For the past few years, the building that once housed the New Knoxville Brewing Co. on East Depot Avenue seemed slated to join its industrial neighbors as just another relic of a bygone era.
But now the Marble City Brewing Co.—a name harkening back to an industrial point of pride for Knoxville in the early 20th century— is attempting to rise from the dusty remains. Marble City co-founders Adam Palmer and Johnathan Borsodi are now in final negotiations to take ownership of the facility and its equipment from People's Development Company Inc., with the hope they'll be turning out a product come fall.
Despite their company name, Borsodi and Palmer are not Knoxville natives. Borsodi, 32, moved here from Cleveland in July of 2006 and is a partner with the law firm McGehee, Cole, and Borsodi. Late last year, an acquaintance of Borsodi who'd purchased the New Knoxville facility in bankruptcy asked him if he knew anyone interested in buying the building. "We saw it sitting here, not performing, not doing anything," Borsodi says. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, I like to drink beer.'" So he called up Palmer—his cousin and the chief operating officer of Industrial Enclosures Corp., a family-owned manufacturer in Chicago—and asked him to come down to take a look. Palmer says he was looking for a change and decided to take him up on the request.
Flying down just before Christmas, Palmer, 31, remembers Borsodi telling him, "Either tell me you like it or tell me I'm crazy for liking it." As he toured the facility, he couldn't believe how much equipment—kegs, unopened bags of hops, brew tanks, and a bottling line in good condition—was sitting there, simply collecting dust.
"When they left, they left," Borsodi says of the former owners, wondering aloud if they even thought to turn out the lights as he steps through the abandoned office, files strewn about. Later, he points out a half-filled beer bottle still sitting on the Italian-made bottling line.
Palmer thought it seemed too good to be true. "I was waiting for the catch. I was waiting for something to come out and say, ‘Why can't we do this? What's the deal?'" he says. Since that visit, Palmer's returned to Knoxville regularly, and will soon move here full-time as president and CEO of the company. "It's mind-boggling," Palmer says. "You've got cities like Asheville—there are eight packaging breweries within a 20-mile radius, so we're excited to bring something like that to Knoxville."
Of course, the second question that comes to mind—after, When can we sample the goods?—is what Palmer and Borsodi plan to do differently than the previous owners. The New Knoxville Brewing Co. failed not once but twice over about a 10-year period, even while producing an award-winning beer for a city that seemed loyal to it.
Their answer is basically better management. "Fortunately, we had the opportunity to dig into the guts of what [the former owners] did right and what they did wrong," Palmer says. "I think what we've learned from them is to manage cash flow." Palmer points to roughly $30,000 in packaging material stacked up around the bottling line, with more in storage downstairs. There were also quality control issues and a lack of attention to detail, Borsodi says. He pulls out a New Knoxville six-pack case sitting atop a keg. It reads "Knoxville's Only Mirco Brewery [sic]," and apparently can't actually hold six bottles. While new to the brewing business, the two are convinced Palmer's experience as an operations manager will allow him to run the business efficiently while also ensuring mistakes like these aren't repeated.
Palmer hopes to have a deal on the building finalized by the end of April and have the place rehabbed and up to code in six to eight weeks. After that, he'll work to obtain the necessary permits from federal, state, and local authorities, while giving the brewmaster—who's not yet been hired— time to experiment with the equipment and recipes. What flavors they'll produce, what hops they'll use, and where their ingredients will come from are still unknowns, but they do say they want to buy as much as they can locally.
The New Knoxville Brewing Co. featured a bar in the front. For now, Palmer thinks they'll likely forgo a bar to use the space for sampling and as a showroom, a place to wind up tours. But Borsodi says customers will probably be able to pick up growlers there.
So far, the pair are encouraged by the local response. Just hours after they posted a wanted ad for a brewmaster on probrewers.com, Knoxville blogs lit up. "We've been getting daily e-mails from people—people who've tracked us down—offering to help us in any way, and it's a great community for that," Borsodi says. He adds that the other two breweries in town—Woodruff and Smoky Mountain—have been very helpful and welcoming to them.
"We want Knoxville to have the same reputation that Asheville does," Borsodi says. "We think Knoxville deserves that."