Building community on the East Side, one pint at a time
On a dark and chilly winter night, neighborhood patrons packed into the snug and brightly lit Southern Grist taproom, curious to see what tasty beverages awaited them during the brewery’s grand opening week. The boisterous crowd squeezed together at long wooden tables sampling tart wheat ales, coffee milk stouts, classic IPAs, and more.
Friends and strangers cozying up together, sharing conversation, and happily buzzing on some tasty craft beer — what could be better on a cold winter night (or a warm summer afternoon, for that matter)? For East Nashville’s newest crop of taproom entrepreneurs, watching this scene unfold is a dream come true.
“It’s been awesome,” Southern Grist founder and CEO Kevin Antoon says. “There’s been an outpouring of people who are so nice and super supportive, some who have been here all three nights.” Cars have filled the small parking lot, and neighbors have walked over from nearby residences to get in on the action.
As Southern Grist co-owners Antoon, Jamie Lee, and Jared Welch witness years of scheming and months of detailed preparations come to fruition, they are feeling pretty gratified with their microbrewery venture, especially their choice to set up shop on the East Side. “East Nashville is such a tight community, it’s the perfect place for a neighborhood brewery,” head brewer Welch says.
After all three had moved to Nashville in 2007, Southern Grist’s owners met while working at the technology company ServiceSource, and discovered through word of mouth within the company they each had a passion for home brewing and drinking craft beer. “That led to an exciting leap to open the brewery,” Welch. recalls “It’s been an awesome rollercoaster ride.”
Southern Grist is the latest craft brewery to open in East Nashville, joining other neighborhood taprooms Smith and Lentz, which opened last October, and Fat Bottom. East Nashville Beer Works is moving along with plans to open in late May. For a few brief moments in time (before Fat Bottom relocates to West Nashville this summer) there will be four microbreweries operating in the neighborhood, which is good news for craft beer lovers and taproom owners alike.
“The general consensus in the craft beer world is that everyone raises each other up,” Sean Jewett, head brewer for East Nashville Beer Works, says.
When Austin, Texas, transplants Kurt Smith and Adler Lentz were scouting out a location for their brewery last year, they had a eureka moment when they found space for rent on Main Street across from Fat Bottom and Edley’s Bar-B-Que. “We pounced on this opportunity,” Smith says, recalling the serendipitous journey that brought him and his business partner to the East Side.
Smith and Lentz, both natives of Wisconsin and passionate home brewers, met through the craft beer community in Austin and relocated to Nashville to start their own microbrewery. They had originally planned to open their taproom in the heart of downtown, near Rocketown, but that building burned down, so they went scrambling to find an alternate location. “We didn’t have many options that would work for us,” Lentz says.
When they found the Main Street building, home to the former Worms Way gardening supply store, they knew they had the right spot. With high visibility along a major artery of the neighborhood, Smith and Lentz Brewing Company has plenty of exposure to drivers and walkers. It’s also easy to find for tourists and residents coming from other parts of the city.
At the heart of Smith and Lentz, though, are East Side residents who have thoroughly embraced the brewery as a third home, that primary place where people gather and spend time, outside their home and work. “I don’t know many other neighborhoods in the city, much less the country, where you get this much support,” Lentz says.
After only four months in business, Lentz sees how different their brewery would have been if they had ended up downtown instead of in East Nashville. “We would have been doing bachelorette parties and serving people from the conventions,” he says.
The Main Street location has provided the brewery with a starkly different clientele. That includes regulars who play in the Tuesday night Ping-Pong tournaments and families who return week after week to enjoy happy hour with their children — sometimes with a takeout dinner in tow. On Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday, Smith and Lentz hosted a community potluck, and they welcome people to celebrate birthday parties and other special occasions at the brewery. “It’s a whole different ballgame than it would have been downtown,” Lentz says.
As Smith and Lentz and Southern Grist build their brands in well-established pockets of the neighborhood, District 7 Metro Councilman Anthony Davis and his business partner and brewmaster Sean Jewett are busy transforming an empty warehouse on Trinity Lane into the future East Nashville Beer Works.
Located on the pioneering side of Ellington Parkway, East Nashville Beer Works “hopes to revitalize a section of the neighborhood where there’s not a lot happening,” Davis, president of ENBW, says. “I feel like we’re taking a risk, but this seems like the right place to be.”
With the motto “Beer is Community,” Davis and Jewett are striving to create a family-friendly destination where there are few restaurants and a veritable desert of craft beer options. “Trinity is going to be growing and changing,” Davis says, “and when it does, East Nashville Beer Works will be at the forefront. This is going to be a really cool, fun space.”
Touring the still-raw and mostly empty warehouse with snow on the ground and no heat in the building, it’s hard to see Davis and Jewett’s vision for the space, but it certainly sounds tempting: a sleek bar serving fresh brewed beers, hot pizza from the oven, and an outdoor beer garden for the warmer months where patrons can imbibe without leaving the kids or dogs at home.
As Jewett describes some of East Nashville Beer Works signature flavors, it feels like the taproom’s target grand opening of late May can’t get here soon enough. A home brewer since 2009, Jewett is continuing to master the balanced and bright flavors of ENBW’s signature offerings. The Miro Miel honey blonde ale will be made with different batches of locally sourced honey; the Smoked Porter will be made with house-smoked grains, and the Session IPA will be brewed with a rotating supply of hops.
