The Yazoo Brewery has been a Nashville staple for many years and Sales and Marketing Manager Neil McCormick has helped it grow the last six and a half years. Returning from the Great American Beer Festival, Yazoo brings home a newly won medal for its sour beer, Deux Rouges Cherry. Last week, I sat down with Neil for a quick interview to discuss Nashville craft beer, ponder the upcoming Yazoo Winter Seasonal beer, look ahead to the Nashville Oktoberfest and enjoy Monster Sundays with Something About Zombies!
How did you get your start in the beer industry?
– “My uncle, Mike, was a homebrewer and I always wanted to do that. I moved here from western Arkansas in 2000 and have never looked back, since. I was hired on as a truck driver and just worked my way up the ranks.”
Was Yazoo one of the first few breweries in Nashville?
– “Well, technically, you go all the way back to Gerst, which started here in the late 1800s. Their original brewery is about half a mile from here. There is a placard up at the site, I think it’s off 6th Avenue. From there, I think the next one that opened up was Market Street Brewery, which was down on 2nd Avenue. The beer they’re most known for was their Vanilla Cream Ale. From there, I think Blackstone and Market Street opened about the same time. And then Yazoo was subsequent.”
“In 2003, Linus and Lila Hall, our owners, started Yazoo. On a regular basis, I ask them, ‘What’s the goal? Where do we want to be in five to 10 years?’ Every day, we just feel so fortunate. For them, they don’t want to go back to their full-time jobs. He was engineer and she was a curator at an art gallery. They got tired of that rat race and he’d always been a homebrewer. They’re still very active, every day.”
How do you explain Nashville’s booming craft-beer industry?
– “Nashville is the same as nationwide: It’s information. Never, in the history that we know of, has the average human being had access to more information. People want to know more about what they’re eating and drinking: good, bad, ugly or whatever. They want to know about it. That’s the benefit of what the beer industry in Nashville has been. People are eating and drinking closer to home. The majority of us, brewers, have tried to be as open and transparent as possible and let people in on our thought processes. We’re not trying to market to anybody. We want to hang out and drink beer with as many people as possible.”
“We’re fortunate that as many people drink and enjoy the same styles of beer that we do. I think a lot of that is information. People having access to know exactly what they’re drinking, where it came from, who made it and why they made it. Instead of somebody making a beer they thought somebody would really like, we made a beer that we really like. I’m happy you like it, but first and foremost, we really like it. Plus, let’s be honest, economically, there’s no other city in America, thriving as well as Nashville. We’re very fortunate.”
What’s the best-selling beer for Yazoo?
– “We really don’t have a standard flagship, but the Pale Ale and Dos Perros are neck and neck. They’re never more than one or two percent away from each other. It’s a weird dynamic, too, because Pale Ale has fewer tap handles, but outsells Dos Perros. A good bit of that translates to retail, where they’re pretty neck and neck. I think 80-plus percent of beer sold in Tennessee is sold at retail stores.”
It’s got to be gratifying to see Yazoo grow throughout the years.
– “Yeah. It is, because we’ve got little-to-no expansion plans at this given time. We really don’t even think about that because we have so much more work to do in Nashville. It’s not that there’s not enough people drinking beer in Nashville, they’re just not all drinking ours, yet.”
How far is Yazoo beer distributed?
– “Statewide in Tennessee and Mississippi. There’s still a few pockets in Mississippi we haven’t hit yet, but those are the two we’re focusing on.”
How has Yazoo been effected by the new Tennessee beer law?
– “I can tell you how it effects Yazoo, but most importantly, I can tell you how it effects the quality of life in Tennessee. Even after our beer-tax reform last year, we still have the highest beer tax in the nation. It was 17 percent per dollar. As the cost of fuel and the cost of packaging goes up, the 17 percent will go up. Last year, we stabilized it. Instead of being at $52 per barrel, this year, the flat tax translates to $35 a barrel. From there, when it stabilizes this year, that 17 percent won’t keep escalating and growing.”
