Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

September 2, 2014

Beer Diary:

Ya’ll Want Some Beer?

Nigel ventures South and experiences all phases of the craft beer revolution in America.
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
Every year the better half and I take a long road trip in spring to see sights that are new and, hopefully, quite a bit warmer than what we have in the Midwest. This year was no exception, but with a couple of tweaks. First off, we headed out later than our typical mid-March departure, waiting instead until the end of April to depart. Probably not the best year to do that, as our historically brutal Midwest winter seemed to drag on that much longer. Second, we didn’t head out West as usual but rather to the Southeast.

Many of our previous trips have ended in Phoenix to catch spring training and visit family and included side trips to places like Sedona, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas. Two years ago we took a couple of weeks to tour some of the National Parks and Monuments of South Dakota and Wyoming, including Yellowstone. This year we chose to see some National Parks and historic cities of the South, with stops at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Asheville, North Carolina (“Beer City USA”), Charleston, and Savannah. Thirteen days, an incredible amount of nature and history, and lots of good beer along the way. Not a bad way to spend a couple of weeks.

As with every vacation we take, craft beer was not the reason we settled upon our itinerary. On second thought … craft beer was the reason we chose to stop in Asheville for a night, so I guess in this case that’s somewhat of a lie. Once again, beer played a key role in our enjoyable trip, and this time it was far more dynamic than ever before.

If one was to break down the rise of craft beer in the United States over the decade or so, we experienced all stages in two weeks. From the virtually non-existent craft beer scenes of Kentucky and Tennessee, to the burgeoning craft beer meccas of Charleston and Savannah, to a prime example of craft beer at the peak of its influence in Asheville, we saw it all. The following posts will recap what we witnessed, not only in terms of great places to visit but more importantly, the great beer we drank.

Part I: Kentucky and Tennessee

If someone who had never visited the South envisioned their preconceived stereotypes, they would likely look much like south central Kentucky. This is somewhat ironic, because Kentucky has a bit of an identity crisis if one is talking North vs. South. A border state during the Civil War, most Kentuckians tended to sympathize with the North. In fact, Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln … but was also the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. You won’t see a lot of Confederate flags flying in the Commonwealth, but you will meet plenty of friendly people with a thick southern drawl.

Our destination was Mammoth Cave National Park, in the remote Cave Region of Kentucky that lies halfway between Louisville and Nashville. The nearest city of any size is Bowling Green, population 60,000, about a half hour to the south. Our base was Cave City, a town of 2200 that exists solely due to its proximity to the National Park. Mammoth Cave has been a tourist draw for 200 years and is the largest known cave system in the world. Needless to say, one can’t expect much high culture in an area that draws travelers to see caves.

In many ways, two nights in central Kentucky caused us to realize just how much we take the modern beer culture for granted.
Just south of Louisville, the features one expects in the Midwest begin to disappear. It’s a scenic drive, as the flat, open landscape of Illinois and Indiana gives way to rolling hills and picturesque wooded areas, all of which are very isolated. Pulling in to Cave City on a Friday evening, culture shock sets in immediately and we quickly realized it was a good thing we had stocked the cooler to the brim with beer from home. I wasn’t expecting to find good beer (or any type of beer for that matter), so we made sure to pack enough to get us through a number of days, not only in Kentucky but our next destination, Tennessee.

Mammoth Cave is truly a sight to see, recommended for any Midwesterner looking for a weekend trip. However, Cave City and the surrounding towns have no places to purchase any type of alcohol, not surprising given the fact that Kentucky has more dry and “moist” counties than any other state in the country. Moist counties are those that allow alcohol sales at restaurants but not in retail stores and are devoid of any type of bars/taverns. Dry counties are, well … completely devoid of alcohol. The aptly named Barren County, home of Cave City, is a dry county, as are all surrounding counties (Kentucky has 120 counties total, 57 of which are completely dry).

