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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Beer with a Brewmaster: Wesley Keegan of TailGate Beer

By Matt Kelsey


The time to tailgate in the Music City is now!

TailGate Beer owner Wesley Keegan has brought his award-winning craft beer to West Nashville and it’s already a hit with the locals. After attending his brewery’s grand opening, I visited with Mr. Keegan to discuss his brewing background, to find out more about the tailgating superfans featured on his Artisan Series of beer and to learn how his brewery bucks Music City beer trends by featuring great local beers every day of the week.

What did you think of the grand opening for TailGate Beer?
It was packed, just nuts to butts, the entire time. We have parking for 200 here and people were parking on the street, and walking up the hill to come in. It was great, super humbling, overwhelming and better than we could have asked for. It was a total success.

How did you get your start in the alcohol industry?
As the story goes, I was working at a bar, bartending, and worked my way up to a manager, but I was also a homebrewer. I homebrewed because my friends did. I kept doing it and I liked it. Again, it was all ahead of the craze, so it wasn’t too common. When I had beer, I would give it to my dad. My dad didn’t drink, but he had a lot of coworkers who did and they loved it. He came up with the name, TailGate Beer, in 2004. He sat on it for a couple of years and Anheiser Bush originally contested it. He won that and he thought I should make a business out of it.

As far as my background goes, I just brewed beer so I could hang out with my friends and I liked to drink it. It wasn’t this phenomenon that it is today.

Did you have any experimental homebrew batches?
Right away, when we started brewing, the economy just started tanking. When I started buying things, I funded everything off Visa and American Express. I put myself through college, I had a good job, but not enough to build a business off it. When my dad gave me the name, that was it. I had bought enough to brew some beer, but I had to make sure I could make that money back. And then I had to brew it again, because that worked. That said, we had a lot of screw-ups. We made a really good American wheat for a lot of years, but one time we were brewing it and we fermented it way too hot and used the wrong yeast. We came out with this Bavarian-style wheat, which was fantastic. It tasted great, because it had banana, coriander and cloves. I loved it.

A lot of times, the experimentation, for us, became the byproduct of us just going through the ups and downs. Fortunately, we rarely made something that wasn’t a good thing. If it wasn’t good, we dumped it out. We wouldn’t ever try and force something out that we weren’t proud of.

How would you describe your beer?
Our main beer, that we brew in Wisconsin, really is on the lighter end of things, and that was the product of being in Southern California. Here, you call it high-grav, but in California, it was just beer. Everything was super high in alcohol in Southern California. It was just a hops race. In San Diego, an 11% beer was normal. So, we came out with lighter beers, because we had found we were early to can, we were early to do something besides a hop bomb and get on a session trend, before it became a trend. By and large, you could look at those beers, that we can on an international level as a mild, gateway style of session craft beer. That’s what it’s intended to be. I think that our style is most clearly seen out of the beers that we’re doing in Wisconsin, because the beers that we’re going to do here aren’t necessarily going to have a style. They’re going to be really creative.

Which of your beers is your flagship?
The blonde is our flagship, right now. The easiest way I can answer that question is when we got to 2013, we made the decision that we were going to relocate. We were making three nationally released products at the same time and we were starting a new series that was a quarterly release, then we had a small-batch program going on and we were trying a lot of different stuff. To relocate, we really tried to simplify everything, from our reach in distribution to our menu: All of the above. That forced us to assess what our best sellers are.

When we looked, we found that Blacktop Blonde, far and away, is our best seller. It filled a market void, because there’s tons of pales, tons of IPAs and those are the No. 1 sellers in craft beer, but it’s rare to find a gold that doesn’t stink; that doesn’t have a bad aftertaste. It’s really hard to hide flaws in lighter beers. That’s why the domestics use things like rice and corn, because malts, in general, create an odor, and it’s really hard to make it a non-offensive odor or to find a hop combination that’s not going to overpower it or make it a pale ale. It’s a complicated beer. That’s certainly our best seller and I would probably call it our flagship.

