When I first started writing professionally over a decade ago, I fell victim to a fear that can paralyze many practitioners of the creative arts. I often felt that the last thing I’d written was the best thing I’d ever written and the best thing that I would ever write. How could I possibly top that last story, full of pithy comments and exhaustive research, and even worse, how could I top that five times per week for my daily column?

black-abbeyEventually, I learned to harness those concerns and use them as a motivating force to keep the creative process chugging along. Just about anyone who looks at a blank page, a white canvas or a lump of clay has to face those demons at one time or another, and brewers are not exempt from their own version of writer’s block. The pressure to keep producing new and different brews is an important part of many breweries’ process and helps to keep their customers interested in what’s coming next.

I sat down with Carl Meier and John Owen of Nashville’s Black Abbey Brewing Co. to discuss how they come up with all those creative specials that they showcase in their Fellowship Hall taproom and at various regional beer festivals. They also shared strong opinions on what they personally feel doesn’t belong in beer. [Spoiler alert: don’t be on the lookout for a pumpkin spice version of The Rose any time soon, or ever.]

TCBG: You guys are known for producing lots of small-batch special beers at Black Abbey. How many do you figure you released in your first year?

Carl Meier: [Laughs] A shitload! Seriously, probably 8-10 specials where we actually came up with new recipes in the brewhouse and at least 40 beers that we finished in different ways in barrels.

TCBG: Tell us a story of how you came up with one of your specials.

Black AbbyCM: Back when the idea of Black Abbey was still being developed, John and I would meet every Thursday to brew beer and work on our business plan. For my birthday in 2011, John bought me a book called “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers.” I read about gruit bier, and we decided to try brewing one. We bought the ingredients for the spice blend at a local tea shop, y’know, the kind where the employees are super caffeinated and stoned at the same time. We put too much mugwort in the first five gallon batch, and the result was an intensely bitter beer, really too bitter to drink. So we brewed up a second ten gallon batch and finished it in a 3rd use Corsair barrel, and it turned out great. We rolled out two sixtels of it at our first “8 Days of Winter” event, and I figured it would take forever to go through. I really imagined that we’d only serve it as part of our sampler, but to our surprise it was the first pint we sold and the first keg that kicked. Now we’ve got it in process aging in Belle Meade Bourbon barrels for a future release as Katherine’s Escape.”

TCBG: Your barrel-aging program is an important part of Black Abbey’s identity. We’re blessed in this area to have access to casks from a lot of great nearby distilleries. Talk about how you think about the interplay between the characteristics of your beer and the flavors introduced by the barrels.

John Owen: With barrels, we think about what was originally inside tastes like and consider what type of beer would complement those flavors. We’ve only had a few that didn’t really work out.

Our first idea for Belnickel was to age one batch of ale in a Collier and McKeel barrel and then brew it again and blend the two batches together. It was nice, but it wasn’t quite what we wanted, so we renamed it.

TCBG: Naming beers is very important to you all, isn’t it? How do you come up with them?

JO: Sometimes, like with Belsnickel, we come up with the name first and then craft the beer. With Revolutions, the beer already existed and we had to come up with a name.

CM: The beer names are an opportunity for us to express our humor and interests.

JO: I like three things: history, math and science.

CM: [Interrupts] And dirty jokes! You can get all those things as part of our brewery tours.

TCBG: Do you ever try something with a new recipe just to see if you can do it?

JO: We have very firm beliefs that some things belong in beer and others do not.

CM: Like cinnamon and pumpkin spice! There are plenty of other options for people who like that stuff, but you won’t see them in our beers.

JO: I like to think we’re very traditional about recipes and how they’re developed. Beer is meant to be consumed, enjoyed and repeated. Crazy ingredients don’t always encourage that.

CM: We believe in the fellowship of beer drinking, where you spend time enjoying beer and spending time with friends. That’s why it’s called a “session.” The authenticity of our brand is very important to us. It’s important to build a brand around an idea, as long as it reflects who you are.

JO: We think our brand is an effective representation of who we are as people. As we’ve grown and added employees, they’ve added to our corporate culture.

TCBG: Speaking of employees, didn’t you allow some of your coworkers to brew their own recipes?

JO: They did that for Craft Beer Week while I was out of town at the Great American Beer Festival. They did it because I wasn’t there to tell them not to. But seriously, we encouraged them to each brew their own batches on our pilot system and served them on a special Staff Night. That’s the kind of employees we want. They have to love beer as much as we do.

TCBG: You recently added two new 90 barrel tanks. How has that changed your production process?

JO: It’s great that we don’t have to panic to keep up with our core beers anymore. We can spend a whole week brewing and filling the tanks up with Rose, and then actually give the beer another week conditioning in the tank. It ages really well with that extra time. Our footprint is growing as we’ve added territories, so those new tanks allow us to meet the demand and still concentrate on other aspects of the business.

TCBG: Have any of your special beers moved into the regular rotation?

CM: Chapter House was originally a special Belgian-style red ale that did very well, so we promoted it as one of our core beers.

JO: It fits well in our portfolio and in the production schedule. Plus it goes well with so many types of food.

CM: And we drink a lot of it ourselves!

TCBG: How about POTUS 44, your smoked porter? Wasn’t that supposed to be a one-off as part of your Presidential Series?

CM: Yeah, we brewed that named after Obama because it is liberally infused with Hawaiian and Kenyan coffee wit a little bit of smokiness that just won’t quit. It’s now our #1 or #2 sku depending on the market.

JO: We tried to move away from POTUS 44 and took it off our taps. That was our one big mistake of our first year. It was just intended to be part of the series, but people screamed for more of it. We could have bought those new tanks a lot sooner if we’d just kept brewing and selling that beer. We say that we tried to impeach him, but he keeps getting reelected.

Written By Chris Chamberlain