A Donelson man’s successful specialized craft beer nanobrewery has him expanding, and moving the operation into a bigger east Nashville facility, where he also plans to open a taproom by late spring.
Perhaps Tennessee’s smallest and most niche, Barrique Brewing and Blending is settling into a 10,000 square-foot location leased on the east bank of the Cumberland River, one block from Top Golf and a stone’s throw from Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans.
“It’s bigger than I was planning, but the opportunity presented itself, and it made too much sense not to entertain it,” said Barrique’s founder Joel Stickrod.
Little Harpeth Brewing formerly occupied the building at 30 Oldham St., before new ownership moved it to the Nations neighborhood.
“It’s starting to feel like home; it’s getting full,” Stickrod said of his new brewhouse.
The taproom is currently under construction. It will have about a 50-person capacity and take up 1,200 square feet of the building. When visitors walk into the taproom, they’re going to be surrounded by four or five stacks of barrels, said Stickrod.
“I think it’s going to be a really impressive look,” he said.
The new space has a great view of the Nashville skyline out back, so Stickrod is having a deck built right off the taproom, he said.
“It’s going to be a unique place for people to come and gather. I think it’ll be warm and intimate,” said Stickrod.
The expansion has Barrique’s owner partnering with longtime friend, Austin Webber, to serve as chief operating officer. Webber brings brewmaster and operations manager experience from an Alabama brewery. He will concentrate on the business side of the operation, while Stickrod focuses on production.
Barrique plans to add more staff when the taproom opens, but in the meantime, they hired their first employee, Spencer Longhurst, who was previously employed by Little Harpeth. Longhurst will help Stickrod with production, he said.
With a focus on brewing sour beers, Barrique – a common term for a French oak wine barrel – was founded by Stickrod in 2017 on Air Lane Drive in Donelson. There, the Eldora, Iowa native began making the complex, acidic sour beer.
The entire operation is small, by industry standards, for the amount of beer produced. And it is clearly a labor love for Stickrod, who has managed Barrique by himself up until January.
Barrique is unique for its fermentation and aging processes done in oak wine barrels. Their sour beers have an average product age of 18-24 months, said Stickrod. The beers are directly packaged into 500 milliliter cork-and-cage bottles, which he individually labels by hand. He said kegs are never used.
“Everything open ferments in wine barrels for about 10 days before it gets transferred to closed barrels, where it ages for a whole summer usually. The beer then gets fruit added to it and it ages for another summer,” he said. It sounds like a lot of work for one man to do, but I love it,” he said. “All the barrels, they’re beautiful,” said Stickrod.
One 60-gallon wine cask of sour beer yields about 432 bottles. Once bottled, they are held in cages on shelves that can accommodate up to 40,000 bottles in the new brewery, said Stickrod.
Barrique’s blends are sold direct sale online for pickup at the brewery and available at local retailers that focus on craft lagers and ales. Barrique’s sour beer is available at eateries such as Homegrown Taproom in Donelson, and the Pharmacy Burger. Stickrod estimated 80% of his sales are a result of direct sales.
Because Barrique was already packaging their beer directly into bottles when the pandemic hit, they were able to hit the ground running, while other craft beer makers had to work on shifting to that model, said Stickrod. We were used to doing curbside pickups, ordering online and coming to pick up in advance, he said.
Beer pickup is at the new Oldham Street location each Thursday at 10 a.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Stickrod said the direct sales will continue after the taproom opens.
According to the Brewers Association, in 2019, there were more than 2000 microbreweries in the United States, and 108 craft breweries were in Tennessee. The association estimates a $1.38 million economic impact. About 194,670 barrels of craft beer are produced a year in the state.
In Nashville, Brandon Jones at Yazoo Brewing’s Embrace the Funk Program started the sour style of beer.
“I’m very thankful for what Brandon has done. He’s opened a lot of doors educating the consumers of Nashville on this style. He definitely was the pioneer of the Nashville sour beers,” said Stickrod.
However, the craft beer completion in the marketplace does not spook Stickrod.
“I think I’m niche enough that it doesn’t really scare me. The river rises and all boats float. Having a large craft beer community – especially a close one, we are all friends and talk shop – I can’t think of anyone that hasn’t been successful at it, even during the pandemic. We didn’t lose anybody. That right there stands on its own,” he said.
By day, Stickrod is a touring sound engineer for Hootie and the Blowfish founder turned country singer Darius Rucker. As live music touring grounded to a halt when the pandemic started last year, the pause allowed Stickrod to put all his focus exclusively on the brewery.
He started Barrique by subleasing a small corner of space in Rucker’s special events warehouse where the singer rents gear. His first season, he brewed 50 barrels of beer, then 100 and then 300 casks as he expanded at the former location.
“It was a natural, progressive growth over the last four years,” said Stickrod.
