It’s a nice day for mid-July—about 85 degrees and sunny—as I sit on a shaded second-floor porch in rural Sparta, Tennessee with affable brothers Don and Dave Sergio. The open-air porch, like the brewery adjoining it, was hand-constructed by the two industrious thirtysomethings, and so were the beers that each of us keep within arm’s reach.
I’m here to interview the two Sergios, founders of Calfkiller Brewing Company, about their brewery and their beer. To date their brews have been distributed only within a three-county radius in the state’s Upper Cumberland region—including the city of Cookeville—but later this month Calfkiller beer will make the push westward to Nashville.
Our conversation is backed by droning insect chatter and the occasional sound of car tires negotiating the road that bends around Don’s house and the brewery behind it. We’ve been talking for about 30 minutes when Dave asks, “Can I stop for a second?”
“Sure,” I say, pausing my recorder just as Don asks his brother, earnestly, “Do you have to pee?”
“I do,” Dave answers.
“I do too,” Don says.
Separated by three years, the siblings at times seem more akin to fraternal twins with their ability to read each other and pick up where the other leaves off in a story or sentence. Talk of family, whether immediate relatives in Sparta or extended branches in Minnesota and Wisconsin, surfaces a lot, and after spending a few minutes with Don and Dave it’s no surprise that they are in the beer brewing business together.
But that wasn’t always the case. For years, signs pointed toward the two working together in some endeavor but they struggled to find quite the right fit. As employees in the family construction business, the brothers spent years working side by side and collecting leftover—or just plain left behind—materials that caught their attention: windows, doors, industrial dishwasher parts, timbers from Fall Creek Falls State Park—objects they hoped one day would again find purpose.
Eventually the construction business grew to the point where the two were split, traveling to different sites with separate crews. Disheartened by working apart, they searched for another business opportunity. Both drummers, the brothers considered opening a drum company, but that never materialized. Dave’s hobby of repairing cars was another idea, but Don wasn’t fully on board.
“I love cars, I just don’t like working on them,” Don says with a wide smile.
In fact, the perfect venture was there all along. Since 2001, Don and Dave had been brewing beer together for fun, consciously unaware that the joint project they were looking for was already underway.
“We just kept making beer and kept enjoying the process and kept enjoying the beers and, you know, just kind of being together,” Dave says.
“We didn’t even think about [brewing] as much [as a business opportunity],” says Don. “We were thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s do this, the drum company.’ … [With] the beer thing we were just, ‘Oh, let’s brew again.’ And then it was like, ‘Oh crap! Hey! We both like this.’ ”
On July 18, 2010, the Sergios brewed their first batch of beer as professional brewers. (“That sounds weird—‘professional brewers,’ ” Dave insists when I use the term during our discussion.) That initial 200-plus gallons of their flagship Grassroots Ale was sold nearly a decade after the duo entered the homebrewing hobby at the suggestion of a cousin named Doug, who was making his own beer at home in Wisconsin.
The brothers were quick studies in 2001, rapidly progressing from 5-gallon batches made with malt extract to a more advanced, mashed-grain brewing technique after only two batches. Soon they doubled the size of their brewing capacity and made lots (and I mean lots) of beer for friends, family, weddings and other special events. In 2006 they decided it was time to make a business of it.
“The tipping point was just the feedback on the beers that we’d make for people,” Don says. “We came up with a great name and logo. Then all of a sudden it was, ‘You know, I think we could do it.’ ”
Opening the first legal brewery in the city of Sparta (with a population of just over 5,000) didn’t come without its challenges. The Sergios, who use the tagline “revolution in every mug” for their handcrafted beer, were seemingly undaunted by the prospect, paperwork and politics.
“A lot of people, they’d search out larger things to go do where there’s more [population] base and whatnot, and that’s probably smart,” Don says. “But I don’t know, it seemed like the right thing to do. It’s like, well, maybe nobody has done this before here in this goofy little town but we like the goofy little town and we live here.”
“We weren’t born here but we came at an early enough age that we do feel that this is our home,” Dave adds. “We love the area. We love the town itself. There are a lot of great people.”
The siblings highlight the town’s car shows and bluegrass events as favorite amenities. The Sparta Beer Board, who denied the Sergios’ request for a manufacturing license—twice—probably ranks a bit lower in their view. A lawsuit against the city was required to clarify the reading of the law, which ultimately favored the Sergios and permitted the formation of Calfkiller Brewing Company. Even when recounting the tale—an 11-month process complete with a favorable opinion from the state attorney general that the brothers say was discounted by Sparta city officials—Don and Dave remain upbeat.
