinnamon and beer should even be in the same room with each other. I don’t like it at all. If we want to make a pumpkin beer, we could make it with pumpkin, but it’s not getting all that other stuff. We put the pumpkin in a smoker and instead of baking it or broiling it, we smoked it until it was mushy and then we put it in the mash tun. Then we ran it on a saison yeast and it was phenomenal. It was cloudy as hell, but man it was good.”
How long has Black Abbey been at this location?
– “We signed a lease on this building in January of 2013, started construction in March, brewed our first batch in August and opened the tap room in September.”
What was the first Black Abbey beer brewed?
– “The first beer we brewed was called Jude. It was based on an English-style ESB, but we finished it with West-Coast hops. So, it was a smoky, English-style Americanized IPA. We make beers that we like to drink.”
Why was this location chosen?
– “I live in Crieve Hall, so I live 2.2 miles from the facility. We always wanted to be in the South Nashville-Berry Hill area, partially for interstate access, partially because there used to be a lot of vacant warehouse space here that we thought we could take advantage of. We’re also super-conveniently located to downtown, Green Hills, South Nashville, East Nashville. It’s very easy to get to any of those places. We run our own distribution company in Davidson County, so it’s important for us to get someplace quickly. This facility offered us a great location, in addition to the structural components of the building that were very advantageous for the business.”
Can you tell me a little about the burgeoning microbrewery scene of Nashville?
– “Gosh, it’s crazy. When we were under construction, Kent Taylor with Blackstone sent his maintenance director to our building almost every week — it was about every 10 days — just to check on us. This, to me, sums up the Nashville craft-beer scene: As long as everybody is making good beer, there’s plenty of room for everybody to grow, without eating each other. I think Kent has been in the market for 20 years. He’s been a great example of knowing that. He knows that if Black Abbey is making lousy beer and if somebody orders it at a bar and doesn’t like it, they might go back to drinking some other macro product, rather than liking Black Abbey and next time ordering Blackstone or Yazoo or Fat Bottom or Jackalope or any number of local or regional players. As long as we continue to be tight and help each other make better beer, that’ll be great for everybody.”
Did you have a previous relationship with Kent Taylor at Blackstone?
– “No. I had never met Kent until we were in process. I knew Linus Hall. He and I were in a homebrew club years ago. It’s funny, we were in the Music City Brewers. I had joined in 1999 and in that homebrew club was me, Linus (who owns Yazoo), Steve Scoville (who’s the head brewer at Little Harpeth Brewing), Karen Lassiter (who’s now the head brewer at Boscos) and Ken Rebman (who owns Czann’s Brewing Company). So, we were all in a homebrew club that met at Boscos on the second Saturday of the month, for a number of years. Linus was still working at Bridgestone when I met him. I’ve known those guys for a long time.”
What’s your best-selling beer?
– “It’s our Belgian blonde, it’s called The Rose. It’s about four percent wheat, just shy of six percent by volume. Again, we like loose interpretations of styles. I’m not married into putting beer into a box; making it fit into a little square style guideline. A typical Belgian blonde, like Leffe, would be quite strong — seven or eight percent by volume — and it probably wouldn’t have a lot of wheat in it. In our blonde, however, we run a derivative of chimay yeast, so it has a very pronounced Belgian-style character. We do use wheat, so it’s a little hazy, on purpose. It looks almost like a witbier, but it’s not. It’s not spiced in any way, it’s just a nice, bright yellow wheat beer.”
Do you see a trend of craft beers getting really hoppy?
– “I think there is always going to be a component of the craft-beer market that’s going to brew what I call, Because-I-Can Beers. I bet I can make a beer with 3,000 IBUs and I’m going to add 50 lbs. of hops every four minutes until our yield is four percent, because the hops have soaked up all the wort. Someone’s going to do it… but I think there’s also a trend towards what people call session beers. There’s a place for huge hop-forward double IPAs. A lot of people are making really hoppy beer and that’s what they hang their hat on. We try to make beers that are balanced. We do have some that are really hop forward, but we also have some that are 15 IBUs. As long as everybody’s taking a unique take on what they do — as far as beer goes — then we’ll all have plenty of room to grow.”
Can you tell me a little about your seasonal beer selection?
– “We have three core beers that we have all the time and then the seasonals are always rotating. Right now, we have two spring seasonals (Chapter House is a Belgian Red, The Fortress is a black IPA) and two summer seasonals (Brother Mayndard is a Belgian IPA, Crossroads is an American-style cream ale).”
