Heady heights: Chattanooga-based Craftworks wins top award for Brewpubs

Heady heights: Chattanooga-based Craftworks wins top award for Brewpubs

November 3rd, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Chattnow Dining

Craftsworks' beer sales are calculated at between 15 percent and 20 percent of the company's overall sales.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

2013 AWARDS:

* Gold - Robust Porter - Rock Bottom La Jolla, Calif.

* Silver - Baltic-Style Porter - Rock Bottom King of Prussia, Penn.

* Silver - Czech Pilsner - Gordon Biersch Rockville, Md.

* Bronze - English-Style Brown Ale - Rock Bottom La Jolla, Calif.

* Bronze - Irish-Style Red Ale - Rock Bottom La Jolla, Calif.

Source: Craftworks

Big River awards:

* Big River - Rocket Red Ale - Gold award in 2003 from the Great American Beer Festival

* Big River - Sweet Magnolia Brown Ale - Gold award in 1998 from the Great American Beer Festival

* Big River - South Side Pilsner - Silver award in 2007 from Great American Beer Festival

* Big River - Iron Horse Stout - Silver award in 1998, 2002 and 2004 from World Beer Cup, Bronze in 2000 from Great American Beer Festival

* Big River - Rocket Red - Bronze award in 2011 from Great American Beer Festival

* Big River - Espresso Stout - Bronze award in 2004 from World Beer Cup

Chattanooga-based Craftworks' cup is running over, as the brand prepares to stuff a handful of awards into its already packed trophy case.

The company, which went home with five medals at the Great American Beer Festival, also saw its Rock Bottom brand winning recognition as the Brewpub Group of the Year as well as Group Brewer of the Year. But the awards represent more than just a pat on the back for its network of brewers. As a business that depends on craft beer sales to bolster its bottom line, awards are a key part of each restaurant's recipe for return customers.

"If you think about it, we are one of the largest, if not the largest company-hiring brewers in the entire country," said Stuart Melia, vice president of beverage for Craftworks. "If you go to some of the largest craft organizations, as big as they are, they'll have just a master brewer and some brewers, but we have 75 full-time brewers on staff across the country brewing beer."

That's an expensive proposition, Melia acknowledges, but it's worth it. The company's research shows that customers prefer fresh-cooked food and fresh-brewed beer to the alternative, even if it costs a little more to create. Plus, the network of brewers across the country allows Craftworks to come up with homegrown beer, some varieties of which turn out to be award-winners.

"Devoting resources like this, it's not for everyone," he said. "You really have to look in the mirror and know that this is how you get the best quality."

Craftworks, which owns the nationwide Old Chicago, Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom brands, got its start at the Big River Grille in 1993, which was founded with an on-site brewery and locally-created food. Several mergers and two decades later, the company runs or franchises 200 restaurants, including 70 locations with on-site breweries that enter their creations into contests around the world, said Tom Dargen, director of brewing operations for Craftworks Restaurants and Breweries.

With that many brewers and beers under the Craftworks umbrella, the company often faces the difficult decision of which suds to enter in each contest, he said.

"We like to win competitions and put our best beers forward, but we also want brewers who haven't entered before to enter and try different categories," Dargen said.

In response to the company's hundreds of locally-brewed entries in various contests, a few have enacted what is jokingly called the "Craftworks rule," in order to ensure that smaller brewers aren't left out by limiting entries from big restaurant groups, he said.

But that hasn't dampened the company's enthusiasm for pursuing awards. With beer sales calculated at between 15 percent and 25 percent of overall sales, depending on the location, such awards are important to the bottom line, he said. The national recognition helps boost the popularity of unique beers entered by each local brewer, allowing Craftworks to capitalize on the local marketing potential for customers who prefer local brews. Craftworks also has a number of beer brands, such as the award-winning Czech Pilsner, which it distributes across all of its restaurants as a "flagship beer" with widespread appeal. And the award-winning beers will be distributed to all restaurants to help bring in customers in search of a top-notch drink.

Either way, contests are key in the craft beer market, which caters to customers with an increasingly sophisticated palette. The struggle for Craftworks is to appeal to craft beer drinkers, while also maintaining its connection to customers who just want something to go with their food, which still accounts for at least 60 percent of sales.

"We're certainly aware that are guests are not just beer geeks," he said.

In fact, some craft brewers are moving away from the "big crazy hops, crazy yeast character, sour beer and super-high alcohol beer" back to quality brews that go well with a meal while still maintaining a unique taste. Though craft beer has expanded to just under 10 percent of the market, with so-called "challenging" beers making up half of that, there's still strong demand for beer that's consumable in larger quantities and for diners who want to stick around after dinner and socialize.

"You can't sit down for an evening and have six beers that are 10 percent alcohol," " he said. "You won't be able to drive home."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith, esmith@times freepress.com, or 423-757-6315.