Brian Connatser, Head Brewer Owner of Sleepy Owl Brewery poses with his wife Heather and sons Dylan, in blue and Brady. Photo by David Grace
KINGSPORT — Brian Connatser has an idea some people believe will bring fresh money into downtown Kingsport.
He’s the brains behind Sleepy Owl Brewery, a craft beer startup business planning to open next spring on Main Street in a section of the former Kingsport Chamber of Commerce building.
“I have been a home brewer for a number of years,” Connatser said. “I really got seriously into home brew two years ago, and started going to beer festivals and competing in different categories. ... We’re not looking at bottling or canning (beer) the first couple years at least. Really what we want to do is let me take my hobby of home brewing and let it be something Northeast Tennessee could enjoy. ... We will have staple brews on tap. ... We’re not going to do food, but it allows people to come in and taste our beer. ... We would have a brewery with a tap room and live music, family and dog-friendly. ... We just need help promoting it. We’re financing everything ourselves.”
Connatser, a software engineer who works out of his Bristol home, has some advocates in high places.
“We’ve finally got a guy who’s willing to take a risk and come down here, and we really need to get behind him. If he’s successful, I think more (craft brewers) will follow,” Miles Burdine, the chamber’s president and CEO, recently told members of the Kingsport Economic Development Board.
KEDB members believe Connatser’s brewery could be a hook to bring more young people to the downtown area. According to craftbrewingbusiness.com, craft beers have found a way to appeal to 49 percent of millennials and 40 percent of Gen-Xers. The website also noted beer drinkers aged 36 to 47 are slightly less likely than consumers aged 21 to 35 to show a preference for the taste of craft beer.
There is also hope Kingsport could duplicate the success Asheville, N.C., has had in attracting multiple craft beer breweries that have marked the tourist town as the hub of North Carolina’s so-called “Ale Trail.”
But KEDB members have expressed concern Tennessee’s alcohol laws could make their hopes go flat.
One worry is based on restrictions involving higher-alcohol content beer.
“Tennessee is so restrictive on their alcohol license that breweries just won’t locate here,” Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips told KEDB members. “And none of our legislators want to be known as the ‘alcohol legislator’ so you’re not going to get that changed. They’re willing to do the wine in grocery stores (legislation). That’s about all they are willing to tackle right n o w. ”
Still, Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission Director Keith Bell said there’s a healthy craft beer market in Nashville and Knoxville.
“I’m not sure what the hindrance of the state law is because with breweries, the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) does not have jurisdiction or authority over beer if it is less than 5 percent (alcohol) by weight which is equivalent to 6.2 percent by volume. ... Most craft breweries produce less than that. ... Unless it is over that amount of alcohol content, the ABC does not have authority over it. If a brewery does wish to produce a product over that amount of alcohol content, then we would have jurisdiction.”
Bell insisted the market for so-called “low gravity beer” is really up to local people.
“What Tennessee offers is much more business friendly than what Asheville offers as far as craft beer goes,” Bell said.
Connatser, however, said higher alcohol “high gravity beer” is sold in both North Carolina and Virginia.
Phillips observed a brewery nowadays appears to be a “very important part” of a downtown area’s appeal.
Jeff Fleming, the city’s assistant city manager for development, told KEDB members he had a hard time grasping the concept that brewing beer is manufacturing.
“If we help this manufacturer incubate and grow in supply, ... as he grows he could sell to other distributors,” Fleming said of Connatser.