Garr Schwartz is the Brewmaster and one of the two founders of Tennessee Brew Works. After growing up in Nashville, he left for college and returned in 2003 with a vision of brewing great craft beer for the area. After homebrewing for a while, Tennessee Brew Works opened its doors to the public and has helped create a booming craft-beer scene for downtown Nashville. In my interview with Mr. Schwartz, we discuss the roots of his brewery, debate the merits of canning versus bottling, learn about his barrel-aging program and discuss what makes his brewery different from every other brewery in North America.
Please discuss being a Brewmaster in Nashville, TN.
– “It’s a wonderful town. It’s a real exciting place to be. I didn’t know it at the time, but how fortuitous to have moved back to Nashville and actually start a brewery. What a great town to start a brewery in. Nashville’s been starving for craft beer and that’s actually what started me into brewing craft beer. After being away for a while, graduating college, traveling to Europe and living in New York City for a 10 years, during that time, I was introduced to so many awesome beers.”
How did you get started in the beer industry?
– “I moved back to Nashville in 2003, the beer here was so terrible… there was a small smattering of craft beer — if you could find it. Soon after that, somebody introduced me to homebrewing. It turned into not just a hobby, but kind of an obsession, a little bit. Very quickly it went from just a small, kitchen hobby to large pots out on the back deck. That’s kind of the genesis of my brewing beer. For years, people kept saying, ‘You should open a brewery.’ Every homebrewer will not necessarily admit to it, but secretly wants to open a brewery. I was no exception. I was probably a little more realistic. I knew it would take an incredible amount of capital to start a brewery. Christian Spears and I — my business partner — started talking about it in 2010 and then by mid first quarter of 2011, all I was doing was working on the foundation of creating a brewery. We finally got our business plan together, we raised capital and it took until February 2013 to finally acquire the space, here, and then we finally brewed our first beer, here, August 18th, 2013. It was a long journey, to get to this point.”
When you were still a homebrewer, were you ever in a brewer’s club?
– “When I moved back here, I was married and I was working all the time. There were only so many things I could do with my extra time. Being in a club just wasn’t something I could do. It was all I could do to make sure I could brew. I just lived on a lot of the forums, but I was never in any of the clubs around here.”
Did you know any of the homebrewers who went on to open breweries?
– “Ken Rebman, of Czann’s, but it was years later, after I had been brewing for a while and he, of course, had been brewing for a long time. We had a mutual friend, who said, ‘My other friend talks about beer, the same way you talk about beer. You guys should get together.’ We shared beers together and had a great time. Sure enough, both of us ended up opening breweries.”
Why do you think Nashville has a booming craft-beer scene?
– “Nashville is just starving for craft beer. There are so many people, like me, who wanted good beer and you just couldn’t find it. Part of that is the old distribution system, plus a lot of our laws are not favorable towards beer. It’s been hard to move forward. Once it finally caught fire, it was just something that was going to happen. Nashville is growing… there’s so many people coming in from all over the place. It’s not this homogeneous community. There’s a lot going on here, from people all over the country. All of that kind of plays into a happening town that needs craft beer.”
How did you choose the downtown location for your brewery?
– “We went and saw a lot of different locations, as you can imagine. Candidly, we wanted to do it in Germantown, we just couldn’t find any suitable locations. Maybe we didn’t have the best real-estate advice, at the time. The one thing we underestimated, severely, was how difficult it was to find a good location. We probably should have spent more time on that, early on. Eventually, we found this location. If you think about a craft brewery, you really need to be in the low-rent district. You don’t want to be in one of the expensive places, because we’re not really a bar-restaurant. We do have a bar, here, and we are actually going to build out our food menu, but we’re not a retail location. You want to be on the other side of the railroad tracks — kind of where we are — but still near a major population center. This place got on our radar. It’s such a good location. It was a long road to get here.”
How did you come up with the concept for Tennessee Brew Works?
– “We talked about lots of different names and ours is pretty straightforward. We want to be a brewery in Tennessee and we believe in regional beer. We spent a lot of time branding each individual beer. Being from Nashville, against all advice, we wanted to brand a guitar as our logo. Nashville and Memphis and all of Tennessee has musical heritage to it. We want to be the guitar beer.”
What is your best-selling beer?
– “Interestingly, the Southern Wit. It’s a very drinkable beer, although this time of year, we’re selling a lot of the Country Roots. The Southern Wit and the Cutaway, our IPA, are both our top-selling beers of all time.”
