Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Season 2: Episode Four: History of Memphis Breweries

April 25, 2021

Most Memphians will agree on one fact about their home city. Memphis has great tasting water. The water supply in Memphis comes from natural reservoirs hundreds of feet below the ground, and most of that water lies in sand aquifers that sit between layers of clay. The sand acts as a natural filter, slowly removing many of the water’s impurities. While all water contains at least small levels of contaminants, Memphis water has very low levels of fluoride, nitrate, lead, and copper. 

According to a Memphis Light Gas & Water report from 2015, there’s actually no detectable lead at all in Memphis’s source water. The water is so pure when it comes from the wells that it only has to be aerated to eliminate iron and dissolved gasses. After that, it is filtered, chlorinated, and fluoridated. I’m realizing that “filtered, chlorinated, and fluoridated” sounds like something that happens to hashbrowns at the worst Waffle House restaurant in existence. “Scattered, smothered, and covered” sounds way better…  and I think that’s also a Hootie and the Blowfish album. The addition of fluoride and chlorine is a legal requirement for public drinking water, so that our teeth don’t rot out of our heads. Because the layers of clay protect it, groundwater from Memphis is ideal for many industrial uses. And it also makes some really great beer…  It also makes for really great tasting distilled spirits, but that’s a subject for a later episode. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. We’re very much looking forward to doing “research” on how good bourbon tastes when it’s made from Memphis water. 

So, brewing in Memphis began in 1877, when G.H. Herbers organized the “Memphis Brewing Company,” located at the intersection of Tennessee and Butler streets in Downtown Memphis. In 1890, the brewery was acquired by J.W. Schorr, Casper Koehler, and the brewery was expanded to the structure that stands today. The name was then changed to “Tennessee Brewing Company,” and they began using water from Memphis’s naturally-filtered sand aquifer to produce their beer. 

The first beer that was marketed by Tennessee Brewing was a Pilsner, but at that time, most breweries did not name their beers - they were known by their type instead. Ads from around 1890 list the brewery’s offerings as Pilsener, Export, Tennessee Pale, Bavarian, and Budweiser (which must have been a reference to the Bohemian style of beer made in Budweis in the Czech Republic since the 13th century, not the Budweiser brand name). Employing more than 1,500 workers, and producing more than 250,000 barrels per year, Tennessee Brewing Company became a titan in the brewing industry. By 1903, they had become the largest brewery in the south.

Unfortunately, Prohibition took its toll on the Tennessee Brewing Company, closing its doors for more than a decade - but all was not lost. For a couple of years, the brewery tried to stay open acting as an icehouse and by brewing and bottling a drink called “NIB,” which stood for Non-Intoxicating Beverage. If you’ve ever tasted O’Douls or any of the other “near beer” beverages, you’ll understand why that didn’t work out for them. They’re kinda gross. When Prohibition ended, and producers of alcoholic beverages were given the greenlight to reopen, John Schorr, the son of J.W. Schorr, got the brewery back up and running at full capacity. Their best-selling beer for many years was called “Goldcrest,” and in 1938 it was renamed “Goldcrest 51” to honor more than 51 years of success in the industry. Goldcrest was a bottled beer until 1947, when they switched to cans. (and Tara grumbles...) 

The Tennessee Brewing Company closed its doors for the last time in 1954. The building remained vacant for just more than 50 years,