By Jeff Keeling
John Edwards bends over a thick hose attached to the bottom of a 60-barrel (1,860-gallon) beer-brewing tank inside the former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (Tweetsie) railroad depot in downtown Johnson City. He’s waiting for the wort flowing through the hose, which will ferment over the next few weeks into a dark lager, to cool sufficiently so that when it enters the brewing tank, it won’t kill the yeast that will turn the grain-suffused, hop-infused liquid into beer.
When brewmaster Brandon Greenwood gives the word, Edwards will turn a knob and the wort will begin filling the tank – the sixth of 20 brewing tanks Yee-Haw Brewing Co. had active in the fermentation process as of last Thursday.
“Early July, for sure,” Yee-Haw’s majority owner, Joe Baker, said in answer to the question, ‘when will Yee-Haw’s products hit the market?’ When they do, and when White Duck Taco Shop opens in another section of the depot around the same time, the beautifully restored landmark that stood empty and dilapidated will be home to more than 40 new jobs, with closer to 60 expected when the craft brewery reaches full capacity.
A multimillion dollar, months-long construction project has taken the historic depot from a boarded-up state to a historically accurate replica of its active days as a depot, which stretch back nearly 125 years. Baker’s father, Gary, has helped lead those efforts, procuring old materials to accurately recreate areas such as the platforms, which hadn’t survived the ravages of time.
“It’s been a very substantial investment, and I think in the end as I look at it I wouldn’t have changed anything,” Baker said. “It would have been easy to cut some corners and save some money, but I think we’ve done right by the people of Johnson City to create something that is historically accurate and we’ve not compromised on quality. I think we had a big responsibility to make that building live up to its potential, and I think dad and the guys that have done the construction have done a great job for sure.”
Baker, who co-founded Sevier County-based Ole Smoky Moonshine five years ago, has redeveloped several downtown Johnson City buildings, including the former CC&O depot across State of Franklin Road from Yee-Haw. Crews are putting the finishing touches on the restaurant space, as well as a taproom between White Duck and the brewery proper that will serve Yee-Haw. A fire pit, wrap around porches and a bocce ball court are nearing completion.
The beer – the main varieties will be a pilsner (light lager), dunkel (dark lager), pale ale and an “80-shilling” Scottish ale – will be distributed to bars, restaurants and other on-premise retailers, and shipped in six packs throughout East Tennessee. With a brewing tank able to produce the equivalent of roughly 3,300 six packs, and fermentation taking around two weeks for ales and four for lagers, the operation could push out 1,500 to 2,000 barrels a month depending on varietal mix. That’s nearly 100,000 six packs.
“I think the on-premise business is going to be the most substantial part of our business early on, but as we get into the fall and winter I think you’ll see those numbers start to even out,” Baker said.
In the depot’s brewing area, Greenwood – on whose shoulders much responsibility for Yee-Haw’s long-term success rests – sifted milled grain husks through his fingers after pulling them from the bottom of a large vat, one of four used in the wort-making process.
An industry veteran, the Philadelphia-area native cut his teeth from 1999-2004 as brewmaster at Philly’s Nodding Head Brewery. His latest stop (2012-2014) was as a vice president of brewing at the country’s sixth-largest craft brewery, Lagunitas, where he helped the California-based company start up a Chicago operation. He’s feeling increasingly better about the product as it moves toward competing on East Tennessee store shelves and in bars with ever-increasing numbers of craft beer options.
“Every brew I feel better,” Greenwood said. “The first couple were rough.”
Moving from Lagunitas to Yee-Haw, he said, has been like changing to a car that takes a little more effort to drive but has more nuanced capabilities.
“It’s like I’ve been driving an automatic for awhile and now I’m driving a manual again, so I had to learn how to get comfortable with the clutch.”
The advantages, he said, come as he is able to use his senses to recognize the need for slight adjustments and then make them during the brewing process. “Manual puts the craft in craft.”
Back where taproom and restaurant customers will gather, Baker said with the platform seating included, the building probably will have room for a couple hundred people. Folks can relax on the Founders Park side of the building on the platforms or playing bocce, and watch as Norfolk Southern trains pass regularly – a reminder of the city’s genesis and the history that has drawn Baker ever further into investing here.
He said that allure seems to have White Duck owner Ben Mixson enthused about opening his fourth location here. Two are in Asheville and another is in Charleston, S.C.
“I think they’re excited about the growth over here,” Baker said. “Putting on my landlord hat, they’re excited about the space and really feel like it’s a good platform for their brand.”
As Yee-Haw hurtles toward opening, crews are also busy at the former Free Service Tire office building, a historic three-story structure across Wilson Avenue from the depot that Baker also purchased. His early plans for the building anticipate commercial office space on the upper floors and some sort of retail on the ground level. Like the depot, it is being renovated with an eye to its historic significance – it was a hotel before Free Service operated there.
“We have a number of folks that are interested in becoming involved in projects downtown. Hopefully we’ll be able to start announcing what that looks like over the next few months,” Baker said before adding with a grin: “I pulled in this morning and saw they were cutting windows out of the building, so apparently we’re not slowing down.”