What’s the background story behind the Black Abbey name?
– “The name of the brewery is derived from Martin Luther. We’re all good Presbyterians and have an affinity for Luther’s theology. I was brewing in my driveway late on a Saturday night. As I was cleaning stuff up, we were still kicking ideas of what the brewery name was going to be. I was thinking, ‘Tomorrow’s Sunday and I’m going to church. What time is that?’ Then I’m thinking, ‘Wasn’t Martin Luther a monk?’ So, I go inside and I go to Wikipedia. I start reading about Luther at 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m texting John (Owen) and Mike (Edgeworth) saying, ‘This is it. I’ve got the name.'”
“So, Luther was studying to be an attorney. He’s riding through a field during a thunderstorm and he’s thrown from his horse. He was scared for his life and says, ‘Saint Anne help me. I’ll become a monk.’ He survived the thunderstorm, was good to his word, joining the monastery. The church functioned as government in feudal Germany. So, he wrote down his 95 Theses — his issues with how the church was operating — nailed them to the door of the castle church and someone made copies with a printing press and that starts the Protestant Reformation.”
“Luther is excommunicated, he’s pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, he goes into hiding, comes under protection by this feudal lord and marries a former nun. They are given the old monastery, where Luther became a monk. The two of them move in, Luther’s in terrible health and she attributed it to how much wine he was drinking. She said, ‘Stop drinking wine. You should drink beer.’ She had been trained by the church as a brewer. So, she exercised the brewery rights and began brewing what became known as the best beer in all of Wittenberg, selling beer out of a monastery where Luther wrote his 95 Theses, financing the Protestant Reformation on the back of a brewery. The monastery was called The Black Cloister, but we think the beer she probably would have been making would have been more like an Abbey-style ale, maybe similar to our beer, The Special. So, Black Abbey it was.”
“We try to walk the line in between reverence and humor. We have a great deal of respect and understanding in the school of theology, but at the same time, we don’t want people coming into the tap room and feeling guilty that they’re not at worship. We try to incorporate that not just into the appearance of our brand, but how we put beer together. Luther translated The Bible from Latin into German, so that the people could read it. So, we took something that was not approachable at all and made it accessible to everyone. I don’t think we’re going to change the world with beer, but I do think we have an opportunity to take a stylistic interpretation of a classic Belgian-style of beers and make them unique, approachable, local, fresh beer that gives people an opportunity to get a taste of something that otherwise maybe wouldn’t have been available.”
Will Black Abbey compete in any upcoming beer-festival competitions?
– “Last year the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild was approached about having a festival. Their premise was to bring all the breweries from the state together and the people who attended could pick their favorite beer. Kent said, ‘Listen… we’re good to come to a festival, but if you’re going to set it up as a competition, we’re not coming, because that doesn’t do anything to further people’s brand. All that does is pit us against one another. That’s not a place where we need to be.’ I’m absolutely of that philosophy. It’s better for everybody, if everybody makes good beer. When you pit each other against one another, it just makes it an uncomfortable situation.”
“I would rather partner than compete. We do beer festivals that are not competitions. We haven’t sent beer to the Great American Beer Festival or The World Beer Cup, but we will eventually. We’ve sent beers to competitions as homebrewers and it’s very valuable for getting feedback on your beer by people with educated palettes who are professional judges. As far as the competitive landscape goes within Nashville and the surrounding counties and their breweries, I really like the idea that we all get along and compete in a friendly way and help each other where we can. It makes for a better quality of life for all of us.”
What are some of Black Abbey’s upcoming events?
– “We have two in June. The first one is Friday, June 6th. We are doing an event with The Franklin Theater. We’re having a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — which is where the name Brother Maynard comes from. We’ll be pairing the beer with the film, for which it is named. The following Wednesday, the 11th, here in the tap room, we’re having an event called Drink Beer and Sing Hymns. There’s a local group in town that is a bunch of traveling a cappella hymn singers. They meet about once a month at various places and sing: No hymns written after 1900. I think we’ll start around 6:30. There’s no cover. They’ll bring the hymnals. Come hang out, drink beers and sing hymns. We try to have fun. We’re in this quasi-serious brand and we always try to stage it together with things that are fun to do. Both of those will be great.”