Nashville Craft Beer Scene is Taking Off!

Brews at Rock Bottom, Nashville by Cynthia Mayes
Brews at Rock Bottom, Nashville by Cynthia Mayes

Sure, if you go to Nashville you’re going to hear some country music. You don’t even have to try. It’s like they issue your brain a chorus of “Forever and Ever, Amen” just for entering the city limits.

But on my recent trip to Nashville, I did my best to drown out the yee-haw with some local craft beer. As recently as 10 years ago, I’d rarely, if ever, encounter a local beer when trolling Nashville bars and eateries. These days you’ll find a Yazoo Dos Perros or a Blackstone Nut Brown lurking in one of the taps pretty much wherever you go.

I checked out five different breweries while in Nashville, and my experience got me thinking that there seem to be two very distinctive types of microbreweries these days: Those focusing on classic styles and making sure to appeal to a broad audience, and those really going for it and creating original, complex brews for the adventurous palate.

I’m not an advocate or naysayer of either, necessarily; I appreciate quality beer, period. Beer nerd-dom is what it is. I’m happy to wash down some hot wings with a middle-of-the-road, 40-IBU APA or a double IPA that makes you feel like you’ve just been punched in the mouth by a hop-laced bully.

Anyway, here’s a roundup of what I found in Nashville:

Blackstone Brew list - photo by Cynthia Mayes
Blackstone Brew list - photo by Cynthia Mayes

Rock Bottom Brewery: OK, so this one technically is a chain based in Denver, but it was on the way, we were hungry and I like pretty much all beer. We sat at the gigantic stainless steel bar in upscale surroundings and had a sampler of mostly middle-of-the-road stuff. In fact, one could accuse Rock Bottom of being a “microbrewery lite.” I prefer to think of it as a good introduction to craft beer.

For instance, the Red Ale is solid, but unspectacular, with a light malt character and very little discernible bitterness. And yet, it’s still good – just not terribly complex or challenging. Ditto for the Specialty Dark (which was a porter). And the Oktoberfest.

However, our bartender, a super-friendly guy named Steve, noted that brewer Brad Morris “has corporate recipes he has to follow … but with the darks he gets flexibility and does his own thing.”

With that, Steve presented me with a sample of Cask Oatmeal Stout, which was creamy and complex, with a deep, dark chocolate flavor – just the kind of brew you want to be sipping next to a fire. All this is to say that, if you go, ask for the good stuff.

Tanks at Blackstone - photo by Cynthia Mayes
Tanks at Blackstone - photo by Cynthia Mayes

Yazoo Brewing Company: Yazoo is a bit off the beaten path, but was hopping with people when we arrived near closing time. We ordered a sampler and sat down at a table to observe a neo-industrial ambience that blends concrete floors with sparse décor, exposed ceilings and concrete block walls.

What we found in the glasses was a mix of complex and solid beers. The Gerst Amber Ale – which is made from a recipe based on that of Nashville’s original, pre-prohibition Gerst Brewing –tasted as if it may have a touch of rye in it (that may have been the flaked maize I was tasting). Brilliant orange, it looks like a pale ale but at just 11 IBU, drinks more like a light lager.

The Sly Rye Porter, on the other hand, definitely has rye – five types, to be exact – and packs a scintillating coffee nose, a nutty flavor and just a hint of bitterness. This is why people like craft brews.

Along with a pretty good Pale Ale, Yazoo also has something it calls Hop Project, which is a rotating IPA that changes the recipe with each batch. I was actually surprised it was not more floral than it was, and yet it had an interesting spice on the finish. Is that pepper? It was interesting, even if it wasn’t as hoppy as I had expected.

Blackstone Brewery: Blackstone sits in Nashville’s Midtown area, and while it looks like a restaurant, it has an interesting layout, with a squared-off horseshoe bar in the middle of the establishment, surrounded by a cozy sitting room featuring lots of dark wood. Think of it as a modern pub feel.

Yazoo Taproom - photo by Cynthia Mayes
Yazoo Taproom - photo by Cynthia Mayes

The beers were mostly in the “solid” category, with the Kolsch being creamy and a bit bready, but otherwise just so-so. The APA packed only 33 IBU power, and the dry-hopped beer fought to get my attention. (I wrote in my notes that, “It’s like listening to AC/DC at super low volume.”)

The St. Charles Porter boasts numerous American Beer Festival Awards and is indeed a solid entry into the porter category, but it should also be noted that Miller High Life and Budweiser Select won medals this year.

But then we got to the Harvest Ale, which was by far my favorite of the sampler. A dark orange/red color, it resembles a farmhouse ale, with plenty of Amarillo hops (52 IBU), with a nice malt character that makes the finish earthy, for lack of a better term. This is an ale that should be able to please a discerning palate while also being accessible to the more timid.

Boscos Restaurant & Brewing Company:  Boscos is, as the name suggests, half focused on food and half focused on beer. We had a good dinner in the mid-upscale establishment while enjoying sampling eight different craft beers brewed there.

Another well-decorated brewery, Boscos boasts Flaming Stone, a light, German-style “Steinbeer” that was awarded three stars by the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson. The Bombay IPA was floral and complex, and the Hillsboro Brown is a solid, chocolaty brown ale with plenty of character.

The Promised Land IPA brings plenty to the palate as well, with honey, rye and barley mixed in with the hop kick (67 IBU). Once again, this is why people gravitate to craft beers. I finished off with the Rye Stout, which blended coffee tones with a mild spicy. Great body, with a hint of roasted nut by way of its malt character.

Yazoo Sampler - photo by Cynthia Mayes
Yazoo Sampler - photo by Cynthia Mayes

Jackalope Brewing Company: I saved my favorite for last here. Jackalope is just a few blocks from Yazoo, but it’s miles away in terms of the beer. And that’s not a knock at Yazoo – Jackalope just has that “it” factor some small craft breweries have. It is going the extra distance to keep things interesting, even if it only has a handful of brews on tap at any given time.

Just over two years old, Jackalope is one of those places that, as soon as you see the names of the beers, you know you’re going to be challenged. From Thunder Ann to Bear Walker, we weren’t disappointed, either.

Starting with the admittedly under-named Wet Hopped American Ale, my taste buds were met with a big dose of locally-grown hops that actually provide a nose and flavor that seem far more Belgian in nature than American. Bananas occupy the finish, which is not my cup of tea, but it is clear a lot of work and love have gone into this brew (even though my girlfriend noted that the aftertaste was “like a nine-volt battery”).

The Leghorn Rye IPA was surprising in its lightness – I expected a big bite and instead was greeted by a crisp ale that wasn’t trying too hard, yet had an intriguing flavor profile. I’d call this one a solid summer-type IPA.

Bearwalker was another interesting discovery for my taste buds – it’s a maple brown ale that, like Leghorn, is not aggressive but nevertheless leaves an impression. It’s made with maple syrup, and while  you get that in the flavor, it also doesn’t demand your attention; if you didn’t know better, you’d think you had just stumbled upon a really good brown ale that had something different about it you couldn’t quite put a finger on.

I tried one other brew at Jackalope, and it was the Thunder Ann, an American pale ale (which is my beer style of choice). While I didn’t know it until the moment I took my first sip, this was the one I’d come to Nashville for. This ale doesn’t punch you in the mouth with bitterness, but it asserts itself with a citrusy quality (ah, those Citra hops) and a complexity that keeps your palate engaged. I wanted a pint, but we had to move on.

We spoke with the assistant brewer and one of the driving forces behind Jackalope, Sally, and she noted that a new brewery is in the works in Nashville: Tennessee Brew Works. In addition, Black Abbey Brewing Company, which specializes in Belgian-style beers, opened in the spring. Another we missed while in town is local favorite Fat Bottom Brewing (we didn’t realize it was closed on Sundays, sadly). And there are plenty more just outside of town.

“I have the feeling Nashville is going to be one of those places that becomes a destination for beer,” Sally said.

Sally, it may have already happened.