The Forgotten History of Brewing & Distilling

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By Andrew Shaughnessy

Chattanooga has seen an explosion of craft breweries and a return of distilleries in recent years, but this isn’t the first time that Chattanooga has been the hub of a thriving alcoholic beverage production industry. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the “Dynamo of Dixie” was home to over 30 distilleries and one large brewery.

When Prohibition laws restricted the sale and production of alcohol in Tennessee, dozens of local bars, distilleries, and distributers shut down, and evidence of their existence was subsequently destroyed. Sadly, this important piece of local history was forgotten with the passage of time.

Yet, as craft brewing and distilling have made a resurgence in Chattanooga, local makers have also helped us rediscover our past.


 


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The History: Pre-Prohibition

Historic bottles on display at the Tennessee Stillhouse, shot on location


 

When the Western and Atlantic Railroad put Chattanooga on the map in 1850, it set off a domino effect of industrial expansion, and for a few years, Chattanooga was a boom town.

Then came the American Civil War, which halted the city’s growth, followed by the South’s Reconstruction. “Reconstruction began after the Battles for Chattanooga in 1863, as Union soldiers began to rebuild the city’s industries, which laid the foundation for post war industrialization,” explains Chattanooga historian Caroline Sunderland. “In the 1870s, the railroad grew to meet the demands of a new and diverse economy that included everything from textile factories to foundries. A whole hospitality industry developed in association with the railroad.” This hospitality industry, along with the expanding economy, created a ripe environment for saloons, distilleries, and breweries to thrive.

By 1866, the first recorded distillery and liquor dealer, J. W. Kelly & Co., opened in Chattanooga, selling whiskey branded with such names as  “Old Milford,” “Golden Age,” and “Mountain City Corn Shuck.”

In the following decades, dozens of distilleries and distributors cropped up in the thriving railroad’n’river town. Whiskey makers like Deep Springs, Chatta Distillery, Star Liquor Co., and E. R. Betterton, appeared one after another on bustling Market Street. Between 1865 and 1915, over 30 distilleries operated in Chattanooga, and 98 liquor dealers were listed on public records. By 1886, distilling was the largest manufacturing industry in Tennessee.

Right in the middle of this whiskey boom, beer brewing was simultaneously making its entrance. The original Chattanooga Brewing Company was founded in 1890 by George Rief, a German immigrant whose family ran the brewery for 25 years until they were finally forced to close under Prohibition. Their facility took up an entire city block of Broad Street, and included a six-story brewing house. 

“They were selling about 150,000 barrels of beer a year in their heyday,” said modern day Chattanooga Brewing Company (CBC) co-founder Mark Marcum. “Back then, if you wanted a beer in Chattanooga, you got it there. They were huge.”

CBC started by selling beer in wooden barrels, but soon switched over to glass bottles, made at their very own glass plant.

“They had 12oz bottles and a 32oz that they called ‘Family Size,’” laughed Marcum. “I want to do that someday … you know, just to honor the history.”

German style beers like the “Magnolia,” the “Faultless Lager,” and the “Muenchner” were sold at wholesalers and saloons throughout the city. As fast as they grew and as much beer as they produced, demand was such that CBC struggled just to keep up with the thirst of the city.

“Let’s have a ‘CHATT,’” reads one advertisement from 1895, “Imperial Pilsener, Magnolia, Zacherl-Brau. THE FINEST BEERS MADE.”

Prohibition: 1910-1933

Even as the brewing and distilling industries were flourishing, the temperance movement in Tennessee was gathering strength and pushing for the complete prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League banded together, and in 1903, the Adams Law restricted production in most of the smaller counties in the state. For brewers and distillers, the writing was on the wall.

Chattanooga liquor interests attempted to pacify the anti-liquor warriors in 1908 by imposing voluntary regulations on local saloons, removing indecent pictures from the walls, and putting a stop to such abominations, as they were then described, as gambling and serving alcohol to women, but to no avail. A 1909 state bill restricted the sale of alcohol in Tennessee, shutting down bars and saloons and making life much more difficult for brewers and distillers.

“Chattanooga Saloons all out of business,” reads one Chattanooga Times article from 1910. “The sale of whiskey in this town, except on the sly, is at an end.”

For such a lucrative industry, “on the sly” was worth a shot. To survive, the booze-makers got creative.

Chattanooga Brewing Company began to manufacture a “near beer” malt beverage called “Reif’s Special.” A case brought against CBC in the following years was dismissed when a judge ruled that the near beer was not beer at all because it was less than 2%, and so “a normal citizen could not possibly become intoxicated, even by free indulgence.”

For a few years, CBC continued to brew and sell over state lines, but by 1915, subsequent state laws had grown increasingly strict, and CBC and the distilleries were all finally forced to shut down.

