Art of Craft ~ brews and reviews
By Greg Richardson



This month, with so many craft breweries and brewers uncertain about their futures, I asked my friend Lisa Wetherington Shirey about her brewery, Clinch River Brewing in Norris, Tennessee.

Lisa, could you please tell us the story of Clinch River Brewing?

Sometimes you look back and realize there was no trail of breadcrumbs to where you find yourself. One day you quit your job with your sight on selling it all and moving to a sailboat. The next day your husband, a confirmed serial entrepreneur, comes home from a cross country, 30-day, 7,000 mile trail ride on an on-road/off-road motorcycle and announces he wants to start a brewery. The sailboat… well, I am keeping that thought for another day. 

I am a firm believer that most of the time, despite the most impeccable planning, life unrolls as it will. We keep everything upright, but the direction is already in motion. What defines our failure or success is our attitude and our response to the peaks and valleys in our lives. So, when I look back, I clearly see that our footsteps were laid out for us long before we had any inkling of starting a brewery. 

Our marriage was one of, not just two people, but two cultures. My husband, who passed away in August of 2019, was from Louisiana. His life from birth was one of crawfish boils, Mardi Gras, and large gatherings of folks who knew how to entertain and have a good time. His travels all over the world as a pilot for Delta gave him a broad basis of experience in what constitutes good service and creates and grows loyal guests. 

I grew up on the coast of Maine with a family who loved to gather; parties, lobster bakes, boat picnics with crabmeat rolls and whoopie pies, and even winter skating parties and ski weekends. Our family loved, and still does, to feed people and entertain.

 My greatest influence in deciding on a brewery was my grandmother. She was a homebrewer before I even knew there was such a thing.  Some of my funniest childhood memories were of sitting in her living room and listening to beer bottles explode in the cellar. She was a kindhearted lady who knew how to make people feel at home and loved, and she did that by turning up the volume on Johnny Cash, and sharing her cooking and homebrew. 

But there were many more stepping-stones to lead us to opening Clinch River Brewing. From the beginning of our marriage we had talked about owning a little shrimp shack on a beach where all we served were pitchers of cold beer and Cajun boiled shrimp. Pretty simple business model by most standards. We hosted huge field parties at our farm in Kentucky, hosted big New Year’s Eve Volksmarches and hiking weekend potlucks, catered a national field trial event, ran a high school concession stand, and at one point owned a small deli. Later I started a food blog, and to this day still write a weekly article on food and life well lived, for our local paper.  Lots of small, seemingly unconnected things that make up a full life, and which bring us to where we are today. 

When we finally landed on the idea of the brewery, our niece, Alex, began to homebrew in earnest and immerse herself in the beer community here in the Knoxville area. She is our Assistant Brewer now. My husband mastered the technical side; infrastructure, equipment and processes, and I focused on the business plan, dealing with banks, applying for licenses and getting our house in order to open. Between the three of us we covered most of the bases in the early stages.

From our contacts in the local brewing industry we met Jordan Skeen, who would become our head brewer. She had been at a small local brewery here in Knoxville, and then Oscar Blues in Brevard, NC. We added a phenomenal chef, Brandon Cruze to our team to round out our offerings. 

Finally, we purchased a former Tennessee Valley Authority Aquatics Lab to house our brewery, taproom, event area and kitchen. We have an amazing space, including a large spring-fed trout pond in the middle of our beer garden. It a place where folks love to hang out and we have settled into being a community meeting place for folks of all ages… 4-94. Many have fond memories of working at the TVA Aquatics lab or visiting on a field trip as children. It is truly our team and our community that bring meaning to what we do every day.

When was the first time you brewed beer, and what did you brew? What got you started? 

To be clear, I don’t brew. We have an amazing all-female brew team for that. Hiring an all-girl team was not intentional, it just happened. But they are an amazing voice for the promotion of women in the brewing industry and fill leadership rolls on the local and national level in the brewing industry. I am immensely proud of them. 

But the first time I brewed was as a child with my grandmother. I remember a big old crock with a cover and there was always something bubbling in it. Her usual beer was an ale, with a remarkably similar taste to Ballentine ale of that time. 

Do you have a favorite beer to brew, and to drink? Which ones, and why?

My favorite beer to drink is our Brown Ale, called “29 ½ Pound Brown”. It was my husbands signature beer and named after the record-breaking 29 ½ pound trout taken out of the Clinch River in Tennessee, which is right across the road from our brewery. I love it because, first, it tastes wonderful, but second because of the history associated with our community and the fact that it is a tribute to my late husband. It is our flagship beer to be sure. 

What is the brewing experience you enjoy the most?

