Steel Barrel’s brewery and 500-seat taproom will feature a wraparound porch for enjoying music, views, and brews.

 

Steel Barrel at Hop Springs: Changing Palates, Perceptions & Even Hops

By Gini David

“This will be all fruit trees and honey bees, said Mark Jones, sweeping his arm at the panorama of rolling green hills and oak trees at Hop Springs, on the edge of Murfreesboro off John Bragg Highway.” Anything that can go into beer will be grown here – blueberries, blackberries and even indigo, continued the CEO of Mantra Artisan Ales, Life Is Brewing and his newest brand, Steel Barrel Brewery. When completed, Steel Barrel will be the largest craft brewery in Tennessee.

Steel Barrel Brewery at Hop Springs is on track to have its soft opening in February 2018, followed by its grand opening in May. And grand it will be–83 acres dedicated to an agritourism destination unlike anything Tennessee, and perhaps the South, has ever seen. Currently, the land is being graded and Mark notes its historical significance, “The property was apparently once a Civil War camp or battlefield. Were finding artifacts – bullets, belt buckles and so on.”

THE INSPIRATION OF THE LAND

Hop Springs will include a 3,000-seat amphitheater, located near this slab of limestone.

 

Phase One of Hop Springs will feature a 15,000-square-foot brewery and 500-seat taproom to showcase Steel Barrel Brewing’s craft brews, a 3,000-seat amphitheater, an 18-hole disc golf course, a children’s play area, dog parks and more. One of the most unique features will be a 10-acre hops and grain farm and research center, managed and cultivated in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University’s brand new Fermentation Science and Sensory Lab programs (more about that later). Hop Springs Phase Two, to be completed in 2019, will add another layer of agridestination appeal with nine cabins; a restaurant and greenhouse for growing culinary edibles that will be served in the restaurant; a 15,000-square-foot event center, complete with a state-of-the-art kitchen and studio space for photo and TV shoots; a five-acre lake with a swim-up beer bar; and a 5-km running track looping around the property.

Ah yes, back to the land. It’s impossible to capture the vision of Steel Barrel at Hop Springs without talking about the land which inspires every amenity and design decision. “We designed the brewery around those two 100-year-old oak trees,” said Mark, pointing to a pair of stately trees. “And these limestone rocks will be used. They have a home, I just haven’t figured out where. But these boulders here will be used as water features, for sure,” he said, running his hand over the curves and crevices of two huge grey, yellow and gold limestone boulders, lined up with others, like willing soldiers awaiting orders.

Steel Barrel Brewery will be the centerpiece of Hop Springs, designed with a wraparound porch with straight-on views of the fruit trees and distant mountains. The spacious taproom will feature a 360-degree singer-songwriter stage atop a giant slab of limestone Mark hauled out of the earth. “Hop Springs will be all about the adventure, the experience … combining Tennessees natural beauty, agriculture and great-tasting beer. You’ll be able to use an app to order beer from anywhere in Hop Springs and have it delivered to you by servers on horseback –or on foot.”

A graduate of MTSU’s School of Agribusiness, Mark’s enthusiasm for the land is real. “I’ve always been a farmer. My father developed a hydroponics system for growing tomatoes in Saudi Arabia 45 years ago. And I’ve always done things related to agriculture, sales and venues. This is easier to do, this is fun.” Mark envisions that with the amphitheater and event center, “Hop Springs will be a phenomenal venue for music, entertainment, charity functions and special events with a focus on education.”

WINNING PALATES WITH APPROACHABLE BEERS

Mantra co-founder and renowned chef Maneet Chauhan and founder/brewmaster Derrick Morse inspect hops for a new brew.