“We enjoy having the struggle too,” Don says. “It’s enjoyable to fight what you think is a good fight. To not have everything right out there for you to just go ahead and do. It’s like, ‘No, you’ve got to sue the city because they don’t believe what the law says.’ ”
It’s clear their love of Sparta is genuine, though, and they have no plans to leave. In fact, they hope to expand their operation, opening a bar (“specializing in beers and burgers,” Dave says as if imagining the restaurant’s signage) in downtown Sparta. If it’s a brewpub, an added bonus of the location would be the ability to continue using their current water source—the Calfkiller River from which they take their brewery name.
For now, their brewery is appointment only, but they see quite a bit of traffic during the course of daily operations.
“We have older women, older men come by and say, ‘We’re so proud of you guys. Keep on doing good work,’ ” Don says.
“There are even people that don’t drink beer, who have never drank beer, who still support us because of the fact that we were following something that we thought was necessary, that we wanted to do,” Dave says. “They kind of stood behind that.
“The thing is if we can do something to, at some point, help Sparta—whether it be people just coming here to try the beer and then stay around and freakin’ love the place—”
Don interjects: “There’s a lot of pretty things here for people to see and there’s a lot of things that Sparta has to offer that we really care about.”
With legal recognition from the city of Sparta, the Sergios began construction of their brewery in June 2007. Many of those materials collected over the years—the windows, the doors, the industrial dishwasher parts, the timbers from Fall Creek Falls—found a place inside the building project, which expanded a small barn into a full-fledged brewery over the course of two years.
“There are probably few breweries in America that are as green as we are,” Don says. “We may be the 431st biggest microbrewery in America but we are probably No. 1 as far as recycled parts.”
The two-story structure, which looks like an avante-garde barn, comprises brewing equipment, fermenters, an upstairs grain-milling room, the aforementioned porch, a cold room for beer conditioning, and a tasting area with lots of Calfkiller and general beer memorabilia.
Speaking of tasting, I quickly learned that Don and Dave make some very drinkable beer. During my visit I was treated to a pint each of the Ye Olde Calfkiller Quazi—a stylistic mish-mash that the brothers rightly say is “almost like every beer, but unlike any beer”—and the J. Henry Original Mild, which goes down way easier than its amber-brown color suggests.
Surprisingly, every beer Calfkiller brews is fermented with the same Belgian-style yeast, a fingerprint of sorts stamped upon all of the Calfkiller offerings. While recent changes in Tennessee beer law allow breweries to apply for a license to brew above the long-standing beer/liquor dividing line of 6.2 percent alcohol by volume, the Sergios claim the new legislation has little to no impact on their plans.
“I could care less if we make anything over 6.2 [percent],” Don says. “Most of our beers are right at 6.”
“Here’s a music analogy,” he continues. “The Beatles made great albums, right? They had two-track [recording] at the beginning, four-track somewhere in between and at the max, eight tracks. So you have to figure out what you’re going to do with the eight tracks. Now they have unlimited tracks and the music blows. So c’mon man, let’s rock out with the Beatles.”
With six genre-defying recipes in their stable, Don and Dave’s focus is restricted to supplying draft-only service, but the possibility of bottling their beer hasn’t been ruled out. The duo, who used to turn out a whopping 50 gallons on a Saturday during their homebrew days, produced an impressive 100 barrels (3,100 gallons) of beer in the first quarter of 2011, with a projected 400 barrels for the year.
Part of that increased production will find its way to Nashville, where fans who sampled Calfkiller beers at the East Nashville Beer Festival in April 2011 will get to enjoy full pints without the nearly two-hour commute to Sparta. According to Dave, Calfkiller had no intentions of serving its beer on a regular basis in Nashville when it agreed to attend the festival; the brewery simply wanted to make an impression. Based on the buzz among Nashville beer enthusiasts about Calfkiller’s launch event this Friday, July 22, at Nashville’s 12 South Taproom, the brothers accomplished their goal. Calfkiller will take over six taps at the 12th Avenue South beer bar, presumably offering attendees a chance to order from its entire lineup of regular offerings.
“Making this new step for us, into the Nashville market, is going to be kind of cool,” Dave says. “It’s going to be something we never really looked at the first year. When we put our plan together it was like, ‘All right, cool we’ll just be around [Sparta].’ ”
With the help of Nashville-based distributors Bounty Bev, Calfkiller will be able to expand to three accounts in Nashville by the end of July, with two taps at 12 South Taproom and one tap each at East Nashville watering holes Cooper’s on Porter and Village Pub & Beer Garden.
Meanwhile, as the three of us sit on a porch in Sparta and talk beer, Don—the elder Sergio—succinctly sums up why the brothers love the hobby-turned-business. And, I suppose, why others are ultimately drawn to Calfkiller beer.
“It’s artistic. It’s fun. It’s beer.”
View photos of Calfkiller Brewing Co., Sparta, Tenn.: