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600 beers in six years. Just to save you the math: that’s about two beers a week. Two unique beers a week that Crafty Bastard Brewery has put into the world and into our mouths since it opened its doors in downtown north in 2015. Just by the numbers, Crafty Bastard may be the best brewery in Knoxville for experimentation, but there’s no doubt it’s the scruffiest. In its stripped-down nano brew setup, Crafty creates a whole vibe—a celebration of substance over flash (basically the very essence of scruffy).
“It’s definitely the most West Knoxville that Crafty’s ever done; but it’s the most downtown thing that West Knoxville has ever seen.”
In all of its brewing, Crafty’s only committed to two mainstays: Hop Candy and Tessellation, both American IPAs. Oh, they have their frequent fliers—Earl Grey Pale Ale, Mayan Chocolate Chili Porter, Big Bastard Double IPA and Imperial Milk Stout to name a few—as well as some unique seasonals like the Picklebier (a Bailey Rose favorite), Pineapple Radler and White Arrow Pine Ale (oh yes, it’s made with real pine sprigs).
But let’s face it, folks. Of 600 beers, there’s less than 20 on repeat. That’s a Whole. Lot. Of. New. Beer. to try on any given week. It’s downright FOMO-inducing. And while that massive number might make it seem like Brewmaster Aaron McClain must be just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, there is a method to his madness.
“It all works in trials. We often start by muddling ingredients into different beers to see which beer is the best match for that particular ingredient,” Aaron says. “If the flavors work then we begin to dial in the exact proportions and ratios. Generally, once something actually makes it into a keg it’s pretty tasty.”
Aaron says ‘generally’ because there is an infamous pizza beer they still keep a keg of to hook up as a party joke every once in a while. Another wacky experimentation: the Smoky Mountain Shroom Ale, a beer made to mimic a dish of white-wine braised pork tenderloin with chantarelle mushrooms. Apparently, for better or for worse, it accomplished just that.
“Half a dozen people said it was the best beer they’ve ever had. The same amount say it’s the worst,” Aaron says.
Iteration compliments this experimentation, however, as evidenced by their beer Main Squeeze. Originally part of a series called Stratosphere, it took 18 versions before the Crafty crew settled on a New England IPA they were ready to make a serious commitment to and move in with.
“It’s juicy, fruity, hazy, all the things New England IPAs are supposed to be,” Aaron says. “But this particular batch was not just another number. So, Stratosphere 18 became our Main Squeeze.”
The Crafty crew has been making this all happen in what they call their accordion brewery, where the grain mill, fermenters and hop fridge roll into the open area by day and get folded back behind a chain fence when the doors open to the public each night. They’ve been making it work, but it’s a bit of a thing. They even had a small tap room out west for a while.
“We’ve been running out of beer since the day we were born,” Aaron says. “Losing our spot in Echelon Bikes out west during COVID was just the kick in the ass we needed.”
To open a second location, (now up and running!), they converted an industrial space at 9937 Kingston Pike—near the intersection with Pellissippi—into Crafty West. The space that maintains their scruffy vibe, with exposed brick and beams, but adds a few essential West Knox amenities like ample parking and a treelined outdoor seating area.
“It’s definitely the most West Knoxville that Crafty’s ever done,” Aaron says. “But it’s the most downtown thing that West Knoxville has ever seen.”
The new space might help out with our FOMO as well, since it gives Crafty five times the brewing capacity. According to Aaron, Crafty West will make the main stays while the OG Crafty will keep up the crazy experimentation. While there will be certain beers on tap both places, Crafty is sticking to its nature – keeping things nano, weird, tasty, and above all, friendly and grounded. The main aim at both taprooms is to create a space for people to meet.
“What I love about Knoxville—and dozens of people have told me the same thing—is that it’s the city where you are the most likely to have a great conversation with a stranger at a bar,” Aaron says. “It’s an extraordinarily friendly city.”
We’ve felt that friendliness at Crafty Bastard Brewery since day one, which is why its a frequent (and favorite) stop for our New2Knox Small Groups. We can vouch—it’s a great spot to drink beers, soak in all that is the Scruffy City, and turn strangers into friends. Been there. Done it. Repeated. And thanks to Aaron and the Crafty Bastard, we just got a little extra space for friendliness on the other side of town.
Oh, and can we highly recommend Candace “Ace” Preston’s origin story of the Crafty Bastard Brewery on Knox Brew Stories if you want to know more about this scruffy, friendly brewery!
Publish date: 15 July.
Images by: Emilie Stooksbury