The Session IPA is our second-best seller. That’s what we came with to Nashville and what we’re building on. These are the two that we deliberately scaled down to, because we knew those were the ones that could sustain the move and the expense and the build at this level.

What are your upcoming seasonals?
Nashville is a very seasonal city, in most respects. We’ll find out about beer. Craft beer, in my experience, is not quite so seasonal, any more. When I started, it was very seasonal. I don’t know if the Peanut Butter Milk Stout is going to be a seasonal, just because the demand is so hot for it. I know we’re working a lot and we’re R&Ding a pumpkin beer. I’ve got a great pumpkin I did a few years ago, that I loved. It was super spicy, very floral, we called it The Pumpkin Pie. It smelled and tasted like pumpkin pie. It was fantastic. I want to do that, this year, it just depends on the scale that we do it. We want to try to brew seasonally responsive beers, but also in anticipation of our future releases.

One of the next releases that we’re working on getting into cans is our Orange Wheat. I hope that we get it out this year, but it depends. Again, we try to be responsive and it’s difficult, when you get to that size. When I go to 250 barrels, you’ve got to have to have a home and a plan for that, because at the end of the day, it’s beer and you need to be able to move it, otherwise it goes bad. So, a lot of the seasonal stuff and the creativity is going to come out of here and everything that comes out of Wisconsin is designed to be a volume product.

What kind of beers do you foresee pouring at the brewery in the near future?
Right now, in our tasting room, we’ve got 25 taps: One dedicated handle to every local brewery, one nitro handle and one cider handle. Those handles will change, every time a keg blows. For example, our nitro handle is always different. We’ve even done a Nitro Blacktop Blonde before, which was cool. It’s funny, out here, Nitro is so new, when people talk about Nitro beer, it’s almost like magic. We’re totally into Nitro and we’ll always have different cask beers going. I want to do a thing, like every Thursday, where it’s a Tap That Cask kind of thing, where we tap a new cask and we kill it that night.

Will you be brewing and pouring high-gravity beers at your brewery?
The TABC is full of great people who are super nice, but the process is really difficult and convoluted. You can ask the ABC one question and they’ll say, ‘It’s low gravity and we have zero jurisdiction over it.’ Then you can ask the beer board if it’s high-grav and they’ll say, ‘We don’t care.’ I know somebody does. Shouldn’t you? I come from a world where you make high-gravity beer, but I’m also in business. I have to make business decisions, sometimes. I really, really want to make high-grav. It’s been a very burdensome process, unfortunately. I’m working on it. I’d like to be able to serve high-grav here. I’d like to be able to serve wine. I know there’s a lot of corollaries between wine and beer. I’d love to be able to serve high-quality bourbons and whiskies. I want to, but it’s not my call. At the end of the day, if it’s going to hurt us, It’s not something I want to do.


Since moving to Tennessee, what’s your perspective of the Nashville craft-beer scene?
Well, I came to town before I made the decision to relocate here. I’ve got some family out here and I did a ton of research, because I didn’t want to come into a market that wasn’t going to be receptive of new entries or wasn’t a little bit developed. I’ve met almost everybody at all the local breweries, here. Great people. Super friendly. Very communal. I find that the newer guys are easier to reach, because they’re out doing it. I can appreciate when you’re on the bigger level, your phone doesn’t stop ringing, when you’re dealing with retailers or events or things like that. We’re kind of in that funky zone where we’re building a bigger space, but we’re still playing at a high level. But everybody’s been great.

Why do you think Nashville has a booming craft-beer scene?
It’s next. If we got into a time machine and we drove 88 mph back to Phoenix 2010, Phoenix reminds me of Nashville. They had about this many breweries. It was still kind of new. The bars were still serving a lot of domestics. If they had eight tap handles, four of them go to domestic and the other four rotate through the locals. Then that became two domestic and six locals. And then lot of them thought they could double their draft space by installing five-barrel kegs in their cooler. That’s happening here. A lot of the same things that I’ve seen happen in Phoenix, Connecticut, Minnesota and to some extent in San Diego, it’s all happening here. As exciting as it is, here in Nashville, I think the trend has finally come here.

