Saw Works Brewing Company recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, hosting a celebration in August to mark the occasion. The business, founded by cousins Adam Palmer and Jonathan Borsodi has undergone many changes, twists and turns through those five years. When I first featured Saw Works on Inside of Knoxville, they’d recently changed the name of the company from Marble City Brewing to Saw Works, had hired Dave Ohmer as head brewer and seemed settled into a new era.
Instead of settling in, the company has continued to change and evolve. Adam continues as president, while brewers have changed, with the most recent being Will Brady, a graduate of the South College Professional Brewing Science Program and a long-time home brewer who joined the company in December of 2014. Johnny Miller manages the tasting room and serves as assistant brewer. Ashley Taylor (sales manager), Jeb Whitley (sales), Jeff Adams and Jordan Skeen round out the sales and production staff.
But there is another employee filling a position that didn’t exist prior to this year: Myles Smith manages the canning line. Adam points out that the intention to distribute packaged product is including in the original five-year business plan. Draft sales currently reach about 3% of the market, while cans and bottles represent 97% of sales. It’s an obvious goal. But no one would have expected the packaging to be in a can. Bottling, a much more expensive process, was more accepted five years ago. Saw Works had inherited a bottling machine and it seemed obvious they would use it when the time came to expand from draft.
The last five years, however, have seen changes of seismic proportions in the craft beer industry. As the number of craft breweries exploded nationally, patrons have become less averse to canned beer which was once seen to connote an inferior brand. Canning companies, sensing a new market, began producing smaller canning machines that more closely aligned in both scale and price to these smaller companies.
By the time Adam felt the company was ready to make the shift, bottling was no longer a consideration. In addition to increased acceptance, he points out that bottles are limiting because so many places, such as the beach, music festivals, baseball games do not allow glass containers. Since our area is increasingly known as an outdoor space, it only made sense to pursue packaging that could be taken to these and other places reflective of our active lifestyle.
Canning not only costs less, it is also better for the beer. Glass allows sunlight to impact the beer whereas cans do not. They also prevent oxygen from getting to the beer much more efficiently than bottles. Sunlight, heat and prolonged presence of oxygen will damage the taste and quality of the beer. Ease of transporting the more easily stacked cans sealed the deal.
A partnership with the South College brewing program from which brewer Will Brady graduated has helped shape the business. The program, started by Todd White, and which also partners with Fanatic Brewing Company and Blackhorse Brewery, has helped fuel the local craft beer industry. They provide interns to the breweries, which gives them practical experience and which may also serve as an audition for a job.
A new hire, Nathaniel Sears, will soon begin a second shift for the brewing operation. By January they hope to double production due to the increased brewing time. In preparation for this increase in production, the company has purchased new equipment. Originally operating three, fifty barrel capacity fermenters, they’ve added three, one-hundred barrel fermenters and construction is underway to get those operational. Each shift will operate five days a week.
As the company started the canning operation, they projected sales of 2,000 cases per month for the first six months. Instead, the first month alone saw orders totaling 6,000 cases. An early contract with Kroger, which is making the move into offering craft beers, played a large part in blowing up demand. Each of the 19 Kroger stores in Knox County now carry Saw Works products. The Cedar Bluff Kroger, as an example, which happens to be the largest Kroger in the country, began with an order for 116 cases.
Via Eagle Distributing, Saw Works products are distributed over a sixteen county area, with other distributors handling other regions. The company currently has about 1800 contracts, 400 of which are draft and 1400 of which are canned. The numbers show pretty clearly where the larger market rests. While their draft beer is currently available in Nashville, Chattanooga and the tri-cities, production limitations and the unexpectedly high demand locally have prevented distributions of the cans to these areas. Adam insists that will change, soon.
The canning operation, along with the increase in production has driven other changes, as well. Storage for empty cans, as well as for the canned product have required clearing space for both and a very large cooler will be required to store the cans while they away distribution. The company has access to a building next door which they anticipate using, but they expect to outgrow it all within a year.
While it is one of the early breweries in the current scene, there are many others opening. Adam and Saw Works are very supportive of the new start-ups and have advised several as they make their preparations. A new brewer’s guild has met in The Mill, Saw Works tasting room. When Saw Works started, there were twenty-four brewers in the state. Knoxville will soon have at least a dozen of its own. It’s been an exciting time for the craft beer industry generally and for Saw Works particularly.
Production levels now sit at about 5,000 barrels a year and plans include taking that to 10,000 to 15,000 out of the current building. That’s an important level because at 15,000 barrels a brewer is considered a regional, as opposed to simply local. And the company does not plan to stop there. In the meantime, look for their new cans in area stores including Kroger, Casual Pint (their largest independent customer, and others.