What do you attribute the success of those beers?
– “IPAs are the fastest-growing style. People love IPAs. Especially in Tennessee, people love their witbiers. What’s interesting about our witbier is we brew it with chamomile, coriander and fresh orange zest. So, we zest 300 oranges, every time we brew that beer. The difference between our witbier and any other witbier around the world is we use that orange zest, versus what is traditionally done with dried-orange peel. That’s what makes the beer very difficult to brew. But if you know the difference between zest and dried-orange peel, it’s just not comparable. That’s what makes that beer fantastic. It’s still a very approachable beer, to the novice drinker, but I’ve also had sommeliers, chefs and all kinds of people go crazy about that beer. They cook with it and they pair it, because there’s so much going on with that beer.”
Please tell me a little about your current and upcoming seasonals.
– “The current seasonal is the Natchez, which is our pale ale with rosemary in it. We call it Natchez because the rosemary evokes the forest and the sea. If you know the Natchez Trail, it runs from the forest to the sea. We use the word ‘Natchez’ as an honor to the Natchez Trace. It’s a great food beer. It loves Thanksgiving. Everybody’s always struggling about what’s the best beverage to bring. It pairs with so many wonderful things at the dinner table, especially at Thanksgiving. It’s one of the most versatile food beers.”
“We don’t have a name for our winter seasonal yet. It’s a dark white winter rye saison IPA with lemon verbena. It’s kind of the geekiest beer that we’ve done. The beer is 50 percent rye and 50 percent wheat. Two grains that are very difficult, but with our mash filter, we’re able to use rye and wheat very well. It’s actually one of the few beers that I’ve never brewed before, on the back porch. It’s a beer I’ve been looking forward to brewing for a long time. That will be distributed on December 9th. It will be very limited. We only have 40 kegs of it.”
“Our spring seasonal is 100 percent wheat beer. Instead of orange zest, we use lime zest. We call it Walk the Lime, obviously in a nod to The Man in Black. Homebrewers will appreciate it because people are afraid to use lots of wheat. It’s a very difficult beer to brew. We use a Belgian-style mash filter. We’re the first brewery in North America our size to use the Belgian Meura Micro mash filter. It handles wheat very well.”
“Our summer beer, Farmer’s Beat, is a saison. It’s a sister beer to our Basil Ryeman. If I remember correctly, we actually roast around 140 lbs. of beets, puree them and put them into the mash. You just have this wonderful, refreshing beer, that’s great with food, as our saisons tend to be.”
Your brewery plans to bottle. Will you venture into canning, as well?
– “Personally, I love cans, but as a package, bottles are superior, in my mind. The reason for that, primarily, is oxygen is one of the biggest enemies of beer. You can actually evacuate all of the oxygen out of a beer bottle much easier than you can a can. I think you have to spend significantly more money on the canning line to get the same quality product out of a can, as you do a bottle. Unfortunately, I think you’ll see a lot of people canning their products with inferior equipment that’ll actually harm their beer. I hope it doesn’t harm craft beer, in general. For the money and the versatility, bottling is really where we need to be today. If we could do both, I would do both, because I love cans. But we’re going to start with bottles.”
What kind of beer trends are you noticing?
– “Saisons seem to be kind of happening. I love saisons, obviously. It’s one of our headliner beers: The Ryeman. We call ours the Tennessee Farmhouse Ale. Sours are happening. We’re souring some beers, as well.”
As a dark-beer fan, I love Country Roots. Please tell me a little about making it.
– “Do you like pumpkin beers? Don’t take anything that I say personally, but I hate pumpkin beers. The genesis of the sweet-potato stout came around my hatred towards pumpkin beers. They don’t taste like pumpkins. They should be called pumpkin-pie beers. Just call them what they are. A bunch of them don’t even have pumpkins in it, because pumpkins don’t even have much flavor, to it. I don’t like sweet, alcohol drinks, so that’s why I don’t tend to like pumpkin beers. I was going to do a butternut squash beer, because I love butternut squash, but it’s a pain in the ass to deal with. I was thinking, ‘I like sweet potatoes and they’re a lot easier to deal with.’ So, that’s how the sweet-potato stout came about.”