Several of ENBW’s signature brews bear neighborhood-centric names, just as the brewery itself does. It will be the first of the city’s roughly 15 breweries to actually incorporate the name Nashville, and it’s something Davis thought long and hard about. He says he’s not trying to latch on to the recent trendiness of the neighborhood. “It’s all about the community,” he says. “We want to be humble about it, and we know there will be pressure to live up to the name.” If any of the new neighborhood taproom owners has the cred to claim the moniker East Nashville for their brewery, it’s Davis, who has deeper roots in the neighborhood than any of the others and was recently reelected to his District 7 council seat.
Jewett, whose backyard serves as East Nashville Beer Works’ temporary test lab, apprenticed with local craft beer rock star Derrick Morse, formerly of Cool Springs Brewery, who is now overseeing the new Franklin brewery, Mantra, in partnership with chef Maneet Chauhan. That opportunity to work under Morse was a great experience, Jewett says, and fueled the fire to become a professional brewer. After connecting with Davis, a self-described serial entrepreneur and craft beer lover (although, incidentally, not a home brewer), the two decided to move forward with starting a business. Last year, Davis sold his 10-yearold web design firm, iDesign, and went allin on his dream of starting a brewery.
With a 15-barrel system, East Nashville Beer Works will be producing more beer than its neighbors and already has plans to distribute to local bars and restaurants before the taproom opens. “We definitely want to get our product out to the market,” says Davis. They will also offer a crowler to go, filled while you wait.
Southern Grist, by contrast, has a four-barrel system, and for now, is not distributing beyond the taproom. It’s so small scale, in fact, that Welch is the company’s only full-time employee, while Antoon and Lee still have their day jobs. “I’m running on adrenaline,” Antoon said during his brewery’s opening week, “but I’m not exhausted yet."
Three new microbreweries sprouting up in one neighborhood in less than a year may sound like a lot, but all the taproom owners are adamant that the Nashville market is far from saturated. “The Southeast is one of the last big untapped markets for craft breweries,” Jewett, a native of St. Louis, says. And with Nashville considered one of the whitest hot cities in the country, Davis thinks it only makes sense that more people are jumping into the business here.
Southern Grist’s Antoon sees the craft beer industry in Nashville as just being born. Cities with similar demographics to Nashville support dozens of local breweries. Throw a dart at a map of Denver, and you’ll probably hit a brewery; walk down several blocks in Portland and stumble in and out of 10 breweries. Like the other local brewers, Antoon feels that now is the time for Nashville to stake its claim as one of the great craft beer cities in the country.
After growing up in the classic American macrobrew territory of Wisconsin, Lentz later lived in San Diego and Austin, which supported thriving microbrewery scenes. He also traveled around the country, and occasionally the world, installing brewery equipment. Smith, also from Wisconsin, lived in Minneapolis and then Austin, where he began brewing several batches of beer a week and volunteering at local breweries.
After bonding over craft beer in Austin and getting serious about opening their own brewery, Smith and Lentz decided they had a better shot at success if they entered a different market with more room for growth. While researching potential cities for their startup brewery and drawing up their business plan, Nashville rose to the top of the list. “The quality of life here … was everything we were looking for, and we felt that Nashville was a good size city that could support another brewery,” Lentz says.
Nashville’s appetite for quality craft beer has not disappointed the two friends. On a recent weekend, when Bearded Iris Brewery was holding its grand opening in nearby Germantown, and other local breweries were holding special events, Smith and Lentz had one of its busiest weekends ever. “That just proves how the neighborhood — and the city — support a growing taproom scene,” Smith says. “It’s really encouraging.”
Smith and Lentz have built their business completely through word of mouth and social media. “We have done no marketing or advertising, and we’re seeing steady growth,” Lentz says. Since opening, they have branched out beyond their own taproom to distribute to a select few Nashville bars and restaurants, including the Village Pub & Beer Garden and The Hop Stop on the East Side.
“For Nashvillians who have long relied on standbys Blackstone and Yazoo breweries to fulfill a local craft beer craving, the recent blossoming of neighborhood taprooms is a concept that’s overdue,” Southern Grist’s Welch says. “Everyone wants to support local.”
Neighborhood patrons are eager to embrace these new local breweries, and the brewers and business owners are more than happy to help each other out as well. As Antoon, Lee, and Welch worked out Southern Grist’s final kinks before opening to the public, they always felt comfortable calling on Smith and Lentz for advice.
“They’ve been super helpful and really generous with sharing information,” Welch says. “The craft beer community in Nashville has really embraced us, and we were strangers,” Antoon adds, noting that reps from Yazoo sent over a gift congratulating them on their opening night. “This is not a competitive market — it’s friendly competition.”
“This is the best time to be a brewer,” Jewett says. “We’re resurrecting old styles and trying new things, and no one is afraid to be experimental with bold flavors or unfamiliar styles.” Welch, of Southern Grist, has concocted perhaps the most unusual offering of the moment: a Moscow Muleinspired Nashville Mule ale that includes hand-grated ginger and fresh lime zest.
And yes, this small-scale artisanal approach to brewing does come at a price. A 32-ounce crowler of the Nashville Mule style ale, canned at the bar while you wait, will set you back $13. “There’s no economy of scale here,” Welch says. “Everything is done by hand and a lot of cost goes into our beer. That’s not too far out of line with other breweries who offer 64-ounce growler fills for around $16. So far, people are clearly willing to pay.”