Corsair Artisan Distillery is well known for its award-winning whiskey and spirits, but with recent Tennessee legislation, the Nashville-based distillery has expanded its focus to include craft beer, as well. Visitors to its Marathon Motor Works base of operations are welcomed to tour the facility six days a week and visit the High-Gravity Beer Lab, which is currently the only location to sample and purchase the company’s beer.
Not long ago, I spoke with Corsair Head Brewer Karen Lassiter to discuss her brewing career, taking an interest in historical beers, the growing craft-beer scene of Nashville and participating with the Pink Boots Society.
Are you originally from Tennessee?
– “Originally, I’m from Pennsylvania. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, but I’ve been here, in Tennessee, for almost 25 years, now.”
How did you get your start, as a brewer?
– “I started off, as a homebrewer. Actually, I’ll tell you the tale. I had worked in the graphic arts and the printing industry for almost 20 years and I started homebrewing, probably 10 or 11 years ago. I lost my job in the printing industry in 2007, right at the start of the recession and I had trouble finding another job and all I could find were entry-level jobs. What do I do now? Maybe it’s time for a career change. I had already been into craft beer and the craft-beer industry had been exploding and I also got to know some of the local, professional brewers, here in town, by being involved in the local homebrew club, The Music City Brewers.”
“I had been involved with them for a few years, by the time I lost my job. I thought, ‘Well, I’m unemployed. I guess I’ll look into taking some sort of training program.’ So, I took the Siebel brewing-technology course. It was like a three-month-long online correspondent’s course. When I got done with that, I really wanted some hands-on training. So, I ran into Travis Hixon — who was the brewer over the pub at Blackstone — at a beer festival, right about the time I finished my Siebel course and I asked him for an apprenticeship. He said, ‘Sure, you could do an apprenticeship with us, but we couldn’t pay you.’ So, I worked with them for a couple of months and wanted to do some more. I knew the brewer over at Boscos, Fred Scheer and approached him, but he told me, ‘We don’t do apprenticeships.'”
“But I also knew Fred’s boss, Chuck Skypeck, the guy who was in charge of all the brewing operations for all of the Boscos. So, I just went over Fred’s head and said I was looking to do another apprenticeship. I was even willing to come down to Memphis. He wrote back to me, ‘Well, Fred’s right. We don’t do any formal apprenticeships… but we’re looking to hire. Are you interested?'”
“They hired me as Fred’s assistant at the Boscos in Nashville and I worked with Fred for just a little over a year and then Fred moved on to bigger and better things. So, I took over after he left and then I was with Boscos for six years. Then, they closed and here I am, at Corsair.”
When Boscos closed, I’m sure it caught you off guard.
– “The Nashville Boscos closed on September 22nd. I won’t forget that date, for a long time.”
Did you ever get an official answer as to why the location was shut down?
– “Well, they were doing construction next to us and that really hurt our sales. I even had people come up to me and say, ‘When they knocked that building down, next to you, we thought they knocked you down, too.’ Part of that was the owner’s fault, too. If that perception was out there, they should have made sure people realized we were still there; we were still open. They didn’t do anything to promote our business… little to no advertising. I think there were some poor management decisions made, they had decreasing revenue and they started accruing debt. That’s pretty much what happened.”
“Another thing which really did us in, over at Boscos, with the explosion of all the microbreweries and nanobreweries here in town, that Boscos just didn’t do enough to promote themselves. I remember opening up the Nashville Scene and seeing full-page ads that Jackalope was running. I even showed them to my manager and told them this is stuff we needed to be doing, because these new breweries are starting up and they’re going to take the attention away. Boscos had been around for a long time and people wanted to try the new thing.”
Boscos had many varieties of beers on tap. I’m guessing you had a lot of input on that?
– “Well, I had some input on the seasonal beers. Boscos always had eight beers on tap: There were four regular beers and four seasonals. The four regular beers were more like corporate recipes, so they were served at all locations and there was some variation in what seasonal beers were available.”
