Beer may not be the first thing that pops into one's mind when thinking of products made in Knoxville. There was a time when Knoxville was known triumphantly as "The Underwear Capital of the World." Now there's a slogan Visit Knoxville needs to trot out every now and again. Knoxville was also famous for its marble production and earned the nickname "Marble City" (not to be confused with the actual Marble City about 3 miles west of downtown). More recently Knoxville has been associated with building boats or medical supplies, but at one time Knoxville was home to the maker of "The best beer in this state".
In 1886, on a spot that had been occupied by Weaver Brothers Pottery, was established the Knoxville Brewing Association. At that time, the site consisted of little more than a couple of storage sheds and an office. What it had going for it, however, was proximity to one of the busiest railroad tracks in East Tennessee. The Knoxville Brewing Association built a rather large beer brewing campus, complete with a brewhouse, a stock house, a bottling house, cold storage, and stables. The brewhouse contained a large brew kettle, a mash tub, and a collecting tank. It was topped by a large cupola, resembling those seen on distilleries in Scotland.
The twin cupolas of the Lagavulin Scotch distillery in Islay, Scotland
In the late 19th century, breweries were springing up all over the nation as immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe moved to American cities. The new concern in Knoxville was established by a trio of entrepreneurs who came to town from Louisville, Kentucky. Edward W. Herman and Anthony Bindewald acted as president and secretary respectively and William Meyer served as the brewmaster. In 1890, the Knoxville Brewing Association reported a capacity of 50,000 barrels per year. That would be fairly small nowadays. Samuel Adams, which is considered a craft beer, brews over 2 million barrels annually. In the late 19th century though, that was no small output (though Pabst was selling 1 million per year back then). The KBA was proud of it's "Pure Lager Beer."
The KBA became the Knoxville Brewing Company during the late 1880's. It reported using "fine malt and hops from the U.S. and Germany." The company employed 30 employees including a night watchman "around the clock", according to the Sanborn maps. The KBC had a catchy slogan, "Brewers, Bottlers, and Shippers of the Celebrated Export Lager Beer."
Believe it or not, that phrase failed to catch on and the company was sold by order of the court for $37,000.00. Previous to that, the company had reported assets of $225,000.00 and liabilities of $135,000.00. so the next purchaser got an exceptional deal. The brewery was reorganized under the moniker of New Knoxville Brewing Company in July of 1895. Evidently, the NKBC spend an awful lot of money drilling a 2000 foot deep well. They gleefully boasted: "From a depth of 2000 feet, nearly half a mile, the New Knoxville Brewing Company obtains by an artesian well, an abundant supply of pure water for brewing and bottling purposes." Now if that doesn't make you want a beer then there is no hope for you. Reportedly the well produced 360 gallons of water per minute at a temperature of 58 degrees. It was used to bottle the brewery's two signature brews, XX Pale and Export Lager.
Even with the announcement of such a grand well, the NKBC failed to make it more that a year before it was sold. A Mr. Edward S. Raynor and company opened the East TN Brewing and Malting Company in 1896 at the NKBC brewery. The ETBMC dropped the Malting portion of it's moniker and became the East Tennessee Brewing Company under the direction of Matthew Senn, F & H Wisegarber, W.H. Lane, and, back from the KBA, brewmaster William Meyer. ETBC offered two beers, Shamrock and Palmetto. The company claimed that its beers were "commended by the medical profession." Guiness does not uniquely hold that claim to fame.
The ETBC had the longest tenure on the site, lasting until 1915. It is noted that electic lights and a complete pasturizing system were added in 1904. In 1909, tragedy struck the brewery when foreman George Welshouse lost his job and then "ended his life by shooting himself through the head with a revolver in front of a mirror in the brewing company's office." He was 39. In 1915, the city passed the Four Mile Prohibition Law. That law effectively ended alcohol production at the plant, offcially anyway. The brewery transformed into an ice making plant, though clandestine brewing still went on. The Union Beverage Company bought the brewery in 1916 to manufacture the syrup for Jitney Cola. The brewery was subsequently closed later that year.
A check of the 1948 Sanborn maps shows that the brewery was still there in that year, noted as "Vacant Beer Whse." By 1956 it was gone, replaced by the Frank Regas Expressway. So, now that you are all Knoxville beer history experts, let's go looking for it. Travelling north from downtown on Broadway, you'll pass the Corner BP on the right and the Keener Lighting Co on the left. As soon as you cross the Broadway viaduct, you'll come Depot Street. Before they built the viaduct, however, you would have come to a railroad crossing. At that crossing, if you turned left you'd be on McGhee St. (named for Col. C.M. MgGhee's flour mill on that corner).
