Locally crafted beers, fermented wines, and distilled spirits have been points of pride and artistry since the beginning of time. And while the Chattanooga area sure took its time bouncing back from Prohibition, the last five years have witnessed a Renaissance of noteworthy drinks made right here in the Scenic City.
By Brian Beise
Photos by Med Dement
Full PDF here.
In fact, just this March, Livability.com ranked Chattanooga among the “Top 10 Beer Cities in America” for our fantastic and growing pool of artisan microbreweries. Now, our city also boasts its own urban vineyard and winery, as well as a brand new whiskey distillery—two key contributions to Chattanooga’s growing craft brew and spirits culture.
It’s common knowledge that thriving food artisanship usually coincides with a city’s health, and in this vein, Chattanooga is following in the steps of culturally vibrant cities like Portland and Denver. Like Portland’s “Bike to Beer” festival, Chattanooga draws thousands with the Southern Brewers Festival, in which beer and music enthusiasts flock to the Waterfront to sample beers from over 40 different craft breweries. The Scenic City also claims Wine Over Water, Tennessee’s premier wine-tasting festival in which visitors stroll the Walnut Street Bridge while sampling vino from over 100 wineries.
The heart of the movement seems to be somewhere in Chattanooga’s Southside neighborhood, in itself a vision of the city’s renovation as a historically minded, yet progressive hive for business and culture. And while the resurgence of this local industry may seem a curiosity to some, it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows this town. “Chattanooga’s an awesome place with awesome people,” says Tim Piersant, co-founder and co-owner of Chattanooga Whiskey Co. “We’ve bounced back several times over the last 150 years because Chattanoogans believe in Chattanooga. The city is thriving now and so many of these historical craft products are coming back. ”
Read on to learn more about the best of Chattanooga’s beer, wine, and spirits. We can tell you who and where they are, but you’ll have to try them yourself to find your favorites.
DeBarge Vineyards and Winery
For two decades, winemaking was Dr. Raymond DeBarge’s hobby. An eye surgeon by trade, he bought a 112-acre farm on Pigeon Mountain with his father-in-law in 1996 and began growing his own grapes in 2000, taking online courses and doing his own research to learn the craft.
Good seasons and bad seasons taught Dr. DeBarge the hard lessons of grape growing—so no one appreciates a healthy harvest more. He planned on waiting until retirement to open a winery, but circumstances prompted him to reconsider.
“One year I had to open two acres of Chardonnay to the birds,” Dr. DeBarge remembers. “I had given away all I could to local wineries, and couldn’t sell it all, so I had to just let it grow.” Keen to make sure his grapes would never again go unsold and unused, Dr. DeBarge decided to open a winery sooner than expected and went looking for a location. He soon found the right place in Chattanooga’s Southside, where a building erected in 1910 had stood empty and decaying for 26 years. “It was a good price, it was in a good neighborhood close to Main Street, and it had good bones to it, so we decided to go ahead and use it.” The result is Chattanooga’s first urban winery, and its historic, yet modern interior is as pleasing to the eye as the winery’s Syrah is to the taste buds.
DeBarge currently offers a Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and “Chardonooga”—an aptly-named white made from two Tennessee-grown hybrid grapes, Chardonel and Cayuga White.
Dr. DeBarge says that he aims to gather a community around his craft and that of other local craft drink-makers. “You’ve got the distillery that’s going in on the Southside, and you’ve got a couple breweries as well. So we’re going to try to form a more tight-knit organization to try to benefit each other, increase awareness in the area, and just back each other,” says Dr. DeBarge. “We’re gonna call it the Chattanooga Liquid Arts Guild.”
Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
Just under two years ago, Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant asked their friends around town one question: would they drink Chattanooga Whiskey? Since then, their friends and much of the city have been answering in the affirmative again and again, so much so that the law preventing distilling in the city was recently changed.
Chattanooga Whiskey Co. currently offers two varieties: an 1816 Reserve and an 1816 Cask. The Reserve is a 90-proof traditional American whiskey which the company ages for at least four years in charred American white oak barrels. The Cask is made with the same mash bill blend as the Reserve—75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley—but is proofed at barrel strength (113.6) for a more robust flavor.
Since its inception, Chattanooga Whiskey Co. has gotten a lot of press, even scoring a mention in the New York Times. “We’ve had distributors in all 50 states and Germany, Switzerland, and China reach out to us. But we really care about telling our story the right way, so we’ve limited the states we are going into,” says Ledbetter. So far, the company sells to distributors throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.
National interest aside, there’s no doubt it’s brought new life to the craft spirits scene here. See for yourself: practically every bar and restaurant in town sells the two proofs. And when Ledbetter and Piersant threw a block party after the house bill passed, thousands of Chattanoogans came out to show their support and enjoy local music and seemingly endless cases of you know what.
Currently, the whiskey is still distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. But Chattanooga Whiskey Co. has plans to build out a new 60,000 square foot distillery downtown at the corner of 4th and Broad Street. The new location will be called The Tennessee Stillhouse. “We’ll be the first distiller of any kind of spirit in Chattanooga in 100 years,” says Piersant. “This is a brand new product for the craft culture here.”