Do you have any plans to brew any of your previous recipes at Corsair, at some point?
– “A lot of my recipes were either hoppy beers, a Kolsch that was good – I have not yet brewed that here — I hope to do my KPA here, which was my hoppy beer. Right now, we’re trying to develop our recipes, here at Corsair, and we’ll probably incorporate some of my older recipes that I did at Boscos, maybe as seasonals, every once in a while.”
When you were a homebrewer, did you ever experiment with any bizarre ingredients?
– “One of the reasons why Corsair was really interested in hiring me was that they knew I had experience with historical research, in brewing. My husband and I are involved in The SCA, which is a medieval reenactment group: The Society for Creative Anachronism. I’ve been involved with that for at least 17 years and my husband, Jack, has been in it for at least 20 years. I’ve always been interested in historical brewing and as a homebrewer, I’d done some research in brewing historical beers and brought them to our SCA events. I did an Egyptian beer, a Viking ale, an Elderberry Gruit… a Gruit is an old-style beer from the Middle Ages, that is flavored with all sorts of things, mostly a variety of herbs. When I first started researching historical beers, most of the recipes were using herbs like bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, mugwort, wormwood, Chamomile, hyssop and all those weird things.”
How did Corsair get into the beer business?
– “Well, I’ve only been a Corsair employee since October, so I don’t know the real long-range plans, but after I lost my job, when Boscos closed, Corsair called me up, that day. They said they had been planning on starting up beer production, for some time. They were tickled when I became available, because everyone here is mostly working on the spirits side of things. So, they hired me. I don’t know how long they had been thinking about that or how far back they’d had that in their game plan. Eventually, their long-range goal is to turn this space back into 100 percent beer production, like when Yazoo was here. All the spirits and whiskey will be moved to the new building, over by the fairgrounds.”
Do you know a date when that will happen by?
– “They bought that building last year and they’re converting the space. They’re getting the stills set up and we’re probably still months away from whiskey being totally moved out of here.”
Can you tell me a little about your brewing setup at Corsair?
– “Right now, I’m brewing on a pilot system and we’re just on an on-premises sales, for right now. Eventually, we hope to get into distribution, starting with kegs in different tap rooms and bars, and then maybe bottles and cans, after that.”
Is there a central theme to the beers of Corsair?
– “We like to have five categories of beer, in production or on tap, at all times. Since Corsair likes to smoke their own malts, they like to have a smoked beer, a historical beer, a hoppy beer, a seasonal beer and the fifth one is anything made from our Corsair malt.”
Which would you say is your best-seller or your flagship?
– “Well, our bestsellers are our hoppy beers and that was true when I worked over at Boscos, too. Hoppy beers always sell well. Our flagship beer for our hoppy beer is our Ancient IPA and we also do a Rye IPA. The interesting thing we do with the Rye is we barrel ferment it in our rye-whiskey barrels. I like the extra-spicy character that you get from the grain. It’s a nice, little twist to your typical hoppy IPAs.”
What were some of your brewing inspirations for your Corsair beers?
– “Some of the ideas for the beers are uniquely mine, but that’s actually a minority of the brews that we do. Most of the brews are a collaboration. The other people who brew here or have had experience with beer brewing are Matt Strickland, Tyler Crowell and Emily Kendall, our tap room manager. She knows what sells and she has knowledge of beer. We all get together and have weekly production meetings and plan on what to brew next, depending on the season.”
Do you have any upcoming barrel-aged beers to be released?
– “No, because I think we’re waiting until we can do a larger-scale production for distribution into bottles. That’s probably more of a longer-range plan.”
As a dark-beer fan, can you tell me a little about your current or upcoming beers?
– “One of our upcoming beers is our Chocolate Mole Stout. It’s brewed and aged with dried chili peppers and cocoa nibs. We debuted that beer at the Winter Warmer and it got a great reception. Once we put it on tap, it sold out quickly. That’s coming up again. That’s the only stout that we have coming up. We tend to not do the darker beers, much, in the summertime. We’ll be concentrating on wits and Hefeweizens. We’ll probably wait for the cooler months to do our Turkish Coffee Stout, because that’s a strong beer.”
