This story is part of Tri-Cities Best, a viewer-driven segment of News Channel 11’s community coverage. Your votes placed Tennessee Hills Brewstillery as the region’s best brewery alongside 16 leading nominees and three other finalists:

  • Little Animals Brewery
  • Watauga Brewing Company
  • Michael Waltrip Brewing Co.

(WJHL) – Brewing is an exact science, but at the end of the day, it’s what you can’t measure about a business that sets it apart.

For Tennessee Hills Brewstillery, that crucial element is identity. More than anything, the brainchild of Stephen and Jessica Callahan sets itself apart through its close ties to the region.

“That’s the kind of thing that really gives us confidence that we’ll be around for 100 years,” Callahan said. “This thing is getting bigger than any one of us.”

And big it is indeed, considering the two-year-old brewery netted the top spot in News Channel 11’s region.

Tasting Tennessee

“What we want to do as a company, we actually want to be a true taste of Tennessee,” Stephen said. “And that’s a representation of the people, the culture, the heritage of Appalachia.”

As a Jonesborough native, Stephen laid down roots firmly in the old-time holler stills that gave the world moonshine when brewing was a federal crime. That rebellious streak, coupled with a true appreciation for the craft, meant that a bottle with his name on it was nearly inevitable after Stephen first tried his hand at distillation.

But that was just his first project. After the business outgrew the Salt House in Jonesborough, a second location with a focus on hoppier topics opened on W Walnut Street in Johnson City. The opportunity was made possible through his 2020 partnership with regional entrepreneurs Scott and Daphne Andrew, as well as the departure of another big name in the beer game: JRH Brewing.

John Henritze, the location’s owner and namesake, was closing shop alongside several regional businesses after COVID-19 decimated foot traffic downtown. But rather than shutter entirely, John offered to sell Callahan the infrastructure he had used.

With the equipment ready and W Walnut’s redevelopment project getting underway, the Callahans knew it was the time to carve out their niche in a town already marked by several standout breweries.

“It was more of a defensive move,” Callahan said. “Because if we had left this open, another distillery could have come in or another brewery could have come in. So we decided to be the competition instead of having the competition.”

Dark and brooding, a TN Hills porter resembles a nitro-brewed coffee almost as much as a beer. (Photo/Tennessee Hills Brewstillery)

Barrels to Bottles

The transition from shot glass to beer stein wasn’t easy — Callahan had relatively little experience in the area before he met his head brewer Danny Smith, who served as head brewer for JRH before joining Tennessee Hills. When watching the two interact, it becomes apparent that Smith is as precise as Callahan is ambitious. When the simplest product takes at least a month from start to finish, there’s little room for error. The exact details of what makes their product great is a well-guarded secret, but Callahan was happy to volunteer his staff as the likely cause.

“You gotta give Danny credit,” Callahan said. “Because we gave Danny creative freedom.”

The team’s most popular beverage by far is the Rugged IPA, a clear/gold brew that features a hefty dose of Amarillo and Centennial hops added late in the process to catch pine and citrus aromas, and a Mandarina Bavaria dry hop add-in with strong malt to balance out the whole affair.

Up next is the Big Honey Blonde, an ale with a warm honeyed aroma and clean finish. The main goal of the beverage is to hit the complex flavor of honey without the cloying sweetness of a spoonful of sugar.

Last but not least on the leaderboard is the Sunrise in the Hills Lager, a snappy beer that Callahan touts as a gateway glass into the complex world of craft beers.

In all honesty, Callahan said they didn’t anticipate such a warm reception.

The Brewstillery’s taproom features hammered copper counters that evoke an old moonshine still, and very well may have been one at some point. (Photo/Tennessee Hills Brewstillery)

“We never expected our beer brand to do so well,” Stephen admitted. “But right now as it sits, we’re basically full capacity. Basically, every tank in here is full, and we’re already considering what the next move might be.”

That’s not to say that the team is fighting against the elements, however — Callahan said the conditions found in Johnson City and Northeast Tennessee are surprisingly conducive to beermaking and fermentation.

“Honestly, the water we have here is great for brewing,” Smith said. “It’s very soft. We make minimal adjustments to it to just highlight different aspects of beers, but we’re very blessed to have good water year-round here.”

Not only that, but a unique aspect of the Tri-Cities is rare to find anywhere else.

“We’re sitting on one of the largest limestone aquifers in the country, maybe even the world,” Callahan said. “And that’s one of the reasons that some of these other distilleries are kind of dotted throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. Because we have great water, and it’s iron-free and it’s great for fermentation.

“Combined with the right knowledge of these guys, and the grains that we’re going to be getting locally here soon and the water we’re going to be getting here, we’re going to have a world-class product.”

Looking Ahead

With the success of their most recent projects, the Callahans are thinking bigger than ever. As in national big. A new factory is in the works, and while the details are sparse, Callahan said it’s planned to be a massive step for the brand.

“With the new operation that we’re doing, we’re literally going to be a Grain-to-Glass company,” Callahan said. “We kind of like to say ‘By Tennesseeans, For Tennesseeans’ and I think that’s definitely going to stick, and that’s just a sense of pride for us.”

One major factor of the new facility will be automation. For Tennessee Hills, a good beer you can’t repeat isn’t actually good beer — it’s just good luck.

“My job right now is to just make sure that our beers are perfect,” Smith said. “As a brewer, all we do is control every variable and detail of the process that we can to be able to recreate it, because you don’t want to make a great beer that you can’t make twice.”

With state-of-the-art equipment and the patience of a saint, team members run month-long experiments on potential new brews. (Photo/Tennessee Hills Brewstillery)

With complete control over what his mixes do and when, Callahan expects the operation to span much more than local venues eventually.

“We’re going from the semi-pros to the pro level now, here in the next year and a half,” Callahan said. “And so that’s a little bit of pressure on us, but it’s one heck of an opportunity.”

While Tennessee Hills has an eye on expansion, there’s plenty going on at home worth mentioning. At the Brewstillery, a brand new tasting room and gift shop brings the Jonesborough Salt House to a rising section of Johnson City. At the original Salt House, a new head distiller who made his name in the moonshine mecca that is Gatlinburg, Tennessee is moving in.

While the horizon doesn’t stretch very far in the Tennessee hills like it might in big sky country, the Callahans and Andrews are far from shortsighted. Not many businesses hand out their training and staff for the public, but the creation of the East Tennessee State University Brewing and Distillation minor demanded just that. Callahan’s businesses play a leading role in the program, with internships offered at both sites and hands-on experiences for students that want to enter the same field.

“When I was up-and-coming, there was no schools to go to,” Callahan said. “I kind of learned grassroots just by being from the mountains of East Tennessee and getting cultured early as a kid.”

Now, the next generation of brewers is cutting their teeth in small batches in the back of the house at Tennessee Hills Brewstillery. Looking back, that’s quite the change from the public trying to figure out just what “Brewstillery” was supposed to be.