Brew Biz: Werts and All

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Written by Ken Carman

Yazoo Brewing Company
910 Division Street
Nashville, TN 37203
(615)891-4649

My wife Millie and I have spent many hours at the old Yazoo tasting room in the far older Marathon Auto manufacturing building,


Marathon ceased production in 1914. One must wonder how the building lasted this long; especially with Marathon painted on the side: but we’re grateful. It definitely provided an interesting atmosphere for sipping quality beer.

When we first met Linus, in the late 90s, Yazoo was but a fantasy. As an entertainer who dreamed of living off my talents, and built a business touring the east coast, I know the magic and the hard, hard work it takes to make any big dream come true. We were all members of Music City Homebrewers. I believe we met during our annual competition where Linus had, once again, submitted Dos Perros. Beer Advocate has it listed as an American Brown. That isn’t quite right, in my opinion. If I remember right, Dos Perros started as a version of Dos Equis, only with an ale yeast. From their site…


Many Mexican beer styles today are descendants of old Austrian styles, from when Austria ruled Mexico in the late 19th century. Our Dos Perros is made with German Munich malt, English Pale malt, and Chocolate malt, and hopped with Perle and Saaz hops. To lighten the body, as many Mexican brewers do, we add a small portion of flaked maize. The result is a wonderfully bready malt aroma, balanced with some maize sweetness and a noble hop finish.”

I believe the “Austrian” style that Mexican beers, like Dos Equis, emulated was Vienna. Dos Perros taste-wise is closer to a Mexican-ized Vienna than American Brown. In my opinion, the Chocolate Malt; the lack of any actual Vienna, makes it less a “Vienna” than taste suggests; or perhaps even an Mexican take on Vienna. But I would be less likely to call Dos Perros an “American Brown” either, especially these days when American Browns tend to be more hoppy and not have flaked maize. Either an American Amber with a Dos Equis twist, or a Mexican-ized Vienna without Vienna malt?

I find it has improved quite a bit from the old competition Dos. Either over the years the recipe has been tweaked, or my tastes have changed. Not that it was bad before, by any means: just better now.

Back to Linus…

I was amazed what a great interview Linus was. All through the years we were both in the club Linus was the quiet type: measuring his words carefully with a gentle, knowing smile. Somewhat curly hairy; a tad tall, thin, if I didn’t know who he was I might miss him entirely. Who is Linus? A man who had a dream and made it come true with hard work and the ability to do whatever. As he himself said, “Once you’re through with the process of starting a business like this you’ll likely to become a Conservative, or a Libertarian. You just want them to get out of your way.”

One can hardly argue with his vast success. When I first saw their limited hours, and where they were located, I predicted failure. The surrounding slum wouldn’t help, I thought. I’m really glad I was wrong. I think it surprised Linus a bit too; not how well the brew business did, but the tasting room’s success. It literally exploded.

That says a lot about the power of good beer vs. “location, location, location.”

Linus said…

Hey, everyone, say, “Hi Linus!”

…said they had never planned on their tasting room business booming to the point they would have to move. The plan was to offer just enough samples to get customers to visit pubs and beer stores that carried the Yazoo product. Not enough to make his customers say, “Hey, if I put your stuff on tap they’ll simply forget me and go over to Yazoo.” They were planning of having Yazoo on tap everywhere, and contract brewing specialty beers for bar owners. You know, where “Dave’s Dump” wants to have “Dave’s Dumpy Beer?”

Maybe we should save brewing “Dave’s Dump Beer” for the “fine” brewers at AB/Miller and their low carb/cal swill? Just slap on a different label. Luckily Linus, as far as I know, was never contacted by Dave’s Dump. Just far more classy joints. Yazoo does specialty brew beer for fine local establishments to market under names other than Yazoo trademarked brand names, but very few. Their Yazoo brew has become so popular that contract part of the business plan has remained small. Yazoo took off that fast.

Linus started homebrewing in college in the 90s. He moved from Mississippi to Nashville, joined Music City Brewers, became a BJCP judge: he said, “I don’t know anyone on our scale in the industry that didn’t start as a homebrewer.”

Linus also got a business degree from Vanderbilt, his craft-brewing education through a course at the American Brewer’s Guild. He also did an internship under well known master brewer Garrett Oliver, at Brooklyn Brewery. Yazoo opened its doors in November 2003.

Linus started Yazoo with three: Lila, his wife, Linus and Zack, brewing. Zack moved to Alaska and now brews for St. Elias Brewing. Lila designed the labels. She still does, but the seasonals and the specialty brews they contract out for the labels. Now they have 3 brewers: Quinn, Ken and Ivan the Wonderful. (He’s the “Ivan” who brews good beer, vs, Ivan the Terrible who brews elsewhere.) 8 full time employees, 4 part time.

A lot of grain goes through here, for obvious reasons.

They’re new brew system is amazing. 40 barrels, made by Newlands. They did 7,500 barrels last year and they’re up at least 20% this year. Automated. It’s like a homebrewer went to sleep and found himself in brew heaven, or brew hell if you prefer smaller systems: but it’s what’s needed here.

You have to understand; while it’s about the beer, it’s also about marketing: figuring out the market and your customer. Consistency, yet the ability to be unique… like Yazoo’s Hop Project which does vary according to what number it is. I find this not only unique to the industry, but wonderful. You have to go on Yazoo’s site to know what Project they are bottling now; from Cascade-ish bombs, to fresh hops to a unique Japanese hop known as Sorachi. The day I visited they were on #36. #37 is another Sorachi Hop Project: this time fresh hopped. Being a hophead of sorts (and a malthead too) I couldn’t wait. We tried it the weekend after I typed the first rough draft. A nice solid, fresh; somewhat spicy, bitter-ish IPA.

