Knoxville Brewfest highlights new beers, but our brewing tradition goes way back.
Beer became popular here with the immigration of German and Irish immigrants in the mid- 1800s. By 1869, Knoxville hosted two breweries, both on Second Creek.
The Union Brewery was located near the then-new National Cemetery (now on Tyson Street). According to an advertisement, proprietor Paul Sturm “keeps on hand a superior article of Ale and Fresh Lager Beer of his own Manufacture.”
Knoxville’s other pioneer brewery, less than half a mile downstream from Sturm’s, was called the Knoxville Brewery. It was located on Asylum Street, on the northern part of World’s Fair Park, across the creek from the iron foundry. It was run by Lucas (or Lewis) Graf, probably a German immigrant, who lived at the same address.
The city’s best-known brewery launched in 1886 as the Knoxville Brewing Association, which built a large brewery at the corner of Chamberlain and McGhee. That’s also on Second Creek, between downtown and Mechanicsville. Almost 200,000 square feet in floor space, the four-story plant had a corner turret that sported a pennant on top. A 2,100-foot-deep artesian well provided thousands of gallons daily of fresh, cold water. It employed about 40, and produced 25,000 to 40,000 barrels of beer per year, distributing to a six-state area. Their elaborate promotions included parade floats and medieval imagery.
After a reorganization in 1895, it became known as the New Knoxville Brewing Company, and after 1902, the East Tennessee Brewing Co. By then, they produced popular beers with the brand names Palmetto (“An Incomparable Brew for Home and Cafe”) and Shamrock Special—as well as a medicinal concoction called “Malt-a-Tonic.”
A few of Knoxville’s saloons were what we might call brew pubs: bars that sold beer produced on the premises. Daniel Dewine’s well-known bar on South Central sold beer in “growlers” for home consumption. Dewine did so well in the saloon business he turned his profits to charity and helped found East Tennessee’s first Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s.
In 1907, voters chose to close the city’s 106 saloons. The East Tennessee Brewery could keep producing beer, but only for consumption outside a four-mile radius of Knoxville. A statewide ban prohibited production of beer with significant alcohol content in 1910. The brewery adapted, offering low-alcohol “temperance brews” like Swanky and Old Pal Cream Brew. In 1912, the brewery was caught producing illegal high-alcohol beers. After that, the factory produced only ice and soft drinks.
An attempt to re-launch the brewery in 1936 ended in accusations of fraud. The abandoned brewery was mostly torn down in 1952. Now flattened, its site is beneath a tangle of highway overpasses.