“I’m excited about Hop Springs,” says Maneet Chauhan, one of the founding partners of Steel Barrel, Life Is Brewing and Mantra Artisan Ales, along with her husband, entrepreneur Vivek Deora. “Every time we go to the farm, an idea comes up. Hop Springs will be amazing, one of the biggest destinations in Tennessee,” she says, adding it will also be “a culinary center where people and chefs from all over will gather” to exchange ideas and host events around food and drink. Maneet would know. Born in Ludhiana, India, she is a renowned chef and cookbook author (“Flavors of My World: A Culinary Tour Through 25 Countries”) and co-owner and executive chef of three notable Nashville restaurants (Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Mockingbird and Tansuo, a contemporary Chinese restaurant). Maneet has also been a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped” and “The Next Iron Chef”, so you can be sure the culinary bar will be set deliciously high at Hop Springs.

“Mantra takes beer to the next level, where beer has never been before,” says Maneet, who inspired the creation of Saffron IPA (a unique Pacific Northwest IPA with essences of saffron and a flash of cardamom, which became Mantra’s flagship beer) and suggests more creative musing – and cool brews – ahead at Steel Barrel. “To us, what is important is inclusion – people and families coming together to enjoy food and drinks in a beautiful setting,” says the mother of two small children. Steel Barrel at Hop Springs will be a great event place, a gorgeous wedding venue. As a destination, we will make it approachable and, most of all, fun!

In addition to changing the template for Tennessee’s tourism and beer scene, it is imagined that Steel Barrel will change the beer drinking habits of many. John Arnold, Steel Barrel and Mantra Artisan Ales personable sales rep, points to his grey T-shirt. “The Steel Barrel logo features a bridge, and we hope to bridge the gap between craft and non-craft beer drinkers.” I listened intently, thinking of some of my Bud Light and Ultra-drinking family members. “In the craft beer world, were all home brewers. But Steel Barrel wants that forgotten segment of the population, the non-craft beer drinkers. We want to make craft beer more approachable to everyone.”

John knows his audience. “In the craft world, we’ve done an amazing job of creating great beers, serendipitous beers, but it’s left out the average beer drinker who may want to try a craft beer, but isn’t ready for a double IPA or bitter hoppy bomb,” he says. “Steel Barrel has unique, approachable beers that are pleasing to the palate and will appeal to the craft beer novice. Every Steel Barrel beer is a day-drinking beer, a session beer, made for the active lifestyle. Basically, we want you to drink what you like and be open to trying new brews.”

THE MAN BEHIND THE BREWS

John understands the culture and biases of craft and non-craft beer drinkers. But if anyone can change hearts, minds and palates about craft beer, it’s Derrick Morse, the brewmaster for Steel Barrel Brewery and Mantra Artisan Ales. Even Mark Jones claims he was a Miller Lite guy – until he met Derrick. His official title is founder, brewmaster and chief of brewing operations for Life Is Brewing, the parent beverage company that oversees beer production at both Mantra and Steel Barrel. When Steel Barrel Brewery opens at Hop Springs (tentatively February 18), all its production will take place there, along with Mantra’s clean, non-sour beers. Their unique sour and funky beers will continue to be made at Mantra’s brewery at 216 Noah Drive in Franklin.

“The liquid side of things is my creative side of things,” explains Derrick. “I taste something and it immediately explodes into color and I identify it in a wavelength. My brain starts working on how to manipulate biochemistry and single cell organisms, bacteria and yeast into flavor.”

“When you open a bottle of Saffron or Cassis, which is aged 18 months, these are pieces of my mental landscape in those beers,” explains Derrick. “Every beer dives back into some flavor memory in my consciousness. Like with our Cassis sour, I’m eight years old eating little tart black currant berries in Germany that my Omi would put into little German tarts. Or take Citreamsicle. I was drinking these citrusy beers, and after mowing the lawn, I gave my son one of those orange Dreamsicle pops. I tasted it, drank my IPA, and pow… there’s this burlesque show in my mouth and my mind engages. That engagement of ice-cream and endorphins. I immediately designed a beer in my head, in a nano second.” In addition to Saffron and Big Juicy Dank (one of my favorites), there’s his latest creation – Peche et Crème, a Belgian Golden with peaches, vanilla and lactose, made with Styrian Goldin and Tettnang hops.