Cave City proper passed an ordinance in 2005 to allow alcohol sales in restaurants, so long as 70 percent or more of their revenue comes from food sales. That ordinance would have zero impact on our beer experience. The only reason we could say the restaurant scene in Cave City was better than the bar scene was the fact that restaurants actually existed; apparently there’s no ordinance requiring those restaurants to be good. Our best meal came at a Cracker Barrel with a side of Diet Coke and our only drink was a so-so margarita at a very sub-par Mexican restaurant. The only restaurant that resembled a typical Midwestern tavern had a terrible karaoke setup, awful food, and incredibly slow service. Never before have I been so desperate to return to a concrete teepee.

That’s right … we went kitschy with our first motel, staying in a 77-year-old concrete teepee in one of the few remaining Wigwam Villages that used to dot the American landscape during the height of the highway culture of the ’50s and ’60s. Our quarters were cramped and oddly angled, but the experience was well worth it. As a bonus, the cooler was packed with Lexington Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Lake Louie Mr. Mephisto, Lakefront Big Easy, a bomber of AleSmith IPA, a 12 pack of Founders All Day IPA in cans, a bottle of New Glarus Raspberry Tart, and a few Bell’s Two Hearted for good measure. There was no issue packing in, as the motel was happy to remove our bag of recycling and there were other folks sitting around the campfire in the evening enjoying a beer.

We’ve been other places where we’d consider the craft beer culture either non-existent or in its infancy. Central Kentucky was a step below non-existent. Given the antiquated laws and the conservative lifestyle (not criticizing, just stating the obvious), on the surface it would appear it’ll be years before this part of the country will experience the craft beer “drink local” renaissance that so many other areas have witnessed over the past decade or so. The biggest brewery at this time in Kentucky is Lexington Brewing Co., a division of Alltech, which is a distillery/brewery rolled into one, and very artificial on both ends. The most popular brew, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, is a poorly constructed attempt at a barrel aged beer, one that is relying far more on marketing than actual brewing ability to expand its presence.

In many ways, two nights in central Kentucky caused us to realize just how much we take the modern beer culture for granted. And it this case, it wasn’t just beer. Wine lovers, cocktail lovers, any lover of finely fermented beverages … you’re stranded on a desert island when in central Kentucky. And yes, the irony is thick that a state that perfected the art of bourbon isn’t allowed to drink it in half of its territory. Natural beauty abound, but the civilization is rural, conservative, and in many cases, alcohol-free. It’s a trip back to a time many of us find hard to believe actually existed in many areas of the Midwest in the not too distant past.

Leaving Cave City on a gorgeous Sunday morning, we headed due east across southern Kentucky, witnessing little in the way of population but plenty of scenery. The drive to our next destination, Gatlinburg, TN, was about 4 hours, but we made a small detour to hit Cumberland Gap National Historic Park on the border of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. You only need an hour to see the Park and it only adds about an hour of travel time, so it’s well worth the side jaunt. Once in the park, the drive to the peak is just over a mile and quite steep and winding, but provides a stunning view of the mountain gap that allowed passage to early settlers heading west, eventually settling in the hop fields of the Pacific Northwest (work with me here … ).

Pulling into Gatlinburg on a postcard spring evening, we grew optimistic that we may actually have some craft beer success. With the Cumberland Gap detour, we didn’t pass a city of any size on the entire trek from Mammoth Cave. However, exiting the freeway 20 minutes out of Knoxville, we quickly entered modernization that we could never have envisioned. There are plenty of “tourist traps” in the Midwest, but none can compare to the sheer size, sprawl, and horribly overdone trifecta of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, TN. Surely there would be some craft beer in the area.

Gatlinburg lies less than a mile from the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the eastern half of which is in Tennessee, the western half in North Carolina. With only three nights to explore one of the largest and most popular National Parks in the country, we figured we’d settle in our hotel in Gatlinburg and limit our experiences to that city as well as the park, avoiding any return trips to Pigeon Forge or Sevierville. In retrospect, it was a wise choice as Gatlinburg still retains some of the classic Smoky Mountain culture despite all the modernization and tourist traps. Pigeon Forge, tucked between Gatlinburg and Sevierville, appears to be the overblown center of the tourist industry in the area.

