A few years ago, I participated in a nine-month leadership training program that began with an overnight retreat on Monteagle Mountain. This retreat included many of the usual getting-to-know-you and team-building activities we’ve come to expect at these events. One such activity involved all 32 classmates standing in a giant circle. Beginning with a randomly chosen position/person, we had to state to the group something unique about ourselves – presumably something they wouldn’t already know. After the first person made his proclamation, the person next to him had to make hers. Then she had to repeat her neighbor’s name and little-known fact. And so it went around the circle, with the poor sucker at the end – who was standing right next to the guy who got it started – having to remember and recite the names and arbitrary facts about everyone who came before him.
So, here I was, about one-fourth of the way around the circle, growing ever more apprehensive as the process surged toward me. Had we been holding hands, my palms would have broadcasted to my neighbors the panic that had just overcome me. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would elicit a favorable “wow” or “that’s cool” from my classmates. And I certainly didn’t want to be the first one to misremember a name or fact about one of my predecessors in the circle. As the person next to me finished naming all the adjacent students in the circle, as well as what made them unique, I suddenly had my fact. I looked up, smiled, and said, “My name is John Sloan, and I like to make beer.” What? That’s it? That’s the best I could do? Honestly. I’ve been on stage with Joan Rivers. I was born on the day JFK was buried, and I share a birthday with JFK, Jr. My middle name is Fitzgerald. I’m quite sure there are thousands of other guys born around the time of the JFK assassination who could make the same claims, but it’s still pretty cool. And the Joan Rivers thing is absolutely true. But no, I had to go with, “I like to make beer.” Dork.
I probably should have said, “I like to drink beer.” True enough, I did make beer with my buddies back in the day, but we made only about four batches…and those would turn out to be the only four batches we ever made. Certainly not enough to make me an expert – or proclaim it as an identifying fact about me and my life. But drinking beer? I had done my fair share of that. Hey, I was social chairman of the fraternity in college. I’m not – and never will be – a beer snob, but I do like good beer. I define good beer as beer that actually tastes like beer. No offense, but you can keep your Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. In an effort to make them mild enough for the masses, they have brewed all the flavor out of them. They look like urine, and they don’t have much taste at all. They also need to be served at near-freezing temperatures in order to be even remotely palatable. What is it with American mega-breweries and their notion that beer has to be so cold that your hand sticks to the bottle or can, much like Flick’s tongue on the flagpole in A Christmas Story?
For this reason, until the craft beer revolution, I drank more imported beer than anything else. My favorites were, not necessarily in this order, Guinness, Stella Artois, Harp, Murphy’s, Bass, Smithwick’s, and when I was in a Mexican restaurant, Tecate. I’m fully aware that Anheuser-Busch owns Stella, but the point here is I like beer that’s haute flavored (too obvious?) and not served as a slushy.
The resurgence of craft beers has changed everything. Annual beer sales in the U.S. top $100 billion, and craft beers continue to make increases in market share each year. Combine the craft beer craze with the “Eat Local” movement, and it’s easy to see why microbreweries are popping up all over the country.
I recently attended the Tennessee Beer Festival (www.tnbeerfestival.com), where over 50 breweries – both large and small, local and national – were represented. It is held each year since 2010 on the lawn at Two Rivers Mansion on the third Saturday in October. They have live music, food from local restaurants, and local vendors with gifts. The proceeds benefit many local non-profits, with over $50,000 (estimated) donated since the inception of the festival. Over 1700 patrons were on hand this year to sample roughly 100 different beers. It was a unique opportunity to taste beers of every stripe, and I found some new favorites.
For the past several years, I’ve been a fan of Yazoo Brewing Company (www.yazoobrew.com) and its offerings. My favorite from Yazoo is Dos Perros, which is an Austrian-style ale with a Mexican twist added in the form of flaked maize. I also like their Pale Ale and, when the situation calls for it, Hop Project.
At the festival, however, I tried to concentrate on breweries that were new to me. Here is the best of those I sampled…
Tennessee Brew Works
Tennessee Brew Works is owned by the nephew of family friend. Garr Schwartz is founder and brewmaster at Tennessee Brew Works, which he co-founded with business partner Christian Spears. They use a mash filter brewing system that consumes less energy and raw materials to produce some of the finest craft beers in the state.
Each brewery had two beers for sampling. With TBW, I sampled the Sweet Potato Stout. I couldn’t taste any sweet potato, but I did taste excellent beer. It had a nice dark color, a pleasing aroma, and a hint of sweetness (sweet potato?) that wasn’t too much. Garr has a winner on his hands with this one.
The Black Abbey Brewing Company
Black Abbey is another Nashville brewery doing it right. They make Belgian-style ales such as The Champion, which is an American pale ale, and The Special, a darker, more robust ale brewed in the traditional monastic style.
I sampled – many times – The Fortress, an American-style black ale. It had a nice, malt flavor with a perfect mix of citrus hops. If you like dark “malty” ales and pale ales, and you’ve always wondered what they would taste like when mixed together, this is your beer. It’s excellent.
Terrapin Beer Company
Terrapin Beer Company was founded in 2002 in Athens, GA by University of Georgia graduate John Cochran and Brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski. They set out to craft beers that were unlike anything else available in the southeast. Sure, they make pale ales and dark beers, but they do it with their own flair. And they do it well.
On this day, I sampled RecreationAle, a hopped-up session ale that is perfect for drinking at an outdoor beer festival in October. It’s crisp and refreshing and full of flavor. It’s also available in cans. I made several visits to the Terrapin booth.
St. Louis, MO
Schlafly Beer is made by The St. Louis BreweryTM , which is the largest independent brewery in the state. The Schafly Bottleworks in the suburb of Maplewood, MO was the first production brewery to open in the St. Louis area since the end of Prohibition.
Each year, they brew over 70 styles of beer. I sampled their superb Oatmeal Stout. It is a classic British-style stout brewed with roasted barley and flaked oatmeal. It’s rich, creamy, and nutty, with cocoa and coffee aromas. It has a dash of hops for balance. Overall, it’s a fantastic beer.