Craft Beer in Knoxville: Saw Works Brewing Company Charts New Direction

Saw Works Brewing Company, Knoxville

What do you do when you have a successful company with positive name recognition and a growing buzz in the craft beer community? Obviously, you keep doing more of the same, right? Not so much if your business is Marble City Brewing Company. These guys just don’t think that way. They see something that is working very well and ask how they can make it amazingly better. That’s where the story of the newly named Saw Works Brewing Company begins.

Johnathan Borsodi and Adam Palmer, co-owners and founders of Saw Works have known each other their whole lives. Adam had a successful career underway in Chicago and Johnathan was a successful attorney in Knoxville when Johnathan became intrigued with a property and a potential opportunity. The property, on East Depot, had once been a brewery, but had sat empty for a number of years. The equipment was largely in place and it was all for sale. Johnathan invited Adam to fly into Knoxville to talk him out of the temptation to buy the place and start a brewery.

Dave Ohmer and Adam Palmer, Saw Works Brewing Company, Knoxville, June 2012

Of course, once Adam saw the place, the two began making plans that moved Adam from Chicago and plunged them both into a world about which neither knew very much. Johnathan had the legal background to navigate the numerous, cumbersome and arcane codes and laws that needed to satisfied. Adam knew how to run a manufacturing operation. Once a brewmaster was added to the mix they were in business as Marble City Brewing Company, which was a tip of the hat to a turn-of-the-century institution in Knoxville’s Old City.

Dave introduces the pale ale to Shaft, Saw Works, Knoxville, June 2012

Not everything went well. A company from another area with a similar name initiated litigation over the rights to the name. The search for consistency in the product and in its production proved challenging. Still, the beer became increasingly popular and began appearing at numerous spots around the area. Though their business represented a successful venture into an exploding industry, Johnathan and Adam thought it could be better. There are approximately 2000 craft breweries in the United States splitting about 6% of the market and being “good” might not be sufficient for survival. Complete excellence in both the brewing and business sides of the operation would be required.

Dave explains the steeping mash that will produce Wort – the first step

Enter new brewmaster Dave Olmer who won the “Best of Beers’ award at the 2012 Tennessee Winter Beer Fest. Dave spent a decade preparing for this role and it seems to be a perfect fit for everyone. He worked for years under Al Krusen at Woodruff Brewing Company (at The Downtown Grill and Brewery) learning the trade and spent his free time – you guessed it – learning the trade even more thoroughly. The guy lives, eats and breathes beer, spending the night at the brewery when a batch moves through a critical stage, for example, just to make sure everything is perfect.

And that is more of a challenge than I ever understood. Large numbers of variables dictate the success or failure of a run of beer as well as its specific qualities as  a finished product. Decisions are made regarding grains, hops, yeast, water, temperatures, length of time for each phase of the process and on it goes. Dave insists that a one degree variation at just the wrong moment can significantly harm the perfect taste he’s after. It’s that passion for precision exuded by Dave, as well as Johnathan and Adam, that assures Saw Works will be able to provide the consistent taste and consistent service to their customers.

Where it all begins – Grains, Water, Hops – Action, Saw Works Brewing Company, Knoxville, June 2012

The facility has the capacity to expand its production many times over, but that isn’t the focus in the immediate future. Nor is the idea to have an extensive line of beers. Working in the vein of English-style ales, the first production is a Pale Ale which got two thumbs up from my research staff, Shaft, who subjected himself to two hours of free beer for the cause. The second production is a brown ale which, according to Dave, has just been perfected. He says those two beers will be the base from which the company will operate with seasonal beers coming and going and a bit of a mysterious beverage, about which he was not ready to talk, sometime down the line.

Chris Burger explains the potential of partnering with a  farm at Saw Works Brewing Company, Knoxville, June 2012

Another interesting element wrapped up in the new direction is the company’s pursuit of sustainability. Chris Burger, a farmer who operates Century Harvest Farms in Greenback  provides  a place for the by products of the beer, which is basically the grains after they have been strained for the components needed for making beer. The resultant refuse turns out to be somewhat useful feed for animals (particularly lactating cows, it turns out), and great for growing worms and mushrooms. Century Harvest Farms have also begun preparation to grow the grains needed for the beer and has longer-term plans to grow the hops necessary in the process. Once this is in place there should be a perfect circle of production from the farm to the beer and back again with no waste.

In the meantime, plans are being made for the farm to supply fresh beef to downtown via orders on their website, which will then be delivered to The Mill (formerly The Quarry) for pickup. I’ll try to get more details on that an pass them along. The beef will be grass-fed which should provide a much leaner cut. Imagine stopping by The Mill on a Friday night to pick up a growler of your favorite craft beer plus the steaks to drop on the grill. Pretty sweet. Plans have also been drawn up to build a beer garden in the space behind The Mill.

Sustainable farming explained by Chris Burger as Adam Palmer and Johnathan Borsodi listen, Saw Works Brewing Company, Knoxville, June 2012

So, it’s an exciting time for beer lovers in Knoxville as a small, but growing beer culture takes hold. After meeting the people behind Saw Works Brewing, I’m confident they will be leaders within that movement for years to come. The owners and beer production staff have the same passion for the perfect beer I’ve seen among local craft beer lovers. That passion permeates their business model, their production values and their efforts to be good members of the Knoxville community. I’d strongly encourage you to give them your support.