Q+A: Get to know Nashville’s craft beer industry

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Nashville has been named a top beer city, and we’re not surprised. But what goes on behind the scenes at your favorite neighborhood brewery?

In honor of Drink Up Week, we chatted with three local owners + brewers: TailGate Brewery founder and owner Wesley Keegan + Fat Bottom Brewing’s Alex Barr (director of brewing operations) and Colton Hile (lead brewer).

The two breweries have much to celebrate these days. TailGate just opened its fifth taproom in Germantown + Fat Bottom Brewing will celebrate its 10th anniversary in August.

Q: How did you get your start in the craft beer industry?

Wesley: I was 21 and thought I knew everything. That was a lifetime ago, but it’s still such a young industry. I enjoyed making beer with my friends, and there was an opportunity to make something out of a great name — one my late father came up with. When we started, we were one of the first craft breweries in the US to go to cans and the number of breweries has more than doubled over the course of the last 15 years. Going into it, I thought I had it all figured out. You quickly find out what you don’t know.

Alex: I started a little over seven years ago in the taproom as a bartender when I was wrapping up my microbiology degree. I kind of weaseled my way into the back of that brewery to learn a few things, knowing that I would probably end up as a microbiologist working in a lab somewhere. That was right around the time breweries started pushing into quality labs, which are helpful if you’re trying to get into Kroger or a bigger store — they want to know you’re doing your due diligence and checking the things that you’re packaging and producing. Once we moved to this location, I ran the lab until taking this job to oversee the brewery and production.

Q: The brewing industry is known for being creative + collaborative. What is the brewing collaboration process like? How do local brewers decide on how or when to create these special releases?

Wesley: There’s really no template, but it’s fun. This business attracts so much creativity. If someone comes to us and says, “Hey, we want a beer to highlight this initiative,” that’s something we can turn around in a couple of months if it fits our business model and calendar. Sometimes it’s something silly, but other times it’s a collaboration that helps us give back to places like the Nashville Zoo + Nashville Humane.

Alex: It’s sort of like when you get together with your friends and decide, “Hey, let’s make dinner together.” One recent example: I have a brother in the brewing industry in a small city south of Atlanta, and we were both approached separately for a charity beer collaboration (Common Hope) where everyone puts a unique spin on a similar style of beer. Proceeds go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation to combat and raise awareness for Parkinson’s disease, and my brother and I have a personal connection to that.

But there’s another side to collaboration. Due to supply chain issues with brewing supplies, if we’re short on grain one day, we might pop down to Southern Grist and ask to borrow some and then when ours comes in next week — and we’d do the same. We’re all making similar things, but we’re doing it in different ways. It’s just a lot of great people in a great industry helping each other out when they need it.

Q: How many beers are you making a year?

Wesley: We make at least 200 unique beers every year. That pace is now a little bit more than two new releases every week. We have our core offerings — that’s about four or five different beers always available — and then we’ll have some seasonal releases. Every week, we’re dropping anywhere from two to five new beers.

Alex: The vast majority of the beer falls within four or five styles or brands, and then we’ll do a bunch of small batches just for the taproom for variety. You’ve gotta keep it interesting. When people go to a brewery they expect to see the mainstays, but it’s also really neat when they come in and the first thing they want to try is something experimental and different.

Q: Do you have a brew you’re most proud of?

Colton: I would say our Pitch Invasion Lager for Nashville SC. It’s the official craft beer for the team. I think it’s pretty cool to look around and see hundreds of people drinking beer that you brewed.

Wesley: I’m really excited about our lager project. That isn’t a particular beer, but it’s a rotating group of beers brewed in the German style as best as you can in Nashville. They’re expensive to make, very delicate, and easy to mess up. But they’re just so delicious and come out great. They’re what beer flavored beer is all about, and I love the whole lineup we did.

Q: TailGate’s grown to over 150 employees and earlier this summer you announced 100% health care coverage for all employees. Can you tell me more about these recent employee-driven initiatives?

Wesley: We launched 100% health care for all team members, and that was something I’ve been working on for a really long time. We’ve been fortunate to increase things beyond just a paycheck every year. We want to be the best paid place to work in Nashville and even nationally, so if you’re a brewer working at TailGate Brewery, it should be some of the best wages you can get in the US. We could have an opportunity to put our names on a billboard somewhere, or we could go invest in our team. I think that the right thing to do is invest in the team.

Q: What would you give to a first-time TailGate or Fat Bottom drinker?

Wesley: Our number one product is our Orange Wheat, so that is a go-to drink. If you’ve never been in our location, you’ve gotta try any of our core products we’re very proud of. The thing about visiting our taprooms is that there are 30 different beers on draft at every single location. Whatever you like to drink, we can find something for you.

Alex: I’d probably recommend Teddy Loves Pilsner. I tend to drink the lighter stuff anyway, so maybe I’m a little biased, but I feel like that’s a crowd pleaser because it’s very accessible and not overly bitter. For the most part, we try to make all of our beers pretty accessible.

At TailGate, you have beer, cider, seltzer, and even sweet tea. What other beverages could you see bringing into the fold one day?

Wesley: The short answer is that if it’s fermentable, we want to make it. Anything fermentable is on our radar, whether it’s different types of alcohol, non-alcoholic drinks, or something like kombucha — all of those are certainly on our radar and can’t be ruled out by any stretch. As we’ve learned the last couple of years, you can’t be certain of anything, so we try to keep all of our options open. We didn’t think we’re going to make a seltzery in Germantown, but when the opportunity presented itself, it was the right location for this.

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