Looking west down McGhee St. from Broadway (the cross steet in the very near foreground). Nothing in this picture aside from the tracks, is still there.
The railroad tracks are still there, under the viaduct, so imagine standing below the bridge and you'd find McGhee Street except that McGhee street is not there anymore, it was covered by the White Store warehouse that lines the side of the viaduct. So, if you turn left down this imaginary road and proceed two blocks west, you will find yourself under the fly-over bridges of the I-275 interchange. That, my dear readers, is the Knoxville Brewing Company brewery.
An aerial shot showing the brewery (labeled below).
Looking East: note the Gay Street viaduct at top, the McClung warehouses right, and Broadway in the center.
The same photo enlarged. The Knoxville Brewering Company is in the center.
A very similar shot from 1956 showing that most of the neighborhood has been erased.
X marks the spot where the brewery once stood.
That same area today; a far cry from the neighborhood that once was.
The yellow line indicates the alignment of McGhee St. and the red block is the approximate location of the brewery.
The location of the brewery if one were standing on McGhee and looking north.
A shot looking south. This was once inside the brewery complex.
As you can see, there's not a lot there except for some debris and weeds. At one time, this spot housed an impressive structure, especially for an industrial building. They just don't build them like they used to. The entire compound was 150' x 250'. It was four stories tall and composed of a dark brick. It was capped by various dormers and turrets and decorated with masonry designs, a far cry from the simple metal sheds constructed today. It really was an impressives structure, yet it managed to integrate well into it's neighborhood. Step up and see, the once magnificent Knoxville Brewing Company.
Looking east down McGhee Street toward Broadway. The Knoxville Brewing Compary is at left. Note the boiler stack, the cupola on top of the brew house, and the turret at the corner of the stock house.
A closer look showing the word "Stockhouse" and the brick details.
A better look at the brewhouse cupola. It's hard to believe this is now under I-40.
A rendering of the brewery in the 1911 City Directory.
A shot from inside the brewery yard.
Most students of history know what happened to brewing in the early 20th century, and Knoxville was no exception. Prohibition ended all brewing in the city and it did not return until 1993. In 1993, state senator Carl Koella sponsored legislation that allowed the first brewpub in the city of Knoxville. It was to be located at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill. It never opened. Instead, in the unlikely Woodruff's furniture location on Gay St., the Smoky Mountain Brewing Company began brewing beer in a giant copper kettle. The proprieters spent $40,000.00 to install a grand mahogany bar complete with brass rails. The original iteration closed in 1996 but reopened later under new leadership as the Downtown Grill and Brewery. It is now one of the most popular spots in downtown Knoxville. In the spirit of researching this article, Madame In Knoxville and I stopped in to sample their brews. They never disappoint.
The copper beer kettle at Downtown Grill and Brewery
Alt on the left, Downtown Nut Brown on the right.
In 1995, after the city's first commercial brewpub had opened downtown,the Copper Cellar/Calhouns restaurant chain established a brewery on Bearden Hill. This brewing concern actually bottles beer, making it more inline with the historical brewery of our city's past. Being downtown, we decided to visit the downtown location of Calhouns to sample their finest.
Calhoun's under the Gay Street Bridge. I'm willing to bet that Suttree may have had a beer at this location.
Blackbear Brown Ale and Cherokee Red
The last, but not least, of Knoxville's breweries is the one that might have the most intrisic connection to the original Knoxville Brewing Company. In 1994, the New Knoxville Brewing Company name was revived. The company opened a brewery on East Depot St., about 8 blocks east of the original brewery, in the old Wallace Saw building. That iteration of NKBC closed in 2000, lasting 5 years longer than the original NKBC. A Mr. Ed Vedley came around in 2004 and reopened the NKBC, again in the Wallace Saw Works building. His go at reviving NKBC lasted until 2006. The building sat empty until Adam Palmer and Johnathan Borsodi came around in 2010 and began the Marble City Brewing Company. In 2011, the name was changed to Saw Works Brewing Company in honor of the building that housed Wallace Saw Works. Using the same equipment as the NKBC, which used the same name as the company that once lived in the old brewery pictured above, they get to claim the title of most direct link. They also produce two excellent beers, just like the original NKBC, a pale ale and an English brown ale. There is a tasting room called The Mill, adjacent to the brewery. I suggest you give them a try.
Saw Works Pale Ale and English Brown.
So here's to the next found piece of lost Knoxville! Until then....
*** UPDATE ***
Johnathan Borsodi, co-founder of Saw Works Brewing Company (formerly Marble City Brewing Company) has provided me with a couple of photos. One of them shows the workers of the Knoxville Brewing Association, what a find!