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Beer Run: Chattanooga
by Keith Peterson, the Beer CellarMay 15, 2003
, UNITED STATES -
This month we take a journey to our nearest neighbor to the north, the city of Chattanooga, which is only about a 2-hour drive on Interstate 75. In recent years, the downtown area has seen a resurgence of tourist activity, thanks to development of a new aquarium and other downtown attractions. And, of course, where the tourists go, the beer is sure to follow. This is helped by Tennessee’s beer law variations that potentially give it an edge over Georgia in beer selection. Basically, even though Tennessee has the same 6% limit on beer as most of the Southeast, they can bring in beers over 6% through the liquor distribution channel and sell them at stores and bars that have liquor licenses.
Our first stop takes us to Bacchus, a small liquor store in a strip shopping center adjacent to The Northgate Mall. Bacchus changed ownership at the beginning of the year, and the new owners, Bob and Diann Georgitso are great people. You can call (or email) ahead and request specific beers and they will be ordered and held for your arrival. Bob is working to create a website, and will be spending more time online as soon as he can get a second phone line. About half of the beer business at Bacchus is from the North Georgia area, including Atlanta, with the other half being local beer enthusiasts with a lot of regular, repeat customers. Bob welcomes his Atlanta customers, and feels close ties to them, as he has a daughter that lives in Woodstock.
Even though the selection is small compared with the normal selection in beer stores, it’s all about the quality of what is offered, and not the number of beers carried. Bacchus features several beers by Stone (IPA, Imperial Stout, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Double Bastard, Smoked Porter, Ruination IPA) and Unibroue (La Fin Du Monde, Maudite, Don de Dieu, Trois Pistoles), plus offerings from Chimay, La Trappe, Corsendonk, Orval, Scaldis, and Huyghe (Delirium Tremens). Prices in Tennessee run to the high side, with a 22oz bomber of Stone ranging in price between $4.50 and $5.50 per bottle, plus another 9.25% for the Governor.
After making a few selections at Bacchus, including a three-liter bottle of Corsendonk Brown Ale ($45), we’re off again to our next stop to do some more shopping.
On a sparsely populated stretch of highway close to downtown Chattanooga you will come across this small building. Looking about the neighborhood may cause you some concern, but don’t worry, Ziggy’s rates highly on multiple biker websites as a friendly place to hangout. In front there is a liquor store and beer store, and in the back is the tavern. I have yet to check out the tavern, but have made several stops at the liquor store (the beers over 6% are only available in the liquor stores in Tennessee, and by law the beers stores and liquor stores have to be separate).
Ziggy’s has a slightly different product mix from Bacchus, and generally better prices, but each store has a better price on some of the same items. Ziggy’s gets a lot of customers that come in just for the beer, with a good mix of both local and out of state customers.
After a quick stop at Ziggy’s, we were loaded up with a few more choice selections, including 750ml bottles of Westmalle Triple for $5.89 each. Then it was time to hit the road again. Oh, and by the way, they were out of the Westmalle when I left, so you may want to call ahead to make sure they have restocked.
Downtown Chattanooga, in the aquarium vicinity down by the river, has become a tourist destination. Right in the middle of it all, in an old brick building turned trendy, you will find the Big River Brewing Company. This is the modern style brewpub with lots of wood beams, a high ceiling with exposed pipes and ductwork painted in black. Part of the same chain that owns Rock Bottom Brewery in Atlanta, Big River has a similar feel.
Big River features the typical brewpub lineup with about eight beers on tap ranging from the required light beer clone to an award winning stout. There is usually one seasonal available, changing every couple of months. They do offer a few commercial bottled beers, but Debbie, the bartender, says when someone tries to order one she tries to convert them to a house brew. It apparently works, as I only saw one bottle head out to the restaurant for every 10-15 pints of house brew. Even though a lot of people order the light beer, Debbie says that a fair number of people prefer the darker beers.
If you are looking for a big hoppy IPA or other beers to straighten your hair, this is not the place to go. But if you appreciate a nice malty beer, with subtle malt character, such as a Vienna lager with nice caramel and biscuit character, then you’ll be happy with what you find here. Over the last couple of years the beers here have been improving so much that I eagerly look forward to each new seasonal offering. The Scottish Ale that was on tap when I last visited in January was their best work to date. Not a big 8% scotch ale, but a nice session Scottish ale. Others tend to disagree with me on this place, but not every beer has to be as big as an Arrogant Bastard. But if an Arrogant Bastard is more to your liking, then head across the street to:
Just across the street from Big River is a Mellow Mushroom. Now, living in Sandy Springs back in the early 80’s when I first discovered Mellow Mushroom. It was a small hole in the wall pizza joint in a run down building. Yet the six-car parking lot contained BMWs and Cadillacs. My, how they have grown. This year old Chattanooga location is the largest and most polished location I have seen. No more old posters on the walls for decorations. This place has lots of oak, a large curved bar and highly professional looking decor, including the large mural of the mushroom driving the beer truck.
Even with all of the new and trendy looks, they still had the same Mellow Mushroom menu and food that I love, not to mention 40 taps and 85 bottles, including Arrogant Bastard at $6.50 per 22oz bottle. They used to carry more Stone products like the IPA, but Arrogant Bastard is the only one that had any notable sales. On draft, beside the usual suspects, was a lineup of Rocky River beers. Rocky River Brewery & Grille is a brewpub in Sevierville, TN. It’s an average lineup, but it’s interesting to see the beers traveling away from home.
