Robert Childers, head rector for The Church of the Good Shepherd on Lookout Mountain, vividly remembers his first experience with small-batch brewing. He was minister to a church in Mentone, Ala., but was visiting the Tennessee Aquarium with his family. When he emerged from the underwater tour it was as if the heavens opened up and the sun shone brightly on a newly opened Big River Brewery. "I just thought, 'Oh my goodness, what a great gift this is,'" recalls Childers. "It saved me because at the time I was living in a dry county."
That was nearly 17 years ago. He made his first batch of home brew shortly after that, intrigued by the craft ale he had sampled. And while today his ministerial duties overshadow his hops hobby, Childers has still helped Big River develop its seasonal Scottish Ale recipe, performing a blessing of the cask at the tapping party.
"Now that we live here Big River is still one of my favorites," says Childers. "They really helped educate the palate of this area." Tony Giannasi, a software engineer living on Signal Mountain, also credits Big River with his foray into home brewing. After sampling Big River's Espresso Stout at the Southern Brewers Festival on the riverfront, he had trouble buying it for home consumption. He took matters into his own hands, read a book on home brewing cover to cover and hasn't looked back.
Today he's president of the Barley Mob Brewers and the city's first Certified Cicerone, the equivalent of a beer "sommelier." He's also a certified beer judge, only one competition away from judging at the national level. "After you brew a few batches of beer and decide you like it, you can either stay at that level or go crazy; I chose the crazy route," laughs Giannasi. "Next thing I know I'm heading up the home brewing club."
And if you think the club is a bunch of drinking buddies dabbling in beer making - think again. The Barley Mob hosts the only Beer Judge Certification Program competition in Chattanooga, and many members participate in national competitions. A handful of them have also become certified judges, meaning they have a comprehensive knowledge of the inches-thick manual of beer styles. Owners of Moccasin Bend Brewery and Chattanooga Brewing Company are also former members.
"Barley Mob is sort of like the farm team for the pros," jokes Giannasi. "It's where you work out your processes and get feedback from friends and neighbors. You learn your tastes as well as others'."
And if you ever sipped a Southern Flyer or a Hot Mama (a specially brewed beer for Taco Mamacita soaked in hot chilies), thank a home brewer. Giannasi credits his beer brotherhood with fueling the local craft beer movement.
"When I first started in 2002 there was Big River and that was it," he says. "We now have five breweries in town with another one coming in the next year or so." Giannasi also wants to bring better beer to the masses, hosting a blind beer tasting at the Chattanooga Market the first Sunday of each month. For a $15 ticket, you can enjoy five beers paired with food and vote for the winner. "I'm all about raising Chattanooga's awareness of craft beer," he says.
And that is a mission we can all raise a glass to.
109 Frazier Ave. • chattabrew.com
Open a little more than a year, brewers Mark Marcum and Jonathan Clark aim for easy drinking beer that strikes a perfect balance between sweet and bitter. Focused mainly on wholesale, you can sample their suds in myriad restaurants around town from Taco Mac to Table 2, or drop by for a fill-up during their growler hours Thursday through Saturday.
HILL CITY IPA - "Brash and in your face with American hops, this beer tops the charts for IPA in Chattanooga. It was voted best IPA in the city by the Best Beer Series at the Market."
OKTOBERFEST LAGERr - "This beer was perfected over more than 15 years of home brewing and its commercial cousin shows the love that has been poured into it. It's very malty and smooth with an easy finish."
PILSNER - Several restaurants in town have Chattanooga Brewing Company's Pilsner on tap and it's a really solid choice. It's lighter and less bitter than an IPA.
222 Broad St. • bigrivergrille.com
A pioneer in the craft beer movement, Big River has opened the door for other brewpubs. It's also the most decorated brewer in town, boasting a combined 23 medals from the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.
IRONHORSE STOUT - "Hands down, the best stout in Chattanooga right now. It's malty, roasty and has notes of baking chocolate. Very tasty beer all year round for me."
VIENNA LAGER - "As one of the few breweries in town set up to make lagers, Big River has had a lot of practice. The Vienna is very malty with hardly any hop notes - just how it is supposed to be. It goes well with almost anything as an easy to drink yet flavorful beer."
IPA - "One of the big reasons I love Big River is the quality. Their IPA has a good hoppiness but not too aggressive. It's a solid beer and you know it's always going to be good. It's pleasing to the palate but not too filling."
No. 6 14th St. • terminalbrewhouse.com
Brew master Steve Purdie is a fellow home brewer turned pro, educated by the American Brewers Guild before helping launch The Terminal Brewhouse. Each week he whips up a fresh batch of regular and seasonal offerings in the restaurant's basement-level tanks, which are connected directly to the upstairs taps.
MAGNUM PA - "A model of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) theory, this beer is hops on top of a medium malt backbone, then another dose of hops. It's my standard order whenever I go in..."
MIND MELD - "...UNLESS this beer is on tap. A Terminal seasonal in the first quarter of the year, this is an India Brown Ale that adds some malt complexity over the hops for a more balanced pint."
O.P.P.ESB - "The Terminal's O.P.P. ESB reminds me of an English Bitter. It's not as hopped as an IPA and since it has relatively low alcohol content you can enjoy several pints over a long evening."
724 Ashland Terrace • mchalesbrewhouse.com
Brew master Adam Hale took home more than a dozen medals from home brewing competitions before opening his Scotch/Irish brew pub with cousin, Sidney Hale. Only open since January, McHale's already enjoys a loyal following by pushing the envelope with unique flavor combinations. Future plans include high gravity and sour/wild beer varieties - a first for the city.
BLOODY IPA - "This was the first dark IPA I had ever had three years ago. Before it was popular, the brewer was making this style as a home brewer. Years of tweaks have created a chewy, caramel chocolate citrus treat in a glass."
BLACK PIXIE - "A lighter beer but full of flavor. A dark Belgian Ale, perfect with brownies and raspberries."
4015 Tennessee Ave. • bendbrewingbeer.com
The tap room at this St. Elmo brewery offers some of the city's most original recipes, with brew master Chris Hunt infusing his beers with everything from watermelon to pumpkin seeds. With 12 to 13 taps it also offers one of the widest selections, available mainly through weekend brewery tours.
COFFEE STOUT - "This beer is done with local coffee from Pasha Coffee & Tea and is silky and delicious. Drink it with a big chocolate chip cookie or a donut - tasty, not healthy."
HOP SOUP - "It comes and it goes, but it's worth getting when it's around. This beer is made with hops, then hop extract to make it explode on your palate. A real experience."