Ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Raise a pint in Nashville, Tennessee, and chances are you’re less than six degrees from Linus Hall, one of Music City’s craft beer pioneers.
When Linus Hall opened Yazoo Brewing Company’s doors in October 2003, no one could have ever pre-dicted what a culinary force Nashville would become. As Yazoo celebrated its 14th birthday in October 2017, we played connect the dots with this Nashville original.
Hall started at Brooklyn Brewing under Garrett Oliver, and learned everything he could about the indus-try. It didn’t take him long to decide Nashville was his Brooklyn. Hall shares a bit of his story, and some of his future plans in this CraftBeer.com Full Pour.
Q: Tell us how this modern era of craft beer was born in Nashville.
Linus: I had this idea in my head to start a brewery and come back to Nashville. Breweries back then had so little market share, we knew we had to help each other- to raise all tides for all boats. Everyone was so helpful to me. Even the local ones here.
When I moved up to Nashville from Mississippi, I joined the local homebrew club, Music City Brewers. I was just amazed at how many people were involved. We would meet at either Bosco’s or Blackstone and bring beers to compare. Not only were the homebrewers really involved, but Chuck Skypeck of Bosco’s and Dave Miller at Blackstone were heavily involved. That’s where I got the idea of how a professional brewery operates. They encouraged me and others to know what you were getting into. For me, that meant I needed to go back to business school, and at least get an internship or professional education on the brewing side.
It’s kind of funny to look back at that homebrew club. I was in it, Carl Meir of Black Abbey, Steve Scoville of Little Harpeth, Ken Rebman of Czann’s…so, yeah. I think you can look back at that club as a birthing place for a lot of breweries here in Nashville.
Q: Garrett Oliver was a mentor of yours. How have you passed the baton?
Linus: Back when Yazoo started, if I was out of a bag of hops or malt, other brewers would let me have some of theirs. It’s the same way now. We have a little more in-depth of a lab. Some of the breweries just starting out will come over to test their recipes. I’d say that definitely on the brewery/production side. But on the sale side it’s getting a lot more competitive out there. There’s not quite as much sharing on the sales side of things. Regarding mentorship, it’s a pass it forward idea. So many people were hhelpful to me when I was getting started, I owe it to people that are starting out.
The other thing is that craft beer is definitely a lot more popular than when I first started. I still think that you can turn off someone if they have a bad beer for their first options. We kind of owe it to the whole industry to keep it growing to help new brewers to set up their processes the right way, and to make sure they’re paying attention to quality. While it may be cliche, I still think that one bad experience can turn people off.
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Q: How do you help a sinking ship?
Linus: If there’s obvious problems with a beer. Like if the batch is infected, and not supposed to be. Or, if the beer is flat, or has pretty significant off-flavors. I feel like you owe it as a brewer to say, “Hey, I’m not downing your beer, but I had a pint of your beer the other day, and it didn’t taste at all like I tasted at your brewery.” If someone called and told me that, my first impulse would be to run out and try to sample it where they had it to see what’s going on. A lot of times it’s a recipe kind of thing that gets into personal preference. I might have not used as much crystal malt, but that’s their recipe. If its technical problems, or obvious infections, any brewery would want to know that about their beer. Consumers might say, “Oh, that’s a bad beer.” But, technically there’s nothing wrong with the beer. It’s just not their style preference.
Q: Who have you mentored that went on to start their own breweries?
Linus: We’ve been lucky and haven’t had much turn over. Our first brewer, Zach Henry, was from Alaska. His wife was studying at Vanderbilt. When she finished school, they moved back to Alaska and started a brewery there. We’ve had a few people where their wives’ jobs moved them somewhere else. It always helps to have a wife that has a higher paying job, because being a brewer doesn’t always offer the most financial rewards. One of our brewers moved with his wife, and is working at Half Acre now. Another left to go to Cincinnati with his wife, and is at a new start up brewery there. We’ve not had a lot of turn over. I think people have been happy to be a part of our growth throughout the years.
Linus: Some of the older guys from the homebrew days — we’re still pretty tight. I don’t know all of the newer ones quite as well. But, there’s definitely a sense of community. Ever since we formed the guild four years ago, we’ve actually been able to work together to get laws changed, and approved statewide. It helps that Bailey Spaulding of Jackalope Brewing has a law degree and has that input. One of our newer breweries, East Nashville Brew Works is co-founded by Anthony Davis. He’s actually my council person. We were able to get the High Alcohol Bill passed at the beginning of 2017.
Q: What’s next for the guild?
Linus: Next thing that we’re looking at is the Craft Brewers Conference that is coming to Nashville in May of next year. It’s going to be a huge feather in Nashville’s cap to have it here in the Southeast in about 20 years. It should be a cool sight. Mainly, what we’re going to try and do is demonstrate the economic impact it will have for more industry to be involved in the state. When you see that many people coming in for conference, and most of them out-of-state…compare that to somewhere like Oregon or California where you have over 300 breweries. Mainly, that’s what we’re trying to do. We still want to reform the wholesale tax, as it’s still the highest in the country.
Q: What’s next for Yazoo?
Linus: We’re making plans to move, but are still looking for a buyer for our Division Street property. We have some land still in Davidson County that we’ll pull the trigger on once the current property is sold. The land prices have just gotten insane. We’ve run out of room to grow. We can’t add many more tanks, but the main problem we’re having is logistics. Our main revenue is the wholesale business. So, getting trucks in and out of here has gotten to be a nightmare.
When people lift one another up, great things happen. Linus Hall is a testament to what happens when folks lend a hand. Now, that’s something to raise a pint to. If you see Hall or any of the other Music City pioneers at next year’s Craft Brewers Conference, shake their hand and pay it forward.
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