A toast

NKBC drains its last barrels

They've been at it for four years now, inside a nondescript industrial building on the east end of Depot Street, near Randolph. This neighborhood of loading docks and practical cinderblock includes several machine shops, warehouses, and, somehow, the Knoxville Opera Company.

In one plain building, the New Knoxville Brewing Company—which is just four guys—has been brewing beer: manufacturing it from raw grains and yeast, bottling it, and packaging it. Though news articles have referred to the company as "a downtown brewery," NKBC is, in fact, the only bottling brewery in East Tennessee, and the largest independent brewery in the entire state.

NKBC brews 2,000 barrels a year. That's the equivalent of 4,000 kegs, 61,000 gallons, or 720,000 bottles. Most of that beer is bought and consumed in the Knoxville area. It's on tap in dozens of local restaurants, and on the shelves of major groceries.

That can sound like plenty, and they do sell more here than several well-known national breweries sell in Knoxville. NKBC outsells Sam Adams, Beck's, Pete's, even Lowenbrau here. But that may not be quite enough to keep a brewery in business.

Last week I dropped by. The place was noisy with activity not long ago, but last week it was quiet except for the ringing of the phone. NKBC has stopped brewing beer altogether until they find out how to keep the business going.

Ed Vendely, president and co-founder of NKBC, is the only one here today. In NKBC's spartan lobby, he talks freely about the ups and downs of the company's fortunes.

He and his partner, Al Krusen, both homebrewers with only a little experience in the industry, had a lot of learning to do, about running a factory, and about Knoxville. Originally from Ohio, Vendely had grown fascinated with Knoxville's beer-making history before he added his own chapter to it.

On the wall is a framed photograph of a mule-drawn beer wagon, loaded with brewers in medieval tunics and German imperial helmets. The carriage is proudly emblazoned New Knoxville Brewing Company. A display case shows new NKBC bottles of IPA and porter alongside Victorian relics with the same logo.

A century ago, that original NKBC had a regional reputation for its brands. Vendely registered trademarks like Swanky, Old Pal, Malt-o-tonic, Palmetto, and Shamrock Special. Marketing research had shown that cities tend to embrace a hometown brewery, especially when it had a strong sense of the city's heritage. Vendely now thinks his attention with selecting original Knoxville names was for naught. "Knoxville, for whatever reason, didn't care," he says.

Among beer critics, however, NKBC lived up to its forerunner's reputation. Their beer has won awards, notably at the World Beer Championships held in Chicago in 1997. The new IPA won a silver medal, and the mild ale was the best of show. New Knoxville's English-style ales showed better than those of the oldest brewery in England.

New Knoxville's namesake city was slow to catch on. Back in '96 or '97, it was hard to find in local groceries. I asked the bartender at one of my favorite downtown bars to stock it. She agreed, but each time I came in she showed me the dusty carton, demonstrating that I'd been the only one who had ordered it since last week.

If you're used to Bud Light, NKBC takes some getting used to. It's beer with a sharp taste that beer aficionados call "hoppy," an English style probably similar to what beer-drinking Knoxvillians enjoyed a century ago. Even NKBC's Mild Ale isn't mild, at least not by watered-down American tastes. Once you do get used to it, it's hard to go back. "We made a decision early on to have a more true-to-style beer," says Vendely.

Last year, in the Southern Brewers' Invitational, a beer festival in Durham, N.C. Among 36 breweries nationwide, New Knoxville placed third overall; their stout placed second.

They don't enter contests anymore. Vendely says they each cost hundreds of dollars to enter. "When it comes down to paying payroll or buying grains—or paying money to enter a contest—you need to choose." In May, New Knoxville hosted their own beer festival at World's Fair Park; one of Knoxville's most successful one-day festivals, it drew 2,000 people and raised $16,000 for charity.

That bar I mentioned earlier now has New Knoxville on tap. It's a popular beer. About 40 Knoxville restaurants now have taps marked New Knoxville and regularly pour a pint of IPA or XX or Porter.

Lately, when you dump leftovers in the brown-glass Dumpster, down among the Budweisers, you can usually count on spotting a few bottles of NKBC in the heap. It's catching on in a big way, but the surge in New Knoxville's popularity may have arrived a year or two too late.

Vendely still has hopes of rounding up the capital to start brewing again later this summer, but it will have to come together in the next couple of weeks. He needed more than a third of a million to keep going; he still lacks over $100,000, and has to raise it quick. He sounds tired.

"Either this community wants a brewery, or it doesn't," he says. For now, he doesn't have any stock to replenish rapidly emptying shelves. "Some places have completely run out," he says. "It's heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching."

When someone visits from out of town, I buy them a bottle or a pint. For me, New Knoxville has served as a handy proof, a rejoinder to the assumption shared by many outsiders and insiders that nothing that comes out of Knoxville has much character or bite.

As the city considers spending hundreds of millions on projects that have yet to prove themselves, you wonder about the civic value of having one good product in the grocery with your city's name prominent on the label.

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