True, Derrick has been known to change people’s perceptions about beer and taste. “I start with where you are. I met Mark Jones in 2013, when I was brewing at Cool Springs Brewery. He was drinking Miller Lite and I gave him Cool Springs Franklin’s First and he liked it. When I talk to people about beers they’re tasting, I describe the flavors at the beginning, mid-palate, and at finish, and the mouth feel, everything.” His appetite for brewing complex beers has earned him a reputation as a mad scientist who plays fast and loose with IPAs, stouts and sours – not to mention what he does with tart cherries, fresh peaches, saffron and spices. In the craft world this is a good thing, but when it comes to Steel Barrel, Derrick draws his inspiration from elsewhere.

“When we designed Steel Barrel, we wanted it to fit into our family, the Tennessee lexicon and tried-and-true beer flavor,” says Derrick. “Steel Barrel is my warm blanket, the super comfortable T-shirt I always wear. It’s about basics –my love for baseball, mountain biking, four wheeling, unpretentiousness and authenticity. I love this brand and I love all four Steel Barrel beers. I don’t have a favorite child.”

But Derrick does get a dreamy look in his eyes when he talks about the four Steel Barrel beers he’s created, especially Johnny Red (a yummy red ale). “When my mom would drop me off at the movie theatre, I’d get these caramel chocolate, malty Whoppers. At an early point in my craft beer evolution, that taste became my core. So when it came time to develop Steel Barrel I dove into the things that made me get into craft beer in the first place. What stuck in my head was Left Hand Brewing Company’s Sawtooth – a hoppy, dark caramel and gold standard Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. That taste impacted me at age 23.”

Steel Barrel’s second beer, Americana, is a pale ale which Derrick relates to one of his favorite breweries, Sierra Nevada. “I love their story, their branding, the way Ken Grossman has stayed true to their concept. He never wavers from his core. I always felt like I wanted that –it had to be authentic.” Their third beer is also in Derrick’s DNA. “Frost is our German Kolsch, very crisp and clean. I’m German, and Frost reminds me of my childhood. In Germany you drink beer at 10-11 years old, legally at 16. My parents would give me German pilsners.”

Finally, Steel Barrel’s fourth beer is a love story in itself. “Guinness is my all-time favorite beer. When my wife Kaleigh and I were first together, we’d sit on our patio in Boulder, drink Full Sail Session Black in tiny bottles, and get hammered playing rock/paper/scissors with bottle caps. So Pioneer has a dark beer taste, but it lifts off your tongue. I was going for an easy-drinking beer, a sipping beer. It has a dark roasted character but the mouthfeel of a lighter beer. It’s an English mild, but we call it a black ale because no one knows what English mild means.” When I tasted Pioneer with Derrick and noticed its delicious lightness, my mind went straight to cooking meat, brisket and barbecues. Derrick nodded. “We candied some Benton’s Bacon with spice and made ice cream with Pioneer with the same spices. It was both sweet and spicy, and we topped it with caramelized bacon.” Wow.

Derrick’s journey to brewmaster and founder of Mantra is the original “one door closes, another flies open saga,” with lots of drama, karma and romance. In 2009, he was downsized out of his job as a marketing director for a software company in Boulder. “I walked into a bottle shop, the largest liquor store in Boulder, and started spending my severance. I bought about $3,000 in beer and $2,000 worth of Scotch,” he recalls. “The outside sales rep for Twisted Pine was there and invited me to intern at the brewery. I thought, Why not? I learned how to manipulate flavor with their brewmaster Bob Baile. They call him Twisted Bob in Colorado, and he has a reputation for marching to his own drum.”

At Twisted Pine, Derrick says, “I went from wearing suits at the software company to ripping my hands up cleaning kegs and trench drains. I did a lot of things, redesigned their web site, gave them marketing info, label design and took over their social media. I spent three years at Twisted Pine and met my wife at Left Hand Brewing Company. During those three years, we became parents,” he recalls. “We were in Colorado and we were literally sitting in delivery room waiting for our son to be born. I was looking for new brew tanks, popped open my laptop, and noticed Cool Springs Brewery was looking for a brewmaster. My parents lived in Franklin, so I knew the area. After I checked with my wife, I submitted my resume and they called me half an hour later. I did a phone interview and asked for total creative freedom. Forty-five days later, I came out here for interview and we moved here two weeks later.”

