Blackberry Farm is well known for being a luxury resort nestled within the Great Smoky Mountains, but you may not know the property has been brewing world-class beer for the last five years. Currently distributed in 29 states, Blackberry Farm Brewery recently won a silver medal for American-Belgo Style Ale at the Great American Beer Festival and has been named one of Craft Beer & Brewing’s off-the-radar destination breweries to visit.
At the Music City Food + Wine Festival, Blackberry Farm Brewery Managing Partner Roy Milner’s award-winning craft beer was paired with celebrated pitmaster Pat Martin’s barbecue and enjoyed by all at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint & Friends station. Mr. Milner was kind enough to take the time to discuss his brewing background, the uniqueness of farm-based brewing, cooking with beer and preview the brewery’s upcoming barrel-aged beers in our Beer with a Brewmaster interview.
How did you get your start, as a brewer?
– “Ironically, I’ve been in and around craft beer since 1991, so it’s been almost 25 years. I started off as a homebrewer. I brewed at a few brewpubs around the Southeast, up until 1996. At which time, I helped a friend start a brand called Eastern Rivers Brewing Company. We were a contract brewery. At the time, we didn’t have our own brick and mortar. We brewed our beers at other people’s breweries — which is now called gypsy brewing. I then went to work for Sam Adams, for Boston Beer Company, running a sales territory in Texas and that’s what brought me to Nashville. I ended up running the Tennessee-Alabama-Arkansas territory for Sam Adams. I then got out of craft beer, but I worked with another beverage brand that kept me kind of close to distributors who were selling craft, so I stayed very involved. In 2010, I met the owners of Blackberry Farm and shared this passion for brewing beer on a working farm.”
“I’m a native Tennessean. I’m from Chattanooga and I went to school in Knoxville, so I had an awareness about Blackberry Farm. We decided to pursue this idea of making beer on a farm. We opened the brewery in May of 2011 and we’ve been brewing on the farm for the last five years. Last year, we built a production brewery to put beer into distribution, to share with our friends and chefs around the country.”
I’ve never visited Blackberry Farm before. Please tell me what it encompasses.
– “Blackberry Farm was established in 1976. The Farm is a destination resort now, but it started as a family retreat. The Beall family is originally from Mobile and came to Blackberry Farm as a family retreat. They would go and friends started going with them and eventually, larger groups started coming. It turned into an inn in the mid ’80s and now it’s a destination resort with guests from every corner of the world. It’s a special place. It’s 9,000 acres really rooted in culinary. There are three restaurants on property and there’s a creamery, where we make our own cheese. There’s a butcher shop, there’s a preservation kitchen, there is the only breeding program for the Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, which are truffle-hunting dogs. It’s a pretty cool place.”
“In addition to culinary and beverage, there’s a 160,000 bottle wine cellar, there’s horseback riding, fly fishing, all sorts of hiking and outdoor adventures, and education is a big part of the farm. A lot of our guests want to indulge and also have a relaxing experience, but education is a big part of it too, with gardens, the brewery, cheese making and culinary… there’s all sorts of things to do that are an educational component of the experience of being at the farm.”
Do you grow all of your ingredients?
– “We don’t. We make what are called continental old-world styles, so we get most of our ingredients from the old world — Europe. We have one malt supplier, that’s Weyermann Malting, which no one would deny is the best malt in the world. It’s expensive to use it, but we use 100 percent Weyermann malt. All of our hops are Noble Hops, so we get them from Slovenia, England, Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium.”
Please tell me a little about your flagship beer.
– “I developed a love affair with the Saison style about 10 years ago and Saisons found their history in Wallonia, in Southern Belgium. These beers are a derivative of Pilsner, but they are fermented with Saison yeast. One of the best terms that describes Saisons is ‘rustic.’ They have this rusticity that’s very complex and interesting. They’re also food-driven beers. In Belgium, beer is paired with foods often, it’s also cooked with a lot. I love to cook and Saison is a style that blends well with food and being at the table. At Blackberry Farm, we talk a lot about experiences of sharing things at the table. So, making Saisons made sense. That became our flagship and that’s the first beer we ever made. It’s now the beer we hang our hat on.”
Please tell me about your current seasonal and your upcoming Fall lineup.
– “The only beer we’ve released, up through May, was our Classic Saison. In the summer, we have a program called SeasonAles, fully rooted in the four seasons that we have in East Tennessee, much like Nashville. We get four unique, almost-three-month seasons, so we try to reflect that in the beverage program, with the beers. Summer Saison was the first beer that we released, outside of Classic. It’s very hop forward. We have to contract our hops three years in advance and we got the opportunity to spot buy this unique hop called Australian Summer. Australian Summer has this amazing tropical, floral note. It’s a hop that is not very easy to purchase on a contract. You can only make so much beer, because we can’t have it year round. We made our first seasonal be this hop forward, very floral, very fruity beer that’s great for warmer months and hotter temperatures. Our Fall Saison is a double rye, so there’s two varieties of rye, all coming from Weyermann Malting. It’s a floor-malted rye and a chocolate rye, which gives you a little spicy character and then we age that on Oak, that gives you vanilla and caramel. It’s a little darker beer. In the Fall months, you’re starting to get cooler temperatures, you’re starting to make chilis and braises and some of the richer textures of foods and so that beer kind of welcomes that sensibility and flavor.”
