On first entering the newly opened Bearden Beer Market, I had expected to see yet another cramped, heavily postered, and neon-lit package store, peppered with stacked cases of overpriced, slightly-above average beer. Instead, I may have actually died and stepped through the gates of Beer Heaven. From a concentrated selection of world-class cheeses and strange Swedish discs of rye crisp bread, to exquisite mustards and big barreled kegs of Sweetwater IPA, this one-stop shop nestled at the hip Bearden vortex of where Kingston Pike meets Old Kingston Pike seemingly has it all.
When pressed to talk about anything other than beer, Bearden Beer Market owner, manager, and creator Chris Morton appears slightly irritated with the off-topic distraction. He only wants to talk about beer; for beer (good beer, that is) is the only thing worth talking about. "We have beer you won't readily find in Knoxville, and the beer we do share with our larger, more corporate, neighborhood competitors, I guarantee, won't be priced higher. If anything, it'll be significantly lower…"
His voice trails off and breaks away as he focuses on something high up and across his shop's main showroom floor: a long shelf lined with a series of attractive, dark brown, "pimped out" Yuengling growlers. They look like artwork and I immediately want one. "I've sold three of these today already," he says, reaching up to grab a simple, moonshine-esque Yazoo jug. "Our growler program is blowing up. We're serving Knoxville's beer community, pints on premise, growlers to go…" He gestures to the beer tap handle attached to the humming retro-styled kegerator set between two massive display fixtures filled with a dizzying selection of different brands of beer. "Bring in a growler, one you buy from here, or your own, sample what we have on draft, pick a favorite and we'll fill your jug with it. And if it's a good growler, one of my growlers, it's going to hold the carbonation indefinitely and it'll be like you're drinking from draft all weekend long." He puts the growler back up onto the shelf and then breaks off a crisp edge of the aforementioned Swedish bread and hands it to me. "The only thing I won't fill up is a milk jug."
At the moment, for consumption, sampling, or a growler fill, BBM has seven different styles on draft: Belgian wheat, two types of IPA, Indian brown ale, cream ale, pilsner, and a craft light beer. "I'll switch it up… a constant search for my customers' favorite tastes. Ever-changing goodness and something for everyone," he says, laughing. Morton, a longtime East Tennessean with a passion for fine lager, trailrunning, and pick-up basketball, has been in the distribution and beverage industry in some form or another for the past 12 years. Whether it was pulling perfect drafts in his own Scottsdale, Ariz., bar, The House of Brews, or operating as "the best wine salesman in Tennessee," Morton has long been deeply involved in the beverage industry. Most recently, before undertaking Bearden Beer Market, Morton worked with the Petrone family at B&T Distributing.
"With the great people at B&T I was able to open and develop relationships with people instrumental to the development of BBM," he says. "Bearden Beer Market has been swimming around in my head for years, and I just felt it time to make the move, leave that particularly controlled aspect of the business and share my—and my friends' and industry colleagues'—vision of beer culture and community with Knoxville."
Morton explains that he finds new (and relatively unknown to the general public) beer to sell to his Knoxville customers from his relationships with the best breweries in the country, based on his prior experiences in the brewing industry.
He also says there are two main rules he has to abide by. Because of the nature of the shop, BBM can't carry anything with over 6 percent alcohol content. And the beer he's allowed to sell has to have already "landed in the state. There's absolutely no crossing of state lines."
At 4524 Old Kingston Pike, the new shop sits on the same, tucked-in corner block as Ashe's Wine & Spirits. Morton talks about the synergy Bearden Beer Market has with its established neighbor. "It's one of the best types of relationships to have, both in the Bearden community and the beverage industry. Without their support and guidance, BBM simply wouldn't be. They look after me like I'm family, and for that, I'm forever grateful and will do anything for them.
"Our two stores, combined, will be Knoxville's one-stop shop for wine, spirits, beer, fine cheese, and other weekend snacks… and, weather-permitting, relaxing and maybe some cornhole action in our beer garden."