What will 2015 bring for Corsair beer?
– “Hopefully, we’ll be ramping up production off the pilot system, onto the big system, by the end of the year and distributing in kegs, by then. I don’t know about the canning and the bottles, yet, but at least in kegs, distributed to bars and tap rooms by then.”
What kind of beer trends are you noticing?
– “Well, there’s a lot of interest in sour beers, there’s a lot of interest in session beers and there is starting to be some interest in the historical beers actually using nontraditional ingredients, sort of like a resurgence of interest in Gruits, which is what they called beer before they started using hops in it. I have an interest in the session beers and the Gruit beers… not so much the sours. I’m not real keen on those.”
To what do you attribute the booming craft-beer scene of Nashville?
– “Well, it’s a combination of things. It’s businesspeople realizing an opportunity, that they can perhaps start a tap room or a brewery and have good sales, because it’s very popular, right now. Then it’s also people who are passionate, people like me, who started off as a craft-beer drinker and then migrated to a homebrewer, wanting to make it their career.”
Would you have ever imagined so many breweries within the Middle Tennessee area, like there are today?
– “I thought that it would eventually get to that point. When I first started at Boscos in 2008, there was Big River, Yazoo, Blackstone and us. That was it. Soon afterwards, Cool Springs Brewery was the first to start up, then Blackstone expanded to a production facility, Turtle Anarchy came… I actually know Ken Rebman, over at Czann’s. He started off in the homebrew club and so did Carl Meier at Black Abbey. I had talked to both of them, years ago, when they were in their planning stages. So, I had a feeling that all these ex-homebrewers wanted to start up their own breweries.”
What does it mean to have a group of female brewers and members of the brewing industry meeting regularly via the Pink Boots Society?
– “It’s really awesome. I didn’t have a female role model to follow, when I started in Nashville, because all the brewers were guys, but I count them as my friends. There isn’t a guy or gal brewer, here in town, who I wouldn’t ask, if I had a question. I was the only one. Now there’s others and I think that’s a good thing. It’s interesting, since we had been talking about historical brewing. Historically, women were responsible, because brewing was considered a household chore. Each estate or household would brew their own beer. It wasn’t until much later, during the Industrial Revolution, when people started using machines to help them brew and men took over. For most of human history, brewing was put into the category of cooking. For a millennia, women were really in charge of brewing. Hopefully, women will start taking their rightful place, being in charge of brewing. (laughs)”
Tell me a little about collaborating with the other breweries to brew Unite Red Ale.
– “I cannot take much credit for that. Actually, Bailey Spaulding, over at Jackalope, was the one who came up with the recipe, keeping in mind what materials and malts she had on hand. She just threw it out there, ‘This is what I’ve got. How about we make an amber or a red ale?’ That sounds great. It was brewed at Jackalope by Bailey, Sally Cooper, Laura Burns and me. It was the four of us, but it was mainly Bailey and Sally, because it was brewed on their equipment and they’re familiar with their equipment. I felt like I just stood around and gave moral support. Jackalope gets all the credit, for brewing that beer.”
What are the future plans for the Pink Boots Society?
– “I think the next project that we want to do is a beer-education thing, kind of bringing other women in, to try to learn about beer and try to have some sort of beer appreciation. The more women you have, who are interested in drinking the product, then it’s a natural progression that they’ll want to get into either homebrewing or professional brewing or something associated with that. Now, out of all the gals in our chapter of Pink Boots, there’s only four or five of us who are actual brewers. The rest of the gals in the local chapter either work for distributors or satellite businesses that are associated with the brewing process.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
– “I feel very fortunate that, considering what happened to Boscos, I landed in a good spot. Corsair is very interested in doing unique things, not only with spirits, but also with beer. I’m fortunate to have a really cool job.”