Hop Project started when they tried to produce an IPA and the hop crisis got in the way. (“Shortage” is what it’s commonly referred to. Some brewers I have interviewed in the past question how “short” the actual “shortage” was.) Linus figured that hopheads were “always looking for the next adventure.” Spot on. He sure hooked me.

They have brewed some other one off concept beers and unique brews, like their Summer Ale where proceeds from the sale were used to help fund Nashville flood relief. Linus is hoping to produce some higher alcohol brews in the future, in addition to Sue: a smoked (on cherrywood) Porter that won second at the Great American Beer Festival.

Sue is a big, rich, smoky malt bomb of a beer, with mellow smokiness coming from barley malts smoked with cherry wood, and assertive bitterness from Galena and Perle hops to cleanse the finish.”

Yazoo also did a beer with tart cherries.

Currently they also have wood barrels that were filled with Corsair Bourbon; the new local distillery that’s now inhabits the old Yazoo location… in which they will be aging a smoked Porter.

Yum.

Again… Corsair. Keep that name in mind. Expect an edition of Brew Biz on the cooperation between a brewery and a distillery in the very near future.


Fall Ale is their upcoming seasonal. Here’s what the Yazoo site says about it…

Fall Ale is made with all German malts – Munich, Vienna, Cara malt, and a little bit of Rye. It’s generously hopped with Hallertauer and Tettnang hops from Germany. It’s an ale, not a lager, but it’s loosely based on a typical Octoberfest beer, with our own twist with the Rye malt.”

We’ve enjoyed many brews at Yazoo over the years. As a mild critique, we do remember a time, back in the original location, where we could taste a metallic sense to all the beer. But that was cleared up long ago. I mentioned that once to one of his brewers and he admitted they were having a problem during that time. Hence the critique turns compliment. I have been to more than a few brewing related businesses that continue to have the same problem and don’t seem to want to solve it. One in town: name unmentioned, that only solved it when their brand new brewer insisted they tear out the lines and get new taps. Sometimes it can be a simple solve: new yeast, better sanitation, cleaned taps: all the various elements that can contribute to making funky beer; in the worst sense of the word “funk.” But perhaps more often it can require the kind of money and effort replacing old lines in an old building requires. Take it from someone who has had more than one conversation with a brewer who started a line cleaning company. Depending upon the building, and where the lines are located, the amount of effort and cost almost makes me understand why some establishments might insist their staff simply make excuses. But please remember the big qualifier… “almost.”

The Sly Rye, through the years, seems to have become less “rye-ish.” I always felt it had a bit too much and that got in the way of the other malts being appreciated. With a Porter appreciating the deep malt sense is extremely important. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it over the years, perhaps? It’s a good Porter, though personally I’d prefer if it were more of a Robust, grain-wise, than English. The Yazoo site says they use Maris Otter. Otter can be very distinctive, but that doesn’t dominate either. The hops don’t pop out much at all, which is probably a good thing. The intent to provide that deep grain sense in this take on Porter is probably the better skew to this brew. But, in my opinion, it could use a bit more of all but the rye. But that’s probably because I prefer the Robust to the English version.

Sidebar time…

I doubt beer drinkers like me when I was in college in the early 70s would have ever speculated that English beer, overall, would eventually be considered less aggressive than American. Not that I miss those days. I can’t be less blunt: Hell, no! Though I have some negative comments regarding the new wave of aggressive American brewing I will mention in a future Brew Biz, I’m still a big fan of it.

I’m not a Hefe fan, though Millie my wife is. It took me a while to tolerate beer with any significant amount of wheat in it at all. But, as a BJCP judge, I doubt this Hefe would get a bad score, or even just mediocre… though I’d have to seriously sit down with the guidelines and judge it. I do get some banana nose. Most beer styles I can do a better job than this, sans guidelines, but on wheat-based brews it would probably be best for me to have the guidelines. Besides, I didn’t bring them with me the day I interviewed Linus. More into drinking….beer!

I like the fact that they do specialty brews/seasonals and even brew one of their regular products: Hop Project, with a different, creative, hop mix every time. This, in my opinion, is what energized the craft beer movement to begin with: the desire not only for quality, but to have something to offer other than what’s bland, what’s boring.

For those who might be interested in starting a micro, Linus suggested that you make sure you have a business plan: research is the key. Consistency is important, of course, as well as identifying your customer.

For the homebrewer he said, “A good brewer is like an archer: they should at least be able to hit their target. Have an idea how it should taste and hit the target. Someone who brewed a light Ale and gets a dark beer, how can they not know how they got there? Take good notes. Repeat what works, recipe-wise.”

While the old location did have character, as some claim, they had outgrown it and staying there simply would have problematic as much as business was growing. They were busting at the seams with tasters and tours of the brewery. The new location is slowly but surely proving that character can be added, like the grain bag curtains…

And the beer garden-like porch that is on the front of the building facing Division Street…

Going to Yazoo is always a fun time, especially when you can mock one of those great Yazoo pourers, like Brandi, who likes to use her hands to conduct a conversation almost as much as the author does…

I tried to take pictures of the interior and the ceiling where Linus has hung more grain bags to cut down on the echo and add character. But my camera is quirky and the best one I got was of some strange woman who loves Yazoo beer…

See what I mean about my camera? I’d say the strange woman put a hex on it, but this Vivitar really is quirky. Well, maybe when I do the column on how a brewer and a distiller work well together I’ll have decent pictures of both tasting rooms.

So, after the interview, that “strange woman” and I had a few then left Yazoo for home, knowing we’d come back many times again.


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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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