Hall of Fame beer: Yazoo emerges as Nashville favorite

Friday, September 12, 2008 at 1:07am
Linus Hall (above) and his wife, Lila, opened Yazoo Brewing Co. five years ago this October, and locals have embraced the beer ever since.

On a recent muggy day, Yazoo beer creator Linus Hall — happily working within the tight confines of his even steamier beverage-crafting space — grasps what appears to be a rowing oar.

Hall plunges the oar into a vat of grain brewing within a sweet bubbly liquid and stirs vigorously. Surrounding the brewmeister are massive pieces of equipment that chill, ferment, carbonate, keg and bottle the businessman’s various Yazoo beers. Towering fermenters, which can weigh 12,000 pounds when bloated with beer, dominate the space.

To those beer-making novices unfamiliar with the intense process of mashing, sparging, boiling and fermenting, the six-ton structures seem ready to burst or at best spring a leak.

“That would be bad,” Hall says with a chuckle of the possibility of a beer mash overflow. “If it has ever happened, I have repressed those memories.”

Hall has never, however, repressed his appreciation for the success Yazoo Brewing Co. has enjoyed.

Five years ago this October, he and wife Lila (the company’s bookkeeper and designer of the eye-catching Yazoo logo) started brewing in Marathon Village, while serving their liquid concoctions in a small adjacent space called The Tap Room.

The business quickly took off, as locals embraced with gusto both the brew and tavern. Sales began to go up as nicely as a Yazoo Hefeweizen goes down. In fact, the percentage of annual sales has doubled each year since, with 2007 including 6,000 barrels sold and about $1 million in revenues generated.

In the process, Hall has created a local favorite. Its Delta theme notwithstanding, Yazoo might be Nashville’s 21st century equivalent of the GooGoo Cluster or Maxwell House Coffee.

“You’d be surprised how much you can get done if you don’t know it is impossible,” said Hall, who prefers craft beers but occasionally quaffs a cold Bud or PBR. “I think we were in the right place at the right time. Nashville had some great brewpubs, but if you wanted that same quality, small-batch beer at anywhere else but a brewpub, you were out of luck. We knew that if it was locally brewed, people would give it a try. And if it was a quality beer, they’d be back for more.”

Hall has earned his success through humility and honest toil. Nashvillians know a Yazoo Pale Ale or Dos Perros is a tasty beverage, but they may not realize crafting the golden brew is down-and-dirty work.

“You’re working with a lot of boiling hot liquids, live steam pipes, and hazardous cleaning chemicals,” Hall said. “There’s a lot of heavy lifting. Full kegs weigh about 160 pounds each. Bottling is very labor intensive, as we hand-pack every case of beer.”

Hall is more than a skilled hobbyist who turned his passion into a thriving business; he holds a craftbrewing degree from the American Brewers Guild in Sacramento, Calif.

To minimize the loud, monotonous volume of the machinery, Hall and his employees blast up-tempo music.

“But you can’t lose focus on what you are doing and zone out, like you can with other kinds of manual work,” Hall said.

No doubt, “zoning out” in the bowels of a brewery is unacceptable. There is too much expensive apparatus. Too much noise. And too much Zahm-Nagel, a bulky contraption that tests beer carbonation and costs about $1,200.

“You have to fill it with beer and then shake the [daylights] out of it to get an accurate reading,” Hall said. “We even have a theme song (sung with the cadence of the K.C. and the Sunshine Band ditty referencing your booty): “Shake-shake-shake, shake-shake-shake, shake your Zahm-Nagel.”

Hall is capable of shaking and baking on the fly. The Friday after Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Delta, the Yazoo team hastily decided to donate all taproom sales to the American Red Cross. Members of the local media aided in publicizing the effort.

“As soon as we opened the doors, we were slammed,” said Hall, who once trained under the tutelage of Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Brewery. “We have the most generous patrons. One regular dropped $200 on the bar for one beer, and refused to take any change. We wrote a huge check the next day to the Red Cross, and turning it over to the donation desk was one of the best feelings ever.”

Another “best feeling” involved a situation with one of Yazoo’s first customers, the owners of Family Wash. The Wash called Hall one Friday night just as he was preparing to leave the brewery.

“They asked if I would drop off a keg of Pale Ale on the way home, because they had just run out,” he recalled. “To have the band stop playing and people in the bar start cheering, when I came in the door with a keg of Yazoo beer, was an amazing and humbling experience.”

The Halls hail from Vicksburg, Miss. (yes, there’s a Yazoo City and a Yazoo River in the state), so the company’s packaging, Tap Room visuals and logo create, as Linus says, “a deep Delta funky folk-art feel.” Neil McCormick, the company’s sales and marketing manager, has aided that branding effort, Hall added.

With the Halls’ Tennessee ties now as deep as their Mississippi roots, Linus and Lila want to continue brewing in Nashville. But they need more space. A city zoning code that prevents non-grandfathered microbreweries from operating in Metro’s core frame/industrial zoning districts is expected to soon be amended, creating a chance for Yazoo to move. District 19 Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore has led the charge, earning Hall’s praise.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for craft breweries in the South right now,” Hall said, bracing to begin ‘Yazoo Year 6.’ “To paraphrase the little boy in The Sixth Sense, ‘We see thirsty people.’”

Yazoo Brewing Co.

The Tap Room

1200 Clinton St.

320-0920

yazoobrew.com

Filed under: Lifestyles
Tagged: