by Don Else

Nashville, the IT city. Is there some silly Stephen King cease and desist order in our future?  Well, hopefully. But downtown Nashville is now a mad crazy woo girl pedal tavern party barge golf cart horse and carriage tourist destination.

Of course, in reality, rightly so.  Downtown Nashville and middle Tennessee have so much going on — Preds,  Titans, Sounds, great parks for hiking just a few miles away such as Percy Warner and Radnor Lake, Percy Priest and Old Hickory lakes. And of course, Honky Tonk row.  

Somehow all the tourists flock down to Honky Tonk row, Broadway, basically between the river and Fifth at Bridgestone Arena. Second Ave, Printers Alley and a couple of the other side streets absorb some of the masses, but Broadway seems to be where it’s at.

So the throng has about 100 different places to hang out and party, 90% of which are owned by the same three or four different private managing groups. Then they get to pay ten bucks for a bottle of super macro beer while listening to too loud but decent live country music covers. No original music allowed; no, really.

But there, like an oasis, in the desolation of the downtown corporate tourist traps, where the woo girls and pedal tavern poor decision makers tend not to cavort, lies Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant. Well, technically, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, but that order is an improper representation of the appeal of the place. In the midst of downtown Nashville, Second and Broadway, woo girl central, is a local craft brewery.  

Now, some of us beer scene types will say that the worst thing you can say about a brewery with a full service restaurant is that it has great food. It implies bad beer, simple. When I first moved to Nashville in ’09, I tracked down the local breweries. Rock Bottom, Big River Grille at the time, same company, was just such a place.

Now as a segue, or a bridge in musical terms, here is the background on that “same company” line from above. In 1976, Old Chicago restaurant and brewery was born in Boulder.  In ’88 came Gordon Biersch in Palo Alto. In ’91 Rock Bottom started on the first floor of the Rock building, Prudential Insurance, essentially the “bottom of the rock.” It was intended to be the Walnut Brewery, based on the Walnut Creek Brewery in Boulder. Big River started in Chattanooga in ’93. Then, somehow, Big River acquired the almost nationwide Gordon Biersch, finally becoming CraftWorks, based in Chattanooga, which includes Old Chicago and the great A1A Aleworks in St. Augustine.

Which brings us back to Rock Bottom in Nashville, and head brewer Thomas Mercado.  Thomas is from the West Coast, a hot bed for craft beer. In his last semester before graduating from San Francisco State with his B.A. degree in Communications, Thomas got his first homebrew kit.          

Not ready for cubicle life, he split for Australia with his bride-to-be and set up as a bartender.  Then, while attending BeerFest, Australia’s largest Al Fresco Beer Festival, he met a local brewer looking for help.  That led to an eight month internship, and a career was born.

By then it was time to get back to California, and he discovered an assistant brewer position at Rock Bottom in San Diego, his first paying gig. Thomas took considerable time while we were talking and enjoying pints to give huge props to his mentor and head brewer there, Marty Mendiola. Rightly so. His Robust Porter alone has six World Beer Cup medals and two more from the GABF.  

Hard work and learning quickly under the tutelage of Marty, Thomas was recruited by Haylee Shine to take over as Head Brewer at the Long Beach location after only ten months. While there, he stayed in touch with Mendiola as he was developing his own commercial recipes.

But Los Angeles can be a crushing environment. The traffic is relentless, and there are no breaks. Plus the smog and those earthquakes. So, about three years ago, after a year and a half at the helm in Long Beach, Thomas learned that the Nashville head brewer position had opened up, and they were back on the road.  

I met Thomas when he first got into town. His business card still said Long Beach, but the rebuilding of the Nashville brand began. As they poured through the existing, and frankly fairly plain and uninspired beer, the new recipes slowly started to hit the taps, and the patrons were treated to quality liquid. Something amazing happened — repeat customers.

But Rock Bottom is at 2nd and Broadway in downtown Nashville. Tourist mecca. Even Thomas will say they need some approachable transition beers. But a great pilsner is a great beer. Those gateway beers are  abundantly balanced by the craft beer drinker’s beers. The IPA is a go-to. The double IPAs, imperial reds, dubbels, tripels, barrel aged and firkins are as good as you are going to find.  

So the pull back comes from the whole chain thing.  The reality, however, the brewery, the heart of the restaurant, is 100% locally controlled. There is no interference. It is an autonomous brewery as the heart of a chain restaurant. And frankly, it’s the brewery that is leading the charge in marketing, management and events.  

Speaking of marketing, events and collaborations, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. To promote marketing and events, they do collaboration beers with smaller, less known organizations that can use the support. They made a special beer for a barber shop quartet convention that was in town, which made for an interesting night in the taproom.  They also made one for the Nashville Rollergirls.

But near and dear to Thomas’ heart is the most recent special beer, Papa’s Pale. This west coast pale (think Sierra Nevada) was made to commemorate the first birthday of Thomas’s daughter at the end of October. One dollar of each Papa’s sold goes to help fund the installation of baby changing stations in all bathrooms in area craft beer establishments.  This concept is being met with high praise in the community, and we look forward to seeing it succeed.

Thomas Mercado, the Brewer of the Year in 2016, leading the charge at Rock Bottom Nashville, which was also the number one selling location within the national  chain in total sales. Great beer, great location, great people watching! Sidle up to the bar, I may just be there.