When the history of the rise of craft beer in Middle Tennessee is recounted, Robert Lipman probably won’t get enough credit because he has never been a brewer. But in truth, Lipman is possibly more responsible for Tennessee beer lovers discovering their first taste of beer that wasn’t made in a megabrewery than any other single individual.

Alcohol is literally in Lipman’s blood, the third generation leader of a wine, spirits and beer distribution business that has been around since 1939. Lipman Brothers is the proud owner of Tennessee State Permit Number 1, a distinction displayed on each of the company’s green trucks.

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Harry Lipman, the founder of the company, was close friends with Hap Motlow, a relative of Mr. Jack Daniel himself and one of the earliest heads of sales for the Tennessee whiskey distiller. Lipman and Motlow would work together to build the Jack Daniel’s brand into an international powerhouse.

Young Robert spent a lot of time around Hap, working in the family business sweeping the warehouse and stacking boxes. “Hap used to say ‘To make great whiskey, you gotta make great beer.’ And I always remembered that,” recalls Lipman. That dedication to both beer and spirits would serve Lipman well later in his career.

When he entered the family business as a full-time employee, Lipman decided that the company should get into the craft beer game. “We had never had a commodity beer brand, but I had seen that with boutique wines, quality, flavor and selection led to popularity. This was in the early 90’s, so I was way early. Pioneers get shot!”

At the time, Lipman was the only local distributor to deal in wine and spirits plus beer as well, so they initially had to store their new craft beers in separate warehousing and deliver with dedicated trucks. The extra work paid off as Lipman introduced early craft beer brands such as Sierra Nevada to the Middle Tennessee market to a great reaction. Customers and breweries followed. “Craft beer brands wanted to go with someone who had demonstrated a focus on their sorts of products. We introduced a lot of people to their first craft beer,” Lipman recalls proudly.

As Lipman Co. grew in the craft beer space, they began to carry and distribute local breweries as well, including Yazoo, Mayday, Little Harpeth, Turtle Anarchy, Honky Tonk and Jubilee. When Yazoo founder and brewer Linus Hall realized that he had outgrown his first facility in Marathon Village, he and Lipman saw an opportunity to offer something unique to the market while at the same time helping Yazoo to fill excess capacity in their new expanded brewery in the Gulch.

Lipman explains, “Linus wanted to expand, and we’ve always had a great partnership with him and Yazoo. He brews great beer, and we recognize the value of supporting local breweries.”  Robert saw a desire from drinkers for a beer that exhibited the quality ingredients and flavor profiles of traditional craft beer, but in a more sessionable style.

“The best beer has always been local,” notes Lipman. “And it’s always better drunk closer to where it was brewed. Budweiser used to be the local beer of St. Louis before they grew so huge. So Linus, Jason (McMurray – Managing Director of R.S. Lipman Company, a sister distribution company also owned by Robert Lipman) and I came up with the idea and recipe for Tennessee Lager. We followed it with a sessionable ale.”

When it came time to name their new beer brand, Lipman decided to honor the two great friends who helped start Lipman and Jack Daniel’s, so Hap and Harry’s Tennessee Lager and Tennessee Ale were born. The brand is wholly owned and distributed by R.S. Lipman Co., and it’s important to note that there is no actual connection to Jack Daniel’s other than a shared family heritage. Jack Daniel’s did actually produce their own beer in the mid-90’s under the label Jack Daniel’s 1866 Classic, but discontinued the brand after a few years.

Hap and Harry’s exhibits a lot of the same characteristics as other craft beers, but without the extra hoppiness and higher gravity of some cult brews. Lipman emphasizes, “It’s important to me that Hap and Harry’s be flavorful and balanced.” At 5.4% ABV, these are certainly sessionable beers, and the inclusion of multiple malts such as Pilsner, Vienna, Biscuit, Rye and Carafa as well as hops like Perle, Sterling and Goldings contribute those balanced and nuanced flavors.

The new brand became what Lipman describes as “happily successful,” to the point that demand outstripped Yazoo’s capacity as Linus Hall saw his own brands competing to take up time in his brewhouse and room in his fermenting tanks. It was a good problem to have for all involved, and Lipman and Hall came to a friendly and mutual decision to adjust their arrangement.

“A couple of years ago, we began to look at the future,” Lipman recounts. “Jason and I considered our options.” They knew that they needed to free up space for Hall to brew more of his own beer, and since they also distribute Yazoo, it was a win/win situation for all involved.

Like they had years earlier when they first came up with the idea for Hap and Harry’s in 2011, Lipman and McMurray looked to another talented young brewer that they were already working with, this time Mark Kamp of Turtle Anarchy. “Since we already represented Turtle Anarchy and they were looking to expand into a larger space as their business grew, the idea came up for a cooperative effort between our two companies.”

Lipman made an investment in some of the equipment as Turtle Anarchy moved from their small Franklin brewery into a new 27,000 square foot facility in West Nashville. In addition to brewing his own Turtle Anarchy brands, Kamp would take over the brewing of Hap and Harry’s from Yazoo as well as handling kegging, bottling and canning operations.

“I have tremendous respect for Mark and his family, and he brews some fantastic beer,” shares Lipman. “We’re focused on making enough beer for our current customers with an eye on perhaps expanding the product line in the future. My goal is to make great beer. If you do that, customers will enjoy it and come back for another.”

Hall helped out with the transition between breweries, and the new Turtle Anarchy version of Hap and Harry’s is virtually indistinguishable from the beer brewed at Yazoo. Lipman explains, “Linus was a big help, and to Mark’s credit, he nailed it. If you are disciplined and follow your recipes, you can make great consistent beer.”

Available in kegs and bottles in the three regions where Lipman has distribution, the Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville markets, Hap and Harry’s will soon also be sold in cans once the new packaging line at Turtle Anarchy is up and running. Every single bottle has Robert Lipman’s name on it, a testament to his contribution to Tennessee’s craft beer scene. “We give the same attention to quality with Hap and Harry’s as with any craft beer,” vows Lipman. “My name is on it. This represents me, and that’s important to me.”

Written by Chris Chamberlain | Photography by Sean von Tagen