Knox knows craft beer – and how to make it

Tom KingOur Town Leaders

The Brewing + Distilling Center (BDC) in Knoxville is fast becoming a destination training center for beer makers around the country. It opened in 2017, and already 120 of its graduates are spread across the country brewing craft beers. And 25 of those grads are practicing their trade here in town.

The craft-beer business is exploding around the country, and Knoxville is part of the trend, with 19 craft-beer businesses operating today. According to Dr. Todd “Doc” White, we’re about to add about four more in the next few months. White is the founder of the BDC and is its president. He teaches and loves to drink beer, but he does not brew beer. Why not? “It’s too damned complicated,” he says.

Matt Lillie is head brewer at Elkmont Exchange Brewery & Eating House, where students from the Brewing + Distilling Center often come for training.

The center is in the North Central District at 130 Bearden Place near downtown. White says a number of the craft breweries are within walking distance of the center. What qualifies as a craft brewery? White says any brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels a year is a craft brewery. The very popular Samuel Adams in Boston is still classified as a craft brewery because it makes right at the 6-million-barrel limit, White says.

In 1978, the U.S. had 89 craft breweries. When 2018 ended, there were more than 7,000 around the country. Tennessee has more than 80 breweries and Knoxville has 19 breweries, the most of any Tennessee city or town.

White, who was a Maryville veterinarian for 20 years, recently spoke to the Rotary Club of Farragut about the center and the craft-beer and distilling scene in town and its rapid growth. The center is authorized for operation as a post-secondary education institution by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. White and his team of instructors, brewers and distillers have been helping people reach their goals and acquire great brewery and distillery jobs all across the United States for more than six years – four years at South College and now at their own center.

White also is a founding board member of the very popular Tennessee Winter Beer Fest.

The basic brewing course is 13 weeks (154 hours), and every day the brewers in training have to taste what they’re making – hour by hour. “It’s one of the few jobs you can have where you can drink on the job,” White says. He says he has a lot of veterans taking the courses, and next fall they will be able to pay using the GI Bill. The 13-week course costs $8,500 in standard tuition.

Making beer requires four ingredients, he says: water, hops, barley and yeast. The color of the beer is based on the color of the barley and to what degree it has been roasted. The hops are used for “bittering” and otherwise creating flavors in the beer. The fermentation period for a tank of beer is four to seven days.

He explains that there are two basic kinds of beer – ales and lagers. “Which one it becomes is determined by the yeast,” he says.

What has caused this craft-beer business to grow so rapidly here?

“First, Knoxville is a great place to be with a lot of resources, and it’s no surprise the breweries are coming to downtown and this area. There are a lot of low-priced but valuable properties available downtown that have been abandoned, and the breweries are helping rebuild the neighborhoods,” he says.

The resources he mentions include the customers. “The age range of people who enjoy craft beer is from about 24 to 38,” he says. “It’s the millennials and the young millennials. Being right here close to the University of Tennessee is a big part of this, too.”

Many of the small breweries do not prepare and serve food at their facilities, and this has helped another small business in Knoxville blossom – food trucks. “People like to drink, and so the food trucks pull up and sell the food outside the breweries and it works great for everyone.”

Until the center opened, the primary brewing schools were in Chicago and at the University of California-Davis. “We didn’t have one in the South, so I decided to open the center,” he explains. “I basically burned out as a veterinarian after 20 years and decided to get going on teaching people how to make beer. I throttled back and love what I am doing now.”

White says in his heart he is an entrepreneur. “I like being my own boss and don’t like being told what to do and when to do it. I like the buck stopping at my desk. That, plus I love helping young people reach their goals.”

In 2008 he opened his own craft-beer store in Maryville and called it “The Market.” That introduced him to the craft-beer crowd – the people who wanted to brew and the people who drank it. “These people are fun to hang around with. They’re smart, passionate and hard working, and people with those characteristics are people I like to be around.”

For those interested in brewing beer at home, the center offers a two-day class for home brewing. The course costs $295, and he teaches both brewing and bottling. People can also take an Advanced Home Brewing All-Grains Class for $150.

The center is hosting its Winter 2019 Open House from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 4. Beer sampling will be offered along with cocktail samples from Knox Whiskey Works and PostModern Spirits. There will be drawings for T-shirts, hats, a seat at a home-brewing class and discounts on classes. White said parking is “anyplace you can find close to the center.”

To learn more about the center, click here or call 865-622-7511.

If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email or call (865) 659-3562. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club.

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