In 2012 there were only five breweries in Nashville proper, says Derrick. “But at Cool Springs Brewery, I had the keys to the castle as the brewmaster and got to put my stamp on beer.” By 2015, they had two kids, his wife was the Black Abbey tap room manager, and they began talking about starting a brewery. “We started designing concepts and I met Maneet Chauhan, who approached me about creating a beer for her and I designed Saffron IPA, which would later become one of Mantra’s flagship beers.”

Call it synchronicity, whatever, but things fell into place with that creative collaboration, and a few other twists of fate, allowing Mantra to open in late 2015. “We’re conscious that people work hard for their money– you can’t short cut beer,” says Derrick, noting his wife Kaleigh has a heavy influence on the way things evolved at Mantra, from the look of the logo to the labels. Kaleigh, in fact, is the beautiful red-haired woman on the Saffron IPA label.

Derrick’s vision for Steel Barrel is big – ginormous, actually. Although its 60-barrel production system will be half the size of Sierra Nevada in Asheville, NC, he expects to produce 125,000 barrels annually.Since Tennessee breweries produce about 160,000 barrels total per year, he estimates Steel Barrel could be brewing 75% of that when production is in full swing. This should have a positive impact on Tennessee’s economy, not only in terms of tourism and local small businesses that will benefit from a destination like Hop Springs, but also in terms of Tennessee revenue. Derrick points out that despite the fact that Tennessee is one of nine states that does not have a state income tax, it has the highest beer tax in the country (nearly $37 per barrel). Derrick and other brewers (like Dr. Stephen Porter from Asgard Brewing Company in Columbia) would like to turn that around. “If we reduce our beer tax by half, we would still have the highest beer tax in the country,” explains Derrick. “We need to make our state legislators understand the overall economic impact that our high beer tax has on the craft beer industry.” He talked about how Colorado reaps the benefit of their $2.7 billion beer industry, and how high beer taxes suppress industry growth and hiring. But Derrick’s encouraged by the support he’s received from politicians on the matter, especially from State Sen. Bill Ketron and Sen. Jack Johnson, as well as from U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who helped with the opening of Mantra in Franklin.

PARTNERING WITH MTSU, SEEKING NEW HOPS

Educating palates, changing perceptions about beer and taste – even developing hops that will thrive in Tennessee. Everything about Steel Barrel circles back to education which will manifest itself most vividly at Hop Springs 10-acre farm devoted to agritourism, which will include a hops research plot, greenhouse, bee hives and other amenities. Good beer requires good ingredients, and to execute this vision, Steel Barrel has partnered with Middle Tennessee State University’s brand new Fermentation Science program, an extension of its School of Agribusiness and Agriscience. Together, they hope to change the entire landscape of beer production in Tennessee.

Under the direction of Dr. Tony Johnston, students will be involved in research devoted to developing new hops varieties suited for Tennessees long, hot and frequently dry growing season. Derrick recalls when he met Tony, a professor and program director of the Fermentation Science program. “When I first met Tony, I wasn’t sure where it was going, but at the end of the meeting I knew we were going to make little beer babies.”

“Derrick and I share a vision, and my objective is to gather and motivate the MTSU faculty with the required expertise to work with me to create hops that will do well in Tennessee,” explains Tony about MTSU’s joint venture with Hop Springs. Barley and hops used to be grown successfully in the South, he says. But the industry withered, thanks to Prohibition and, later, big beer companies that swallowed up small and craft brewers who used different varieties of hops in their beers. “It was plain old economics,” he says. And in the future, it may be the quest for something different – and the invention of a new hops variety – that revitalizes hops production in Tennessee. “People want to drink something different, and if you want to try something different, you have to start with something different.”