“The new law changed the definition of beer from five percent by weight, to eight percent by weight, which translates to 10 percent by volume. That means all Tennessee breweries could brew beer up to that limit and sell it directly. Tennessee is the only state in the South (with the exception of North Carolina) that you can brew and bottle on site, sell draft beer, fill growlers of any size, sell packaged beer of any size and sell kegs of any size and any limit to any customer. If you’re a Mom-and-Pop start-up brewery, to have the opportunity to self distribute within your home county, that gives you a huge advantage to get your brand built up. It’s good for distributors, too, because they don’t have to worry about the brand-building part. That’s our job, as brewers, to define ourselves and what we’re doing.”
All of the start-up breweries have praised Linus for helping them get started.
– “It’s a reality of the industry. Some people aren’t as conducive to that and I don’t understand the mentality of not supporting other breweries. It’s the silliest thing, when you try to explain the overall dynamic that is the beer industry of the United States. You know, the people playing next to me in this playground that is 10 percent of the overall size of the playground, they’re not my competition. Yes, we compete for a certain amount of consumers, but in reality, spending time dedicated to cutting legs out from each other doesn’t help the overall category when 90-plus percent of the beer is controlled by one of three companies that have an infinite amount of dollars to spend in marketing.”
“We just try to be as open, honest and realistic to people about this industry, because it’s not pretty and it’s not nice a lot of times. It’s a lot of damn hard work. Some people are up to the challenge and some aren’t.”
Are there any upcoming small-batch beers for Yazoo?
– “We’re working on that right now, we’re looking at possibly a wheat-heavy or scotch ale or something like that for our winter seasonal. We still haven’t nailed down that recipe, yet. There’s a couple of ideas the guys have been kicking around. We’ve got a handful of collaboration options on the table, in front of us, right now, with a few different entities around town. We’re kind of winging it. We’re finally getting to that point where we can stretch our legs and do a bunch of those smaller-batch beers that we really want to do.”
When does the Yazoo Winter Seasonal get released?
– “It will probably be released on the second week of November.”
What kind of beer trends are you noticing?
– “There’s two different sides of the spectrum. I’m starting to see a big increase in the sours and wild ales. We’ve got the Embrace the Funk program, which is doing really well. I’m starting to see a lot of people toning down a handful of their beers to be more sessionable, making their beers with three and four percent alcohol. At the end of the day, we have to appeal to that 90 percent, which is a lot easier than making a double and triple IPAs. Personally, I see a lot more of that going on: People trying to make very, very good, consistent beers. I hope that trend sticks around for a while.”
Please tell me a little about Monster Sundays.
– “For the six Sundays leading up to Halloween, we’ve got Monster Sundays. We’re working with a local group of guys who have a show called Something About Zombies on our local Nashville TV station, Channel 9. It’s all about smaller, cult films that I really didn’t know much about. We’ve been supporting it for a little bit, then we decided to show some movies at the brewery. It’s free popcorn, free attendance and we’ve got special $5 monster mugs made up that everyone gets to take home.”
Are there any other upcoming Yazoo events happening?
– “The weekend after next we have the Germantown Oktoberfest. This year is the first time we’re the exclusive beer, for that event. It’s going to be a significant amount of beer. It’s probably the most beer we’ve sold in one day in company history, if all goes well and we have good weather. We’re working with Michael, the owner of Monell’s. He’s taking over, as far as coordinating and getting all the beer for the event. It’s a joint effort between the neighborhood association of Germantown and the main two churches on the corner of 5th and Monroe. We’ve got a three-year contract we’re knocking out with them, but this year should be entertaining. Last year, we had only taken over half the event. This year, both groups are back together.”
“And then on November 9th, which is a Sunday, we’ll have our fourth Yazoo Big Wheel Championships. We have these adult-sized big wheels that we race in relays in teams of four. The winning team gets championship belts. In years past, we’ve done it for Toys For Tots. We’ll start promoting that in the next week or two. We created the Big Wheel Championships, because who doesn’t want to be a Big Wheel Champion?”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
– “The only rule I’ve been thinking about lately is for any brewer who decides to make any beer that is crazy or ridiculous. Just imagine sitting next to a complete stranger who drank five of those. That’s the only rule I have.”