Rocky River Brewing Company
The restaurant and its brewery were just months old. It was the very first batch of Bear Bottom Stout, a simple, from-the-book knockoff of Guinness Stout. The stout and several other of Rocky River Brewing Company brewer Ron Downer’s beers were on their way to the 1998 Great American Beer Festival in Denver for fest tasting and a nation-wide competition. Right out of the starting block, Bear Bottom Stout was awarded the gold medal in the Irish Stout category. What a way to start a new job?
Though he had homebrewed a little in college, mostly out of necessity, it was really about 1972 when Ron first began homebrewing on a regular basis. A professional fireman in need of a hobby, he was a regular at Knoxville’s first homebrew supply store. With guidance from Fred Eckhardt’s influential book, Treatise on Lager Beer, he left cider-tasting sugar-enhanced extract kits behind for good. Specialty-grain recipes were much more challenging and enjoyable.
By 1994 Ron was operating his own homebrew supply store, the Brewhaus, which specialized in mail order business. Referred by a customer to a local group interested in opening a brewpub in downtown Knoxville, Ron gave up 21 years of seniority in the Knoxville Fire Department to install the brewhouse at Smoky Mountain Brewery. Serving as the Gay Street brewpub’s first brewer, he deftly converted his homebrew recipes into fifteen barrel batches. Unfortunately, excessive startup costs and cash flow problems led to Smoky Mountain’s quick demise. Ron was without work for over a year, but, being resourceful, he already had a back-up plan.
During that brewing furlough he wrote a letter to Mike Chase, owner of the Copper Cellar restaurant group in East Tennessee. As fate would have it, Mike had just been to a restaurant trade show in Chicago and was infatuated with the concept of brew-on-site brewpubs. Chase’s interest increased when he discovered that there was an experienced brewer in the neighborhood. Ready and willing, Ron took signed on with Copper Cellar. He twice visited California brewpubs, taking time to apprentice at Redondo Beach Brewing Company.
Satisfied that he knew what he wanted, Ron placed the order for Copper Cellar’s brewing equipment and installed it in the new Calhoun’s BBQ & Brew on Kingston Pike in west Knoxville. Again, his homebrew recipes served as the basis for the brand new Calhoun’s beers. It didn’t taken long for Ron to become disappointed with the owner’s insistence on “lightening everything up,” i.e. no bold flavors or hop character. Luckily, Ron got in touch with a group of investors that were planning a microbrewery/restaurant in Sevierville, Tenn. and was offered the position of Brewmaster. Seventeen months later, Ron once again found himself jobless. He had been replaced by Marty Velas, a California brewing consultant whom Ron had hired to assist with Calhoun’s brewery commissioning.
The owner of the proposed microbrewery told Ron to brew anything he wanted as long as it sold, which is every serious brewer’s dream. Instructed to purchase a 20-barrel brewhouse, Ron had a $500,000 with which to equip the new brewery. Though he spent the first seven months doing grunt work in the company’s winery, once the roof was up on the new building at Governor’s Crossing, Ron began installing the brewhouse in the center of the magnificent $7 million brewery/restaurant complex.
His first Rocky River beer was served in June 1998, five months prior to his first gold GABF medal. Twelve months later, in Denver for the 1999 festivities, Ron’s seasonal Winterfest Ale took silver in the Strong Scotch Ale category followed in 2000 by another gold, this one for Golden Eagle Lager. A certain amount of luck is involved in any competitive endeavor. Ron not only has had more than his share of luck, but he’s also brewed his share of great beer.
Ron’s favorite drinking beer, his personal session beer, is Ten Point Ale, Rocky River’s biggest seller because it’s light enough to compete with budmillercoors. In the Munich Helles style, brewed with German yeast, hops and specialty grains, Golden Eagle Lager requires three months of cold conditioning. Though some GABF judges deemed it too hoppy for style, Golden Eagle took gold nonetheless. At 5% abv, Heidelberg Hefeweizen utilizes Weihenstephan weizen yeast for a true to tradition big Bavarian wheat beer, banana and clove tastes intact. Heidelberg Hefeweizen won bronze at the 2001 GABF in the German-style wheat ale category, third best out of 84 entires in that category.
Copperhead Red Ale is currently the brewery’s biggest seller to off-premises keg accounts (Rocky River is technically a microbrewery with a wholesale license, the only one in the state). This brew of malty complexity falls somewhere between the Irish Red and German Alt categories. Billed as an India Pale Ale, Mad Wolf IPA is, Ron now feels, closer to an Extra Special Bitter. Even with Northern Brewer and Kent Goldings hops, it’s “not dry enough to compare with a California IPA.” Closing out the brewery’s regular selections, Bear Bottom Stout is a straight-up Irish Dry Stout. Its made with flaked barley, roasted barley and two-row barley, the basis of all of Ron’s recipes. Although some brewers believe that you can’t brew authentic English-style ales and stouts without using British Pale Ale malt, Ron tyhinks that success lies more in using the correct specialty grains and brewhouse procedures. All of Ron’s recipes call for multi-temperature step mashing. Heidelberg Hefeweizen requires five stops, Bear Bottom gets three.
Rocky River’s seasonal beers include the ‘99 silver-winning Winterfest and Highland Dew Scottish Ale. Both are brewed only once annually in Ron’s steam-heated DME brewhouse. He double batches almost everything to utilize six 40-barrel fermenters. One 40-barrel and six 20-barrel bright tanks provide conditioning time and facilitate kegging. Since Rocky River is a wholesaler, everything is kegged for distribution, even beer designated for the restaurant’s three bars, waiting just on the other side of thick glass walls. Distribution covers other bars and restaurants in Morristown, Nashville and Greenville, South Carolina. Bottling is now being considered by the brewery’s new owners in order to broaden distribution opportunities in Tennessee and adjoining states. Brewing pace in 2002 is about the same as the previous year, producing about 900 barrels. The brewery’s capacity is 4,800 barrels per year.
Nestled near Pigeon Forge, home of Dolly Parton’s country theme amusement park, Gatlinburg and the gateway to the Smoky Mountain National Park, Rocky River is well-situated in East Tennessee. From its Cracker Barrel-like gift shop to a cavernous dinning area and plentiful bar seats, this friendly facility is well equipped to handle the masses. Interior decorations are rustic with plenty of exposed wood, stonework and mounted wildlife. An enticing menu ranges from wood-fired pizzas to Black Angus Steaks.
In the midst of what once was a dry county – as in NO ALCOHOL – Rocky River Brewing Company provides a beer oasis away from the bright lights, honky tonks and flavorless beer. Ron Downer has made all the difference.
Rocky River Grille & Brewery
1444 Hurley Drive
Sevierville, TN 37862