When you think of beer cities in the US, some immediately come to mind. Portland, obviously. Boulder, of course. Asheville—well, it was named Beer City USA for a reason. But Knoxville? For a long time, no, not even close. Beer was consumed, but it wasn’t necessarily produced in the city. In the last half-decade, though, more and more craft breweries have been opening within the limits of Scruffy City—with little sign of slowing down.
Beer originally first showed up in the town back in the mid-1860s when two breweries, the Knoxville Brewery and Union Brewery, first set up shop. Other breweries and brewpubs continued to open (with the East Tennessee Brewing Company eventually distributing to customers in a six-state radius) until 1907 when the city’s pubs were all shut down. The industry was further crippled when Prohibition was enacted in 1910 (ten years before the rest of the country).
Then, things stopped for a while. A long while, in fact. Of the craft breweries devoted solely to beer production open in Knoxville today, the first didn’t open until 2010 when Saw Works Brewery (then known as Marble City Brewing Company, which had purchased its equipment from the defunct New Knoxville Brewing Co.) opened its doors.“Saw Works came in and was the first brewery to take the leap to only producing beer,” says Zack Roskop, founder of Knox Brew Tours.
At that time, the only other breweries were brewpubs—Woodruff Brewing Company (at Downtown Grill & Brewery), Smoky Mountain Brewery, and Black Horse Pub & Brewery. Thanks to the efforts by these breweries, more brewers in the area began the process of realizing their dreams on brewing in Knoxville, too.
Marty Velas, owner and head brewer at Fanatic Brewing Company, came to Knoxville to serve as head of brewing operations at Smoky Mountain Brewery after stints at a variety of breweries across the country and overseas. Now, Fanatic produces popular beers, including their Blonde, which are available at many craft beer bars and markets across the city. The amount of knowledge and experience Velas brought to Knoxville and now employs at Fanatic have changed and opened up the brewing landscape in town.
It wasn’t easy, though, in part because laws were prohibitive for breweries. Until recently, Tennessee had one of the highest taxes on beer in the country. In addition, there wasn’t enough demand for craft beer yet.
“There wasn’t enough certainty that there were enough people to support craft beer,” Roskop explained. When he ran his first Knox Beer Tour in November 2014, only the four breweries mentioned above were open.
Eventually, though, that began to change. Retailers such as the Bearden Beer Market and the Casual Pint began educating customers on craft beer, allowing the space to bring locally-made beers into the market. This new client base, combined with the camaraderie of the brewers themselves, has helped the Knoxville craft beer scene grow.
“We’ve seen nationwide that the craft beer scene has grown significantly in the past ten to fifteen years. Here we’ve been a little bit later in the game but we had a group of people here in Knoxville on the cusp, so once laws changed and some opportunities opened up finally, everyone that was waiting at the gate was ready to go,” Matt McMillan of Hexagon Brewing Company says.
Now, there are 12-20 (depending on the criteria used to count) craft breweries—a mix of brewpubs and production breweries with tap rooms—open and producing beer. For these breweries, variety amongst styles and production methods has helped sustain interest in and growth of the scene. Whether you’re looking for hop-heavy IPAs or sessionable porters, there’s a brewery (or two) for you in Knoxville. Want a fruity sour with a local food truck? There’s a brewery for that, too.
“Each of the breweries is doing something completely different. Could one street have ten McDonalds? No that wouldn’t work. One street could have ten different fast food restaurants though. They have some similarities but they’re offering different products in different packages for different demographics,” Roskop says. “We’re just beginning to tap a lot of different demographics.”
“When you look at the size of the city, there are a lot of smaller three-to-five barrel concepts that sell most if not all of their beer in-house, so that model leaves us with room for growth and opportunities for more breweries.”
For example, Elkmont Exchange Brewery and Eating House, opening in early November, is amongst a number of breweries scheduled to open within the next year. It’s founders, Alex Violette, Bethany Lovato, and Ryan Davenport, bring with them a wide range of brewery and eatery experience. According to Lovato, Elkmont is opening “not only as a brewery, but as a full-service restaurant bringing the concept of fine dining in an approachable way.” The three honed their work relationship in Vietnam at Pasteur Street Brewing Company. Their return to the states is because of the appeal of the outdoors. As Lovato notes, “One of the biggest things we missed is accessibility to outdoor recreation.”
The breweries that are already here are all working at capacity and, according to Roskop, that’s still not enough.
“Overall, there’s still such a low percentage of craft beer consumption, that number can only go up,” he said.
The next step, then, is continued education. With brewers working together—through beer festivals, the Knoville Ale Trail, and more—the consumers will continue to learn more about craft beer, thereby (hopefully) increasing the desire for it in town.
“To make Knoxville a true beer destination, you have to grow the culture as a whole and everybody has to rise up together in beer quality by providing enough different styles of beer and approaches to brewing. As long as everyone is working at a high level, I think the beer industry will continue to grow,” founder of Abridged Beer Company Jesse Bowers says. “If we all work together and grow more awareness for craft beer here in the city, I think we’ll all be better off.” Through all of this, the brewers and those behind the Knoxville craft beer scene are confident that it will continue to grow in the future, making it a destination for beer geeks from around the country.