“There’s always a debate: Do you put the roasted sweet potatoes in the kettle or the mash? I chose to put them in the mash. That’s one of the reasons the sweet potatoes enhance the flavors. The sweet potatoes provide a beautiful mouth-feel, to the beer. We actually get our sweet potatoes from Delvin Farms.”
Can you tell me a little about your barrel-aged beers?
– “Our Basil Ryeman has been aged with Prichard’s double-barrel double-chocolate whiskey. Their double-barrel bourbon is aged, then they add cocoa nibs from Olive & Sinclair, a local chocolatier. We call it the Double Barrel Basil.”
“For our Wild Roots, the third time we used a George Dickel barrel with our Country Roots, it started souring up on us. I think the Brettanomyces took over and gave a little sour funk to it. It’s a great, drinkable sour.”
Many breweries are going from year-round dark beers to seasonals. Do you see dark beers losing popularity?
– “We’re still so young, so we don’t really know. But sales of Country Roots spiked as soon as the weather got cold. I’m the kind of drinker, sometimes I like to drink a stout in the middle of the summer. We’re committed to having a stout year round. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
If you could change any craft beer laws in 2015, what would they be?
– “I would just like to see the playing field leveled, so that at the point we do sell high-gravity bottled beer, it can be sold in grocery stores. Today, that doesn’t impact us, but it certainly will in the future. It’s just not right, but that will happen, eventually. Our lawmakers are going to have to listen to us. I don’t know what the numbers are, but the number of people in this state who are employed by craft brewers is significant. We bring revenue to this state, too. It’d be sad if they didn’t listen to us and just listened to Publix, Krogers and Costco.”
What lies ahead, in 2015, for Tennessee Brew Works?
– “In 2015, we’re looking at expanding our model. Fortunately, the core of our model is in really great shape, but we have to build out on the fringes. We’ve got to figure out how to expand what we’re doing. Fortunately, not on the brewhouse side, but on the fermentation side, on the keg side and on the bottling side. And we’re probably going to roll out six barrels, next, which is a little over five gallons. We only sell half barrels, which is very unusual. After we’re hopefully successful with that, we’ll also get into the world of bottling.”
“From a more interesting point of view, we’re building on our barrel-aging program. One of the things we’re working on is building our relationship with Prichard’s. Prichard’s has been pretty awesome to us. They started out by making four double-barrel double-chocolate whiskey barrels. We’ve been messing around with those and we’re probably going to get 20 more of those. My philosophy is: After you age whiskey, then you get into the souring, with the same barrels. That’s been very successful for us. We want to continue down that vein until we get to the point where we start inoculating the barrels with our own strains of things we want to put in there. Every now and then, you’ll get humbled by the yeast and the bacteria. They’ll remind you who’s in charge. There’s an old saying that brewers brew the wort, but yeast make the beer. That also applies to sours, too.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
– “The only other thing to make sure people understand about our beer is that we do several things differently, here. One is we use a mash filter from Belgium and 99.9 percent of all the beer brewed in North America is brewed on traditional, German-style Lauter Tuns. We’re the first brewery our size in North America to use the Belgian Meura Micro mash filter. What does that really mean? This process is much more efficient and because of that, we use up to 50 percent less water, 20 percent less raw materials and 20 percent less energy. So, it’s a really neat way to brew beer. At the end of the day, does the beer taste good? We think the beer tastes great and our system is super efficient and greener than your traditional German-style Lauter Tuns.”
“The other things we don’t do: We don’t filter our beer. We don’t pasteurize our beer. So, there’s no reason to filter or pasteurize your beer if you have good process controls. We also think filtering the beer takes out a lot of the great flavors and pasteurizing kills a bunch of the flavors, too. Our beer’s alive.”
“We also naturally carbonate our beers. Typically, a brewery will ferment their beer to terminal gravity. Basically, we make sugar water (the wort), we add yeast to it, the yeast eats the sugars and creates CO2 and alcohol. The typical brewery will let the CO2 bubble off into the atmosphere, they move the beer with no bubbles into a bright tank, pump it full of industrialized CO2 to recarbonate the beer. While yeast is creating CO2 alcohol, on the second day, we cap our tanks (we don’t use bright tanks) to capture all that CO2 so it naturally carbonates itself, similar to the finest sparkling wines or champagnes around the world. They’re fermented in the bottle. We have these fine bubbles that we get with our beer that’s better for the mouth feel, keeps our beer cleaner, fresher and more flavorful.”