Linus Hall of Yazoo Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Mar 2013 | Issue #74

Linus Hall began brewing beer in his college rental because he lived far into the country, and he wanted to cut down on long-distance beer runs. He got hooked once he discovered that he could make beer that was as good, or better, than the stuff he’d been buying. Hall, a former engineer, founded Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company a decade ago. The startup has grown by focusing on what beer drinkers want most—another beer. “I want people to enjoy their beer so much that they’re not ready to move on after that first pint,” Hall says. “I’ve had beers I loved, but when I got to the last third of the pint, I couldn’t do another. We brew beers that make you want to say, after that first sip, Man, I could have three of these.”

1. Step up
The gauntlet met Linus Hall one day in the park. He was walking with his wife, talking about brewery tap handles. The thing is, the couple didn’t have a brewery to design tap handles for. Hall had been toying with the idea of opening his own place since shortly after he began homebrewing in college, but after years of idle talk, brewing remained a hobby. Thus the challenge in the park: Make this thing happen, or stop fantasizing about it. Hall chose the first course. He left his job, went back to school to study both brewing and business, and took an internship with Brooklyn Brewery. He put his money where his mouth had dwelled for years.

2. Take off
Hall, a Mississippi native, had put down roots in Nashville. The city had a thriving homebrewing scene. But as Hall cast about the Southeast looking for a brewing job, he had trouble finding a place where he could put in meaningful work hours. He looked around and saw an industry full of amateurs striking out on their own, so he joined them. Hall figured it would take a year to begin breaking even. It happened within months. Production brewing was new to Nashville, and a crush of customers touring the brewery, taking beer home with them and spreading the word, provided a quick injection of cash for growth.

3. Grow methodically
Yazoo has seen consistent 20- to 25-percent annual growth since it launched a decade ago. That’s a good clip for many businesses, but Hall has been careful not to get ahead of that pace, and to let natural demand drive Yazoo’s growth. He grew outward from Nashville, expanding into the rest of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama only once he’d established a solid customer base at home. Hall has taken the same approach to beer styles, concentrating on broadening his market with approachable, sessionable styles first, and branching out into geekier niche styles second.

4. Pair up
Interning with Brooklyn Brewery taught Hall about running an industrial-scale production brewery. But it also gave him a window into a company where food is woven into beer culture. In Yazoo’s early years, Hall focused on restaurant accounts and beer dinners. He found, then pushed, unique food and beer