With so much variety, though, a first-time drinker might become a little overwhelmed. Should you stay in the downtown area? What about heading to South Knoxville or out to Bearden, where more and more new breweries are popping up? Well, Roskop’s Knox Brew Tours is there to come to the rescue.
Running public tours Thursday through Sunday (and private tours by appointment), Zack Roskop takes you on a 3.5 hour guided tour that not only fills you up on beer, but gives you a look at how beers go from grain to glass. The best part of the tour (besides the beer, of course): Not having to worry about driving from brewery to brewery! If you do want to do it on your own, the Knoxville Ale Trail is the best place to go to see where breweries are as well as what other craft beer-supporting establishments are around town.
Below, you’ll find some of our favorites that you can find around town. When it comes to food menus (and whether or not you can bring your pooch), it’s best to check their websites, as that is where you can find menus or what food trucks are set for the week.
New Kids on the Block
Session beers (lower ABV beers that you can have several of over, you guessed it, a session of drinking) have become all the rage in the past few years, and Abridged Brewing Company, which is one of the newest additions to the Knoxville brewery scene, is working to specialize in those beers while also providing a family-friendly atmosphere with a 1950s-era industrial backdrop. From the outset, the goal of Abridged Brewing’s owners has been to create a spot that could become everyone’s neighborhood hang out—a low-key, relaxing place to have a beer or two after work. With their current offerings, they’ve certainly done that.
Recommended: Everyday English Bitter, Funshine IPA
Like many breweries these days, Hexagon was started by a passionate homebrewer who wanted to take things to the next level. With around two decades of experience making beer before Hexagon even opened, there was plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of the beer-making process. You’ll find beers that are more malt-focused, allowing the head brewer to fully express the different flavors possible while also providing a wide range of other beers that anyone can enjoy. As for the brewery and tap room itself, you’re greeted by a nice open space with plenty of room to relax or play one of the available games, such as foosball or tabletop Pacman. Occasionally, food trucks are also on property, so it’s important to check their website if you’re planning to go while hungry (or needing a bite to eat while you indulge in some craft beer).
Recommended: Sexy Cat American Pale Ale, RyeZome Rye IPA
If German beers are your thing, there’s no question that Schulz Brau is your go-to in Knoxville. Priding themselves on German-style ales and lagers, the Schulz family serves up delicious crisp beers in an environment that is, basically, little Bavaria. From the imported tables and chairs to the high wall that surrounds the biergarten area, it’s easy to have a pint or two and forget about life for a while. Currently, you can only get food from food trucks but there are plans to eventually incorporate a kitchen on premises.
Recommended: German Pils, Döppelbock
Striking a balance between tradition and innovation, Alliance Brewing’s beer selection provides a little bit for everyone. This South Knoxville brewery is a great place to go if you like to have a pint while watching soccer and, every Tuesday, if you’re lucky you can try a special cask brew. They tap the cask at six, so it’s important to be there on time in order to get a taste of the really good stuff. When heading to Alliance, parking may not be easy to find, so it’s better to just take advantage of the nearby bike trail and get there on two wheels instead of four (which meshes with the brewery’s own push for an “active beer culture.”)
Recommended: Cubano Coffee Brown, Kölsch, Citra IPA
Known for having some of the most interesting beers on tap in town, Crafty Bastard has quickly established itself as a place for the adventurous to go. You can see all of the brewing equipment from their no-frills taproom and, if you’re hungry, there’s a different food truck available every day that they are open. The biggest issue here, though, is availability. As a nanobrewery, Crafty’s output is not the same as many of the others in town. When you factor in the great-tasting beer, you’ll quickly realize that what is there at the beginning of the week, may not (and probably won’t) be there at the end. The redeeming factor in this is that there’s always another interesting beer almost ready to go.
Recommended: Tessellation IPA, Triple Tennessee Pepper IPA, Banana Pudding Nitro Ale
Knoxville Area Breweries
Abridged Beer Co.
100 Lockett Rd.
Alliance Brewing Co.
1130 Sevier Ave.
100 S. Broadway
1471 West Millers Cove Rd., Walland, 865-984-8166
Pub & Brewery
4429 Kingston Pike
531 S. Gay St.
2045 Norris Freeway
Cold Fusion Brewing Co.
4711 Morton Place Way
6 Emory Place
Grill & Brewery
424 S. Gay St.
Brewery & Eating House
745 N. Broadway
Fanatic Brewing Co.
2727 N. Central St.
Hexagon Brewing Co.
1002 Dutch Valley Dr.
Last Days of
808 E. Magnolia Ave.
920 Ridge Rd., Lancing, 865-617-0984
Pretentious Beer Co.
Printshop Beer Co.
1532 Island Home Ave.
Saw Works Brewing Co.
708 E. Depot Ave.
Shulz Bräu Brewing
126 Bernard Ave.
11308 Parkside Dr.