Do you foresee attending any local beer festivals? You could bring your small-batch beers.
Yeah, totally. We’ll always have the canned stuff available, but in general, with beer fests, we’re pretty selective on them. That one is controversial for me. I think that there are so many that are such a money grab. There are so many people within the beer-festival industry and they run one festival a year and that’s their income. In general, they’re really bad for the industry. But as a whole, there’s a couple of really good ones. Specifically in Nashville, we had a great time last year at the Preds fest. The guys at Rhizome do a great job. I think that was our first one. There’s a couple of those that we’ll participate in, for sure. With that said, we’re going to have festivals, every month, at the brewery. I call them anti-fests.

Who’s the guy featured on your Dodgy Knight Artisan Series of beers?
That was something we started a couple of years ago. The idea was it was going to be released once a quarter and we were going to use actual people on the cans. That guy on the Dodgy Knight can is a person from London — Oxford, actually. He is one of the bigger football fans in Europe. We wanted to get a caricature of these tailgate superfans and partner them with a beer that made sense with their profile. He’s super nice. He’s a schoolteacher who’s tailgated in the U.S. a couple of times. Once he realized I was trying to tribute him and the industry of superfans and not make money off him, he was good with it. We have some other people we want to feature, but with the costs of developing new cans and the timeline when we relocated, the project’s taken a back burner. We are doing another installment of the Dodgy Knight, this year. The next time we do another superfan release, it’ll be something totally different.

Do you have any plans to tailgate at different colleges with TailGate Beer, next year?
Oh, yeah. I’ve tailgated at some of the best venues in the U.S. even though we didn’t sell in the South before moving to the South. One of my goals this year was to visit every SEC stadium, but we got so busy building. The biggest thing that predicates my travel is if we have distribution in that market. I know this year we’re probably going to expand, based on some of our retailers. We’ve been asked to go to Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky. If we can support it appropriately, we will do it and it will open up some of those opportunities.

There’s a lot of things we’re going to do, here, too. I want to put up a projector screen out back, so when the weather is good in the Fall, we can watch games outside, we’ll be tailgating, we’ll have food, drinks and a great place to hang out. If you can’t drive four or five hours to Tuscaloosa, hang out here with us. We’ve got good beer, we’ve got the game on, it’s an all-ages event.

What does 2015 bring for TailGate Beer?
A lot of building. We’ve got such a huge property, that we’re pretty much always under permanent construction, all the way into the Summer of 2016, but a lot of things are just happening as the result of traffic. We’ve already started some projects, here, that I didn’t think we’d start for another six months. But, the more people that come out, the easier it is to pay for those things. I’ve got my long-term plans and I know what I’m doing tomorrow, but what happens in the next three to six months can quickly change. I really want to bring out Orange Wheat. I know that this year we’re going to do a lot of construction, a ton of different, creative brewing, we’re adding to our exports, we’re working with a lot of great retailers and most of our domestic focus is going to be on Nashville.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The message we try to really deliver is from a tasting-room standpoint and a brewery standpoint. I think the city is really lacking availability. A lot of the tasting rooms aren’t open daily. Most of the people I’ve talked to say that when Yazoo opened, there was a lot of conflict with the bars. I get it. It’s like that in every market, when the craft breweries start getting bigger. But as the market matures, they realize that when people come here and they like their product, they’re going to ask for it at those bars. It’s not a competitive thing - it’s just a different thing.

So, I understand the way the market evolved and Linus did something incredibly intelligent in the way he set it up, but I don’t think breweries having tasting rooms is bad for bars and restaurants. Our No. 1 question when people visit our Tasting Room is where can I get this in town? We’re open every day. We serve beer from every local brewery - we’re the only one that does that! We have food. Outside of Blackstone, that has a great restaurant, we’re the only one that has that. We just want to make ourselves available, not only as a resource for ourselves, but to the other local breweries. If you come here, you’re going to spend the day drinking craft beer. You know it’s not going to be the same this week as it was last and we’re still going to feature everybody but our own. I’m not naive enough to think we’re the only good brewery out there.

For more information about TailGate Beer, visit their website here.


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