Chattanooga Brewing Company
Chattanooga Southside (new location opening soon)
The original Chattanooga Brewing Company opened in 1890 and ran successfully until Prohibition closed their doors in 1915. Nearly a century later, in 2010, engineers and brewers Jonathan Clark and Mark Marcum reopened the company on Frazier Avenue and set to work continuing the tradition of Chattanooga Brewing.
“Local history is a subject dear to our hearts and we wanted our business to connect to Chattanooga’s past,” says Marcum. “After learning about the folks that started and ran Chattanooga Brewing for 25 years, we knew that we wanted to bring that name back. Their story ended sadly and as the state and the nation turned to Prohibition, the best option for them was to sell the facility to the up-and-coming Coca-Cola folks. Our hope is to restore the dream of the original company, to be a vital member of our local community, and to trade our wares to the region just as they did.”
Clark and Marcum have quickly made a name for themselves with microbrews like their Imperial Pilsner, Two Taverns Pale Ale, and Hill City IPA. As the company develops, Chattanooga Brewing Company has decided to relocate to the Southside.
“We don’t know where exactly our path will take us, but we’ll explore selling our products in all the markets that make sense,” says Marcum. “Our new home on the Southside will give us the outlet to stay connected to the downtown community as we grow our business.”
Big River Grille & Brewing Works
It should come as no surprise that Big River Grille & Brewing Works’ first location is in a historic trolley barn just a pint-toss away from Ross’ Landing. This is the neighborhood where Chattanooga—and brewing in Chattanooga—got their starts.
“We were certainly first out of the gate in this market and one of very few in the Southeast,” says brewer David Sharpe, who notes the company brews for beer drinkers of today, not the 19th century. “Over the years we have witnessed an evolution in preferences from beer drinkers and we have adapted. Many craft breweries are creative and innovative in product development and marketing—that’s what birthed the industry. We have and continue to develop ways of producing new and/or altered flavor profiles while staying true to our classic brands and traditional brewing practices.”
In addition to being one of the first breweries in town, Big River Grille & Brewing was the first in Tennessee to package beer in a can, a practice that is rapidly gaining popularity in the world of microbreweries. Big River Grille & Brewing is also well-known for hosting the Southern Brewers Festival, increasing exposure for craft beer while raising money for local charities. Since its inception, the festival has raised nearly $1 million. This year, all proceeds benefited Chattanooga’s Kids on the Block and Chattanooga Community Kitchen.
“The craft beer culture is about being fresh—be it fresh flavor, fresh ideas, or simply fresh product,” says Sharpe. “Collaboration and continuity have been mainstays in the industry. With the thriving local entrepreneurial spirit in Chattanooga, I can’t think of a better catalyst than locally produced craft beer.”
It’s possible to visit the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel without stopping by the Terminal Brewhouse just next door, but it would be a mistake. The idea for this destination brewery came soon after Geoffrey Tarr, Matt Lewis, and Ryan Chilcoat opened Hair of the Dog Pub on the corner of Market and 4th Streets downtown. “We realized after talking to many guests that Chattanooga was overdue for a brewpub,” says Lewis. “We love craft beer and food, so the progression seemed natural for us.”
When they began searching for a location they were drawn to the Southside, and particularly to the distinct-looking Stong Building, a four-story flatiron built in 1909 as a hotel to complement the Terminal Station (now the Choo Choo).
“Eventually, a porter named Chester Davis bought the hotel, becoming one of Chattanooga’s first black business owners,” says Lewis. “The edifice has housed several businesses since the demise of the Terminal Hotel, some legitimate spots and some more likely urban legends including speakeasies and brothels.”
Now a bustling restaurant, bar and microbrewery, the Terminal Brewhouse offers strong, unique ales, brewed on the first floor and served on tap on the second.
“We lean towards traditional brewing, although we certainly do not tie ourselves to a singular philosophy,” says Lewis. “We are an alehouse. Our goal is for our beer to be a great representation of the style we are brewing. We like to try new things and always have a few ideas and seasonal beers on the agenda.”
Lewis notes that the local beer culture has grown exponentially in recent years. “We like being part of that evolving community. We also simply enjoy the business we are in and enjoy sharing beer with so many folks. If the locals like us enough to send visitors, that speaks volumes about how we are doing. I think that happens. That is where we want to be.”
Moccasin Bend Brewing Co.
To quickly expand your beer-tasting horizon, you’ll want to stop by St. Elmo at the foot of Lookout Mountain, where Moccasin Bend Brewing Co. makes its home. In the basement of a building where WWII K-rations were once packaged, brewer Chris Hunt makes sure its tasting room is stocked with as many as 10 microbrews at any given time—rather than the more typical four or five.
“It started out as a nanobrewery with a really creative focus,” says Hunt, “and as we got bigger, we kind-of made that bed and now we have to lie in it.”
As the brewery brings back favorites like the Lookout Mountain Lager and Sour Ned, they are constantly churning out new beers.
“You’re taking a risk every time you put a new brand on tap, but that’s always been our focus,” says Hunt. “We’ve always been excited about the creative possibilities of beer.”
Hunt says he wants the brewery to be a gathering place for the neighborhood. It welcomes families and local musicians, and even pets are allowed. If you’re looking to try eight new microbrews on tap while playing foosball, this is your place.