Do the Blackberry Farm chefs cook with beer?
– “We’re crazy lucky in the fact that all of our gardeners, all of our preservationists, all of our artisans talk, literally every day. They’ll grow herbs and hops in the garden that’ll add accents to our beer. We don’t brew with those on a commercial scale, but we’ll do a lot of experimentation with that stuff. Our cheesemakers wash two of their cheeses in our beers, so they’re washed rinded beer cheeses. Our bakers use our spent grain. Our chefs definitely design some of their dishes around pairing with our beers. We’ve made 40 different beers, at the farm, in the last five years. Most of it’s never made it off the farm, but we have 17 beers planned to be released next year.”
What’s the first one to be released next year?
– “We have a Brett Saison, that’s in barrels now. We’re starting a barrel program that’ll be released in February and then our Spring Saison will come out, Winter’s following Fall, clearly. The Winter beer will be available in late November and the Spring will be available in February.”
Will next year’s newly released beers be available in Middle Tennessee?
Your brewery is located in East Tennessee. Can you describe the craft-beer scene there?
– “Well, for industry insiders, the Southeast is kind of the last frontier, where craft beer hasn’t realized its fullest potential. You know, the West Coast, the Northeast and even the Central Midwest is a little bit further ahead of the South, but now you’ve got this amazing energy around Southern culinary, around beer, in general, and the Southeast is that last remaining portion that hasn’t been fully developed yet. I think it’s happening at a faster rate, here, but we have a long way to go. I mean, there’s a lot of breweries that have been doing things in the West and in the Northeast that we haven’t been doing here. Farm-based brewing is pretty new thing for the South. A couple of breweries are doing it. We were one of the first and that’s a big reason why I wanted to do that, because I love the South, I love the sensibility of Southern hospitality and breweries go hand in hand with culinary. It’s cool to see what’s happening in the South.”
“Knoxville, in particular, has had seven breweries open in the last 24 months and there’s a couple of more planned. If you look at what’s happening in Nashville, there’s 10 or 12 breweries now, but five years ago, there were three. It’s just fun to see. It’s a great industry and everybody supports each other. There’s a lot of benevolence. We try to help each other, in any way we can. The Tennessee Brewers Guild is a fairly new opportunity for all of us to collaborate efforts and help each other. Most of that work is done on the political arena, to try to change legislation and make the beer scene more favorable for small brewers, here. You could make the argument that around the Southeast, we’re one of the last states to embrace craft brewing. North Carolina’s done a great job of doing that. Kentucky has done a very good job, Georgia has done a good job, Alabama’s a little slower, but we hope to make Tennessee one of those places that really supports small businesses and craft brewing.”
What are your thoughts about Nashville’s craft-beer scene?
– “It’s an amazing scene, here, and I think what’s happening in Nashville, in general, just with the growth and awareness of this city and what it has to offer from political, educational, food, music and the arts, it’s a dynamic community and craft brewing fits into that fold, very well. Nashville stands a chance to lead the charge in the Southeast. Atlanta is already a very, very large city and I think Nashville is not quite there, yet. You still have this entrepreneurial spirit of being able to do something unique and interesting and Nashville still has that spirit about it.”
What upcoming festivals or events will you attend next?
– “We don’t have anything planned, for the remainder of the year. We are doing four Nuit Belge events with Matt Leff and Rhizome Productions in January (Atlanta), February (New Orleans), March (Nashville) and April (Charleston). I will be at Charleston Wine + Food in March. That’s already solidified. We’re planning some collaborations that I can’t tell you, yet. There’s some really cool things happening next year. The first of which will be a partnership with a San Francisco brewery, so we will be at the San Francisco Beer Week, in February. And we have a really cool event planned with Dogfish Head, next September. We’re already planning some cool things around that and we’re doing some collaborations with Dogfish Head. We did an event with Brooklyn Brewery, last August, at the farm. Garrett Oliver wrote the tome on beer with food, The Brewmaster’s Table. I think that book came out 12 years ago. So, we’re just trying to work with people who really place that conversation of beer at the table at the tip of the spear, so to speak.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
– “The last thing I would say is we’re passionate about the state of Tennessee. We’re all wanting to do something here that speaks to the South. For us, getting to do something in Nashville is important because we want people to realize that we’re doing what we think is world-class beer, coming out of a region that’s not known for world-class beer. So, there’s a lot of education that’s involved, but we’re committed to quality. Quality is the first thing that we talk about, in anything that we do and I think that carries through in everything about the farm.”
For More Information:
– Blackberry Farm Brewery Website
– Blackberry Farm Twitter
– Blackberry Farm Facebook
– Blackberry Farm Instagram
– Blackberry Farm Vimeo
– Blackberry Farm YouTube
– Blackberry Farm Pinterest