Chattanooga newspapers from the period that followed recount colorful tales of dramatic car chases and shootouts between federal “supermen” and Sand Mountain bootleggers. The front page of a 1915 issue of Hamilton County Herald tells the story of Police Commissioner Betterton, kin to the owners of the famous E.R. Betterton Distillery, who had been using his coffin factory as a cover to smuggle huge amounts of whiskey out of the state in coffins.

In a matter of years, a multi-million dollar industry collapsed, and evidence of a hugely significant part of Chattanooga’s past began to disappear. Buildings burned down, recipes were lost, and people forgot. Coca-Cola purchased the old CBC brewing house in 1929 and tore it down. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union attended the demolition and held a prayer of thanksgiving that this so-called purveyor of perdition had finally been destroyed, and the people of Chattanooga were generally less cheerful for a number of years to follow.


 


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Post-Prohibition: A New Era for Chattanooga Brewing and Distilling

Federal Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, with Tennessee laws following suit four years later, but it wasn’t until 60 years afterwards that beer was legally brewed again in Chattanooga. Not until 80 years later, just in 2013, that the ban on distilling in Chattanooga was lifted.


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New Beginning for Beer

Old Chattanooga Brewing Company poster, courtesy of Chattanooga Brewing Company


 


The revitalization of downtown Chattanooga in the early 1990s provided an avenue for the emergence of commercial brewing. “One of the city’s goals was to bring people downtown. And one way to do that was through beer. Enter Big River Grille,” Sunderland says.

“Big River came on the scene in 1993,” said Marcum. “That was the first post-Prohibition brewery in Chattanooga, and they paved the way for the rest of us. Until the last couple years, there really wasn’t anybody but them.”

Until Rob Gentry and Tim Hennen, along with Allen Corey and Jon Kinsey, founded Big River, Prohibition-era laws still prohibited commercial brewing in any county with less than one million people. The law was finally changed only after months of lobbying, opening the door for other breweries down the road. At the end of their first year in business, Big River Grille celebrated with a block party called “The Southern Brewers’ Festival,” now an annual event that brings brewers in from all over.


 


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Historic bottle on display at the Tennessee Stillhouse, shot on location


After Big River Grille kicked things off, it took some time for other brewers to follow suit. Moccasin Bend Brewing Company first opened its doors to the public in 2007, while the Terminal and the reinvented Chattanooga Brewing Company entered the scene two years later. More recent additions include McHale’s Brewhouse (2011), Big Frog Brewing Company (2013), Hutton & Smith (2015), Oddstory Brewing (New Year’s Eve, 2016), and the most recent addition, Mad Knight Brewing. Another brewery, WanderLinger, is opening in 2017, and Heaven & Ale Brewing Company is expanding their current brew pub in North Chattanooga to include a brewery.

Some, like Chattanooga Brewing Company, have been intentional about honoring and reviving Chattanooga’s brewing history, taking on the original brewery’s name, displaying old memorabilia, reviving original branding elements for marketing, and even attempting to recreate the original beer recipes.

“The brewing scene is growing in Chattanooga,” said OddStory Brewing Company co-founder Jay Boyd. “The vibe here is, ‘support what’s local,’ and that’s what drew us to Chattanooga.”

The Return of Whiskey to Tennessee

Historic bottle and photo on display at the Tennessee Stillhouse, shot on location


As with brewing, a Prohibition-era law restricted distilling in Tennessee long after the end of Prohibition. In 2009, a state bill allowed distilleries to open in selected counties in Tennessee, but Hamilton County was not included.

Chattanooga Whiskey Company co-founders Tim Piersant and Joe Ledbetter first hatched the idea to revive Chattanooga whiskey in 2011.

“The history of whiskey in Chattanooga was arguably the inspiration,” said Piersant. “We discovered that all these distilleries existed on Market Street – they were a huge economic driver back in the day.”

Where others saw an impossible hurdle, Piersant saw a unique challenge and opportunity, and began a two year journey of building the Chattanooga Whiskey brand by sharing the story of Chattanooga’s past and lobbying to change the law with the “Vote Whiskey” campaign. In 2013, the bill was finally signed, ending the ban on distilling in Chattanooga.

Since then, Chattanooga Whiskey Company has retooled its team, built a microdistillery across from the Choo Choo, and started experimenting with bourbon mash recipes, producing 130 barrels of whiskey to date, that are currently aging.

This summer, the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental series, the first batch of aged Chattanooga-made whiskey in over a hundred years, will be released to the public. Plus, Chattanooga Whiskey will be opening a new distillery on M.L. King and Riverfront Parkway, dramatically increasing their production capacity.

If the brewery boom is any indication, this is only the beginning for Chattanooga distilleries. One new distillery, called Renovare, is set to open in town in 2017, and you can bet that there’s more to come.

Chattanooga’s history, on many levels including whiskey and beer, is one of rebirth and resurgence. Chattanooga’s rich history of brewing and distilling, lost for most of a century, is re-emerging as part of her reinvention. In uncovering that history, Chattanooga’s brewers and distillers are pouring us a glass as we look toward the future.

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