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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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