When Prohibition laws restricted the sale and production of alcohol in Tennessee, dozens of local bars, distilleries, and distributers shut down, and evidence of their existence was subsequently destroyed. Sadly, this important piece of local history was forgotten with the passage of time.
Yet, as craft brewing and distilling have made a resurgence in Chattanooga, local makers have also helped us rediscover our past.
The History: Pre-Prohibition
Historic bottles on display at the Tennessee Stillhouse, shot on location
When the Western and Atlantic Railroad put Chattanooga on the map in 1850, it set off a domino effect of industrial expansion, and for a few years, Chattanooga was a boom town.
Then came the American Civil War, which halted the city’s growth, followed by the South’s Reconstruction. “Reconstruction began after the Battles for Chattanooga in 1863, as Union soldiers began to rebuild the city’s industries, which laid the foundation for post war industrialization,” explains Chattanooga historian Caroline Sunderland. “In the 1870s, the railroad grew to meet the demands of a new and diverse economy that included everything from textile factories to foundries. A whole hospitality industry developed in association with the railroad.” This hospitality industry, along with the expanding economy, created a ripe environment for saloons, distilleries, and breweries to thrive.
By 1866, the first recorded distillery and liquor dealer, J. W. Kelly & Co., opened in Chattanooga, selling whiskey branded with such names as “Old Milford,” “Golden Age,” and “Mountain City Corn Shuck.”
In the following decades, dozens of distilleries and distributors cropped up in the thriving railroad’n’river town. Whiskey makers like Deep Springs, Chatta Distillery, Star Liquor Co., and E. R. Betterton, appeared one after another on bustling Market Street. Between 1865 and 1915, over 30 distilleries operated in Chattanooga, and 98 liquor dealers were listed on public records. By 1886, distilling was the largest manufacturing industry in Tennessee.
Right in the middle of this whiskey boom, beer brewing was simultaneously making its entrance. The original Chattanooga Brewing Company was founded in 1890 by George Rief, a German immigrant whose family ran the brewery for 25 years until they were finally forced to close under Prohibition. Their facility took up an entire city block of Broad Street, and included a six-story brewing house.
“They were selling about 150,000 barrels of beer a year in their heyday,” said modern day Chattanooga Brewing Company (CBC) co-founder Mark Marcum. “Back then, if you wanted a beer in Chattanooga, you got it there. They were huge.”
CBC started by selling beer in wooden barrels, but soon switched over to glass bottles, made at their very own glass plant.
“They had 12oz bottles and a 32oz that they called ‘Family Size,’” laughed Marcum. “I want to do that someday … you know, just to honor the history.”
German style beers like the “Magnolia,” the “Faultless Lager,” and the “Muenchner” were sold at wholesalers and saloons throughout the city. As fast as they grew and as much beer as they produced, demand was such that CBC struggled just to keep up with the thirst of the city.
“Let’s have a ‘CHATT,’” reads one advertisement from 1895, “Imperial Pilsener, Magnolia, Zacherl-Brau. THE FINEST BEERS MADE.”