With a goal of producing 600 barrels of beer this season, Stickrod made a move to take over more square footage at the Donelson address. But a combination of running out of room and more unreasonable requests from the city led to the decision to look for a more suitable location.
“It seemed like every time we answered what the city was asking, they turned around and asked for something else. And after about the fifth time of being denied in that building, I said ‘let me see what other options are out there,’” said Stickrod. “I was going to go to about 5,000 square feet in there, so I strategically filled in up with barrels, but then I didn’t have any space to put the bottles. So I gave myself 12 months of finding a solution. Twelve months later, I ended up here [on Oldham Street],” he said.
These days, Stickrod is “working hard to fill the bottles,” he said. His days and weeks are long right now, but he takes it all in stride and said the work flow comes in cycles, especially during fruiting season, with enough work breaks spread in between.
“It keeps it fresh, because as soon as something starts to get monotonous, you turn around and it’s a whole new task. When you’re standing here and cutting strawberries all day for three weeks in a row, and you’re like, ‘man, this is kind of getting old cutting strawberries in half,’ you turn around, and it’s peach season. Then, you’re outside picking berries. It keeps it fresh,” said Stickrod.
He started home brewing “normal, clean beer” in 2008.
Then Stickrod did some traveling around the world touring with Rucker, and that’s when he discovered sour beer in Amsterdam. He came back home and thought “let me start making it,” he said.
“And once I went down the rabbit hole, I went all the way down the rabbit hole. And started doing barrel fermentation and open fermentation at home,” said Stickrod.
He immediately realized he wanted to pursue brewing sour beer and got his foot in a couple doors interning, even showing up and working for free, he said.
“We always joke that [Rucker] only likes to work when he can play golf. So I’ve always had almost six months of the year where we do 10 shows or less, so I was able to intern and still work,” Stickrod said, who interned at 5 Seasons Brewing Co. in Georgia and was an assistant brewer at Mantra Artisan Ales in Franklin. He said he made sour beers and clean beer at Mantra.
On his next work trip to Europe, Stickrod stayed a handful of extra days and took a trip by himself over to Belgium, where sour beers originated.
“Open fermentation is what I was really inspired by. I think that there are flavors you can’t get by fermenting in a stainless tank. And some of the stuff we were making on the commercial level down there, I was wishing that I was getting some of the flavors I was getting out of the home brew,” said Stickrod.
“The other side of it is brewing in this manner was the only way that I could start it by myself and still tour, because it’s such a long process that it’s a lot more forgivable. I was able to fill the barrels and go out on the road for two to three weeks. And then come back and work on the barrels.”
The new brewhouse came with equipment purchased from Little Harpeth, which allows Barrique to brew in 10-20-barrel batches in two different sizes of boil kettles. Stickrod just put in stainless fermentation, something he’s never had in the past. It should help it expand styles and creative processes a little bit, he said.
Also on the brewery production floor is a Burton Union device, used to process a style of fermentation from England.
“How beer was made before the advent of stainless steel. A lot of what I’m doing is old-world style brewing, dissecting styles of before there was artificial chilling and stainless steel and how they were making beer back on the farm in the 1700s. That’s how I make beer,” said Stickrod.
Another unique piece of equipment he pointed out is what he called the flat vessel.
“It’s called a cool ship. We will run boiling wart into that and let the cold ambient temperature take it from boiling to 60 degrees overnight. That’s how spontaneous beer is made in Belgium. On that style of beer, you never pitch any yeast. It’s all local microbes from the air and barrels that spontaneously ferment the beer. That’s how Lambic type beers are made,” said Stickrod.
He said there are only cool ships in Tennessee, the one at Barrique and the other with Jones.
“[There are] maybe less than 50 cool ships in the country. It’s starting to become more popular because people are trying to recreate these Lambic-type beers,” Stickrod said.
Barrique sources as much of the fruit used locally as possible. While he has partnered with local orchards and uses fruit grown in the Southeast, he has tart cherries shipped in because they don’t grow locally. Stickrod can even be found picking berries himself, 1,200 to 2,000 pounds of fruit a week, he said.
Stickrod would like to eventually produce about 1,000 barrels of beer a season. The touring off time has allowed him to get organized for that goal.
“I’ve always had a goal of 1,000 casks, and we’re about one year away from that. I don’t think I ever want to expand past 1,000,” said Stickrod.
“I’ve always told myself that I want to get to 1,000 barrels and stay at 1,000 barrels. I think that’s a comfortable point for a happy quality of life and a happy decision on the business.
“It lets me keep my hands on all the barrels – know what’s where, taste everything, blend everything myself. It’s big enough to be financially stable, but also have a high quality of life. So I don’t see myself expanding past 1,000. I think it would be a happy and healthy business at that point. Quality of life – I’d like to get to the point where I’m working eight-hour days, not 12-hour days.
“It’s pretty unique. It’s a unique style of beer, a unique way to make beer, and I hope Nashville appreciates it. It’s been going very well and has been received very well.”