Walking Gatlinburg on the way to dinner the first night, we witnessed some potential craft beer retailers tucked between the wax museums, distilleries, and Ripley’s attractions. With plenty of beer left from home, the mini fridge was filled and we were ready to spend a quiet evening on our patio that was literally hanging over a roaring Smoky Mountain stream. We stopped at one convenience store on the walk back to the hotel to see if they had any craft beer. They had two selections from Georgia’s SweetWater, which were two more offerings than we had witnessed in the entire state of Kentucky.

Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter that we ended up not purchasing craft beer in Gatlinburg. An app on my phone showed a couple of potential retailers as well as one bar on the outskirts of town that may have been worth a visit, but we kept close to downtown Gatlinburg and the National Park. We did venture to Smoky Mountain Brewery, part of a local restaurant chain based in Knoxville that had a very nice building, but very average beer. Lunch there on our final day found us and one other table in a two-story restaurant, with bartenders and servers standing around and/or cleaning. The location in a winding, seemingly private development just off the main drag on the far eastern edge of downtown wasn’t exactly ideal.

Breweries may not dot the Gatlinburg landscape, but distilleries are plentiful. While there’s a definite irony to the phrase “craft moonshine,” that’s exactly what you’ll find in Gatlinburg. Doc Collier’s was right down the road from our hotel, though it appeared to be suffering from lack of interest. Further downtown was Ole Smoky and our favorite, Sugarlands. Whiskey was also plentiful, with Davy Crockett’s being the largest distiller of Tennessee whiskey in town.

All of the distilleries were more than generous with samples. We were taken aback when at Sugarlands, our first stop, and realized the small sample shot (estimate it to be about 1/3 of a regular shot) was not limited to one or two flavors of your choice, but rather all six flavors available to the pourer at that time. You can decline certain flavors if you so choose, but if you do take all six, expect a nice buzz as you exit the distillery. The original Silver Cloud and Rye are 100 proof, while the flavored options are about half that strength, so even a small shot is enough to get you buzzin’. The distilleries may be “kitschy,” but were a pleasant change of pace and allowed us to get outside our craft beer box, if only for a brief moment.

An old grist mill on a creek in the Smokies on a rainy day.

Gatlinburg and east Tennessee certainly have a more advanced craft beer culture than south central Kentucky, but there really is no reason to seek it out as long as you come prepared. We did just that, and in retrospect, that was a wise decision. Fighting huge crowds, paying tourist prices, and having options that at this time are still quite limited doesn’t make Gatlinburg the most desirable craft beer destination. Having a chain microbrewery with a synthetic feel and very average beer doesn’t help. Gatlinburg is a great place to visit and the Smoky Mountains are as good, if not better, than advertised. Consider those reasons enough to visit eastern Tennessee, but make sure you pack in … and don’t hesitate to sample the locally distilled spirits.

Ultimately Kentucky and Tennessee proved in many cases to be the incarnation of our expectations. While there are undoubtedly plenty of places to find craft beer in the state of Kentucky, there are plenty of other areas where liquor of any sort is non-existent. The Cave Region is one of those areas, though the unique landscape and natural beauty makes up for that. Eastern Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains are as stunning as advertised. Loaded with scenery and history, that advertising has led to a tourist industry as robust as anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, that has created many overblown, artificial, and overcrowded destinations outside of the park. Craft beer may be present to a limited extent, but packing in and avoiding the crowds while in search is advised.

The potential for a thriving craft beer market in Kentucky and Tennessee is certainly there. Tennessee is much closer to experiencing that renaissance than Kentucky is, though both have a ways to go. But with the exponential growth craft beer continues to experience, we wouldn’t be shocked to return a few years from now and find a completely different scene. After all, Tennessee and Kentucky lie close to the Appalachian city of Asheville, NC and we were soon to discover just how much craft beer can mean to a region that is seemingly rural and isolated.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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