Let’s face it, since I don’t brew, the experience I enjoy most is watching the smiles on our guests faces as they enjoy a beer beside the trout pond on a warm spring day when the dogwoods are in full bloom. Surrounded by friends and family, you can see the happiness on their faces. 

Do you have a favorite beer-food pairing? 

S’mores cooked over the firepit in the beer garden, accompanied by a pint of 29 ½ pound brown.

What is your favorite music to listen to with a great beer, or why you brew some?

My favorite music to listen to while enjoying a great beer is Chris Stapleton. He’s mellow, heartfelt, a little bluegrass, a whole lot of Kentucky and Tennessee, and enough outlaw to keep it real. 

How does brewing and craft beer reflect or strengthen spiritual life for you? How do you experience spiritual life?

I best experience spiritual life in community, doing very ordinary things. The community table and what we each share to make that gathering possible. It takes all kinds of folks to make anything good and creative happen and when each is gathered, doing what they love and do best, it is truly a moving and spiritual experience. 

What is the most significant lesson brewing beer has taught you?

Well, not just one, but two things come to mind. One, everything takes time. I know that sounds simple but good things cannot be rushed. And two, the creative process is collaborative and none of us is an island. What each of us brings to the table is vital to the success of all of us.

Each one of us is incredibly different and we truly embrace diversity, but what we see every day is that it takes all of us in our quirky way, with our unique gifts to make it all work. Our team gets it and our guests get it.

How do you see your personal brewing changing over the next five years?

Since I don’t brew, I will address it from a leadership perspective.

This is an interesting question and one I have given considerable thought to. The growth and development of my team members is vital to my feeling of satisfaction and success. I want them to be better off having been with our team than they were before they came to us. My goal is to be a positive steppingstone in their development for the next challenge they decide to seek. Whether that is with us or moving on, I want to provide them with the best platform for growth that I possibly can. Sometimes that is gained from additional certifications but more often through mentoring and leadership roles.

 One of the most important decisions we ever made in this business was to allow folks the autonomy to run their role as if it was their own small business. My management style is inclusive because I believe it is especially important for folks to have a direct impact on something, they are a major stakeholder in. At the end of the day I make the final decision, but ultimately our leadership team responds in a very democratic manner and each of us has a voice that is considered and respected. Without our amazing team we would not have a business. 

How are weathering the current situation with Covid-19?

Choosing to close our door was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. Initially we changed our business model to curbside pickup only. We put together a plan for implementing Servsafe best practices and streamlined our processes to efficiently operate in a different manner. Our goal was to avoid close proximity and contact between team members and guests and sanitize like crazy!

The first couple of weekends we did pretty well. We were crazy busy, but brought in about half of our regular revenue, which, given the circumstances, was amazing. The weekend prior to the governor shutting down the state of Tennessee we made the decision to close our door indefinitely. I was not comfortable with exposing anyone to possible illness. We had a leadership meeting to discuss details and the consensus among the team was they rather have a healthy business, both financially and physically to come back to, than try to limp through only to come through in bad shape. So, I made the hard decision to lay off employees. 

To help folks expedite unemployment I filed a mass report of all employee details ahead of them logging in to register. This helped the process move along more smoothly for them. It was still difficult getting into the system and in some cases we sat with employees, masked of course, to walk them through the process online. We have kept communication going with everyone through this time to ensure they are cared for, have enough money and food and know what is going on with the rest of the team. 

What plans do you have for reopening?

The governor of Tennessee announced that the state will reopen on May 1. That is not a date I am comfortable with for several reasons. The first is that little testing has been done to see just how prevalent the virus is in our area. Second, I don’t want to expose employees to the public and vice versa. We have all been conscientious of social distancing and self-quarantine and we have a couple folks who are either immune compromised or have household members who are. Finally, I’m not confidant that the customers will be back and comfortable with dining out and sitting around having a brew this soon. So, then we must ask the question, can we survive financially on a significant reduction in sales? The answer is no. 

We are currently working on a phased return. Initially we will begin bringing the brewers back to begin brewing, canning and distribution. The second phase will involve bringing the bar staff back for taproom sales. And finally, we will bring the kitchen staff back to begin food service again. We had just put in a new covered patio and brand new kitchen but have not yet been able to use them. Which means we will have a grand-reopening event at some point when it is safe to do so. Until then we will do our best to enjoy this beautiful spring in East Tennessee.

Thank you, Lisa. We are praying for you.

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor in Pasadena, California. He is passionate about craft brewing, listening, and monks and monastic life. Greg has served as an assistant district attorney and an associate university professor. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and he is on Twitter @StrategicMonk. You can email Greg at StrategicMonk@gmail.com, and he writes a blog for the Contemplative channel on http://www.patheos.com.

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