Although decreased demand for “minor” hops varieties drove production out of the South to Oregon and Washington, Tony is optimistic that with a commitment to research hops production has a future in Tennessee. To start, he and his team of student researchers will be experimenting with smaller dwarf varieties better suited to Tennessee’s climate, soil and growing season, which is longer than Oregon’s. “We’ll be looking at varieties that are physically smaller, produce faster, and do well in our soil that’s heavy in clay, as opposed to sandy, well-drained soil. Hops varieties that can handle the humidity and relatively hot temperatures. Cascade and Centennial hops survive here, but are not particularly happy. We want to identify and produce varieties of hops that are happy here.”

In the spring of 2018, Tony’s team of student researchers will plant the first hops rhizomes on the 10-acre hops research plot. In addition to developing Tennessee-loving varieties, they will experiment with different growing methods, trellising and improving quality and production. The possibilities and potential for the MTSU’s hops research are significant, both economically and academically. Oregon State University, says Tony, patented a hops variety that ultimately created a revenue stream that funds and supports their ongoing hops research program.

Moreover, he says MTSU’s Fermentation Science program, which will offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) starting this fall, will be one of the broadest Fermentation Science programs in the country. “I dont think people realize how many fermented products we use – yogurt, butter-milk, cheeses, sour cream and sauerkraut, for starters,” says Tony. “When people think of fermented products, they default to beer and wine, but there’s so much more.” Tony says he has yet to identify a Fermentation Science program that will cover the breadth of products that the MTSU program will study – from pharmaceutical (insulin) to waste treatment management to human food.

Don’t expect a solid 10 acres of hops; rather, visualize a variety of crops being grown and harvested throughout the year. Mark Jones imagines that the hops and grains farm will be edged with oaks and maples hung with hammocks for students and visitors to relax and enjoy nature.When the greenhouse opens, research projects will be taking place there and in the field, says Tony. Looking ahead, Tony wants to offer educational symposia on hops growing, outreach and community service.

Another aspect of the Fermentation Science program will be a Sensory Lab to gather detailed information and data on what colors, flavors, aromas and textures people perceive when presented with samples of a food, beverage or fabric. This information can be used to determine whether a formulation change results in a perceptible difference, explains Tony. For example, in beer production, is the substitution of 10% of the Cascade hops by Centennial hops detectable to the brewer or people drinking the beer? The Sensory Lab will be an extension of the Fermentation Science program and will also be available to other departments at MTSU, such as Psychology and Human Sciences.

The Fermentation Science program has healthy support from MTSU. In 2015, MTSU’s Provost informed Tony that plans were being made to propose the creation of a degree in brewing. Tony, who had been teaching wine appreciation and production in MTSU’s School of Agriscience since 1995, was on solid footing when he recommended the Fermentation Science program instead. He got into the science of fermentation 30 years earlier in graduate school in Arkansas when he studied under a forward-thinking professor, Dr. Justin Morris, who  had great success mechanizing the harvest of small fruits like blackberries and strawberries. The success of the small fruit harvesting projects incentivized Dr. Morris to look at other agricultural industries in Arkansas that needed revitalization – specifically, grape and wine production, which had been a robust industry prior to Prohibition.

From inventing Tennessee-loving hops to changing the way craft beer is brewed, perceived, enjoyed and perhaps even taxed, Steel Barrel at Hop Springs promises to shift the paradigm of Tennessee’s craft beer scene. Moreover, the scope and scale of an agridestination like Hop Springs will change perceptions about Murfreesboro and Middle Tennessee. With a grand vision – one that focuses on nature, education, and enjoyment – there will be plenty of opportunities and adventures in store.

“Steel Barrel is the embodiment of enjoying the nicer things of life. When I sit on the back porch, I’m drinking Steel Barrel. You don’t have to think hard about it–its solid,” sums up Derrick. One thing is certain – there’s something about swimming up to a beer bar or having your IPA delivered on horseback that has unique appeal. I’m in!

Gini David is a beer and travel writer living in Franklin, TN.