Jennifer, who covers as both manager and bartender, said location is their biggest draw, but they have lots of regulars who come in for the beer, including one group that comes in once a week for pitchers of Rogue Dead Guy Ale. And I could believe it. When I arrived at 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday, the place was already full. By 6, when I left, the place was packed with no waiting room.
A couple of blocks down the road is Chattanooga’s version of the Taco Mac chain that blankets the Atlanta area. This is the fairly typical Taco Mac Sports bar including 51 taps and 190 bottles. Bottle selections include Chimay ($10/330ml), Corsendonk ($8/330ml), Delirium Tremens ($10/330ml), Unibroue ($5.50/355ml), Mendocino Eye of the Hawk (7.5% @ 3.75/12oz), Skull Splitter ($6/330ml), Petrus Old Brown ($4.75/8.4oz). They also had the Petrus on draft ($4.25/10oz), along with otherwise fairly standard selections. They used to carry the Corsendonk Brown Ale in the 3 liter bottles for $89, but not many people ordered one, so they stopped. An empty bottle stands behind the bar as a reminder. But if you absolutely must have one of these babies, pick it up at Bacchus for $45 and take it home to share with a good friend or three.
Talking with bartender team of Jodie and Scott I learned that a lot of people do come in for the beer. And beer sales have been increasing, especially since they started their new passport club. Theirs is similar to mug clubs at many beer bars. The deal is, you drink 125 different beers (bottles or draft) and you get a mug and t-shirt, plus your name on a plaque on the wall. The wall plaque had about 12 names so far, with room for another 10-15 before they need to hang another one.
At one point in the discussion we start talking about beer laws and alcohol percentages. Somehow the conversation turned to taxes. The sales tax in Tennessee is 9.25%. This is not just a sin tax for alcohol, but also the tax for everyday goods. So I learned, while we are traveling up to Tennessee to get beer over 6% in alcohol, the people in Tennessee are traveling down to Georgia to buy food and clothing with Georgia’s lower sales tax. No wonder I-75 is so busy in both directions!
A couple of blocks up from Taco Mac, on a quiet street, is what appears to be an old deserted house, falling down from neglect. Closer inspection reveals stacks and stacks of beer bottles (mostly Bud) on the front porch, under a painted sign on the window that reads "Stone Lion Tavern --- We Recycle". Once you’re that close, you also notice the line of empty Rogue bottles lining the window, and you become curious. As you approach the door, you see three, much smaller signs. The signs say "No Cloves!", "No Patchouli!", and "No hippies!". Signs, signs, everywhere are signs. So I tucked my hair up under my hat and went in to ask for a beer.
The inside of the place does not disappoint from the first impressions you get from the outside. There’s a small room, with a bar that seats about six people, 3-4 tables, and a TV up on the wall. Notice a small alcove on one of the walls with a six-foot stack of cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Layers and layers of old signs and posters gathered during the years this place has been around decorate the walls. The ceiling beams are covered with Guinness and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale keg top labels. Upstairs you’ll find a patio and deck where a few more people can squeeze in during the busier times and warmer months. No food is sold at the Lion, but they have a microwave available downstairs and you are welcome to bring in your own.
Here it is on a Saturday night, about 7 p.m., and there are 6 people in the place, half of which have a 16 oz. can of PBR in their hand. This is a late night place, and we are way too early. But, John, the bartender, welcomes us in and invites us to have a seat. And that’s when I see that a large cooler filled with a wide variety of beers takes up half of the space behind the bar. A 22 oz. bomber of Dead Guy catches my eye and I ask for one of those. "$4.25," John says as he hands me the bottle. What a deal, I think, as I pay up, grab a couple of big red plastic cups that are stacked up on the bar, and go over to a table and have a seat. As I pour up the Dead Guy, our photo editor, Matt Simpson, checks with John, then begins to take a few pictures for this article. After the flash goes off a couple of times, one of the locals at the far end of the bar looks up and angrily asks if my companion just took his picture. A few heated words are exchanged, and I’m thinking, here I am in the middle of a New Jersey Yankee and a PBR-swilling Southern redneck with my hair tucked up under my hat. But John jumps in and said he okayed the pictures, and to turn around if he didn’t want his picture taken. The local soon pays up and leaves. And the rest of us had a fine time talking about beer, PBR, travel, local laws, places to drink, and playing with the pencils on the Group W Bench. (You really have to visit to understand.) You could not ask for a friendlier place. It is obvious that everyone knows each other well, as this is the type of place where everyone knows your name.
While talking with the local crowd, I learn a few things about the Stone Lion, the 2nd oldest pub in downtown Chattanooga. First, it happens to be celebrating its 15th anniversary this summer (June 12th to be exact). Several people mentioned at various points during the evening how the Stone Lion was the number one seller of PBR in the state of Tennessee. And seeing how they were selling 16oz cans for 1.75 (1.25 up until 7pm), I can see why all the PBR drinkers would come to this place. You can also get Schlitz malt liquor (the bull) in a 16oz can for $1 all day long. Other domestics are $2. But I splurge and go for another 22oz Dead Guy, even though they have gone up to $5.25 now that it’s after 7pm and no longer happy hour. On draft there are also selections like Guinness, Bass, and Redhook (Blackhook and Winterhook). It’s surprising to see such a good beer selection in this place that prides itself on its PBR sales, yet John says that a lot of people come in for the better beers. Since the Stone Lion does not have a liquor license, they also don’t have any beers over 6%; those come through the liquor distribution channel. Still, this is a great place to have a Dead Guy anytime.
The Beer Cellar is a website covering the beer scene in the Southeastern United States. You can find them at www.TheBeerCellar.com.
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