The Topic: Planes, Trains, Automobiles… and BEER?
Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay, Salt City, Clarksville Carboys and Music City Homebrewers, who has been writing on beer-related topics and interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast, for over 15 years.
Written by Ken Carman
Having been in Nashville since 1978 both Millie and I wondered about Linus Hall locating his brewery: Yazoo Brewing, in the Marathon building. Now we can’t imagine a more historically appropriate location for innovative new businesses in Nashville…
I have been a fan of what they call orphan automobiles since I bought my first car when I was about 14: a 61 Studebaker Lark. Last year we acquired a 63 Studebaker Champ: one of the last trucks they made. I’ve also been a fan of what became craft beer since the early 70s. We started homebrewing when Jimmy Carter made it legal in 1979.
So when I found out the old Marathon Motor Works complex had a Corsair/Black Abbey collaboration event and Music City Brewers was having their Thirsty Thursday event there that night too, of course we had to go. My mind, always seeing connections between seemingly unrelated subjects, was intrigued.
Corsair’s and Black Abbey’s master brewers there: Karen Lassiter and Carl Meier. There were 7 very creative, innovative, one off brews on tap from both breweries. A grand night.
You may ask…
“What ties it all this together?”
Marathon, born out of a Jackson, Tennessee company called Southern Engine and Boiler, like so many had decided to invest in the auto business in a time when America had a ragged, muddy, and poorly developed, one lane roads that really didn’t cross much of the country.
I suspect they had a lot in common with some of those who started what was to become craft beer: Fritz Maytag on the west coast with Anchor in San Francisco and in the east: Bill Newman with Newman Brewing in Albany, NY. These were visionaries who saw a future in a country where Prohibition, nationwide refrigerated transportation and the Great Depression had brought brewing down to a handful of breweries, and mostly slight variations on one style of beer.
Like breweries did what they had to do to survive Prohibition, automobile manufacturers did what they had to do to survive the Depression and WWII. Kaiser and GM built other machines of war. Willys made Jeeps. Rail cars were built by some, or the gear to take any vehicle on the tracks. Studebaker was so tied in to railroads they had a huge network of tracks leading right up to several places around the many acre complex, they built trucks for the war, assembled airplane engines and built the quite unique Weasel; an amphibious tank/Jeep-like vehicle.
But back when Marathon was in business, the early 1900s were also like, in many ways, what we have in craft brewing right now. Even though there was a lot of resistance to what, at the time, was unreliable, noisy and foul smelling horseless carriages, the explosion of creativity continued. Starting from horse drawn carriages, companies like Studebaker redesigned the main form of American transportation into electric, and then gasoline, powered vehicles. Innovation continued: headlights that moved as the car move right or left, to hill holding transmissions, to automatic braking systems that are just being reintroduced now, ingenuity was king… occasionally with dire results. The original braking system, which I believe was Kaiser, was never sold on the market because, well, it longed to brake at parked cars or cats crossing adjacent streets, pebbles and seemed to delight in frightening its passengers. Now it’s becoming standard on some vehicles.
In the overwhelming sameness of beer in the 60s and early 70s, who in America would have thought of using beard yeast, brewing then selling sours or barrel aged Imperial Porters with brett in America? Few indeed.
What we have here is two the start of two incredible explosions of innovation and ingenuity separated by about 100 years.
Marathon Motor Works was in on the expanding horseless carriage industry, and quite successful at first. The name “Marathon” was eventually adopted to honor the 1904 Olympics. Businessman Augustus H. Robinson and engineer William Collier provided the heart of creativity and business acuity for Marathon.
By the time they moved to Nashville they had become Marathon and had what was considered a unique policy at the time: every part had to be built in house. It’s far more complex than if brewers grew every hop they used, all the barley that had then been malted in their own malthouse. But because cars assembled from parts produced by many companies were a quality control issue at the time, having total control made sense. Even today it can still be a problem, as those who own cars with air bag recall may realize.
Like early carmakers built the quite unique horseless carriages in their garages, small breweries like Corsair are in old fire halls, trailers, barns: anywhere one can put a small as one barrel; occasionally even less, operation. One has to chuckle when wondering if any of them took their cue from a now deceased brewery in England built in an old outhouse.
Now everyone who has started, or tried to start, their own brewery might relate to this. Marathon’s cars were noted for reliability and well liked. Even for an explosive time 10,000 units built in 1912 was exceptional. But demand became overwhelming. Problems with management and finance would be the knife in the heart of the company. Eventually they couldn’t pay the bills and keeping up with demand became an issue. William Collier filed charges of management impropriety.
A recent article listed professional brewers giving advice on starting a brewery, specifically what can go wrong. One of the biggest problems they ranted about was trying to keep up with a level of demand they never expected. Another big problem was with conflict between partners, the board.
A parallel to the gobbling up different breweries by mega brewers would be GM absorbing Pontiac, Cadillac, Oldsmobile… Chrysler swallowing Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto…Like Bud to InBev many automakers were absorbing smaller brands then killing them. George Mason, just before he died, had a plan to combine American Motors, Studebaker and other independents.
One hopes that’s not the plan InBev has in mind as it scoops up craft breweries like a doomsday machine from an old Trek episode. Whether beer or autos eventually the spirit of innovation seeps through. Perhaps that’s we have today with Tesla, or GEM whose parent company has kept Indian motorcycles alive and also introduce the Slingshot, and Tango Commuter Cars.
Death can come fast in the early years of a boom in innovation, like they did with the craft boom and automobiles. Marathon Motor Works only lasted 1907 to 1914. Just here in Nashville we’ve had our share, like Market Street.
The Marathon building lay waste for many years: when Barry Walker started developing the complex in 78 it was in the heart of one of the projects. Not an area Nashvillians in the know tended to hang around. Barry Walker bought the complex and described it as disgusting, filled with used needles, dead dogs and other unmentionable waste. Oh, and drug addicts. Did I just repeat myself?
Now it’s home to some of the most creative, innovative businesses of our era, including two distilleries and a small brewery that’s owned by one of the distilleries. Plans are to increase the brewery at this location and Karen Lassiter is keeping with the creative tradition that seems embedded in Marathon from its early years. Marathon has become home to what one might call experiments in high gravity excellence, with the distillery and other creative minds reaching to Nashville area and beyond, just like once they helped drive what was a new form of transportation onto the mostly poorly developed dirt roads across America.
Great to see the tradition of innovation and creativity remains at Marathon Motor Works.
Brew Biz : Werts and All,` is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing, and commenting on, beer-related topics including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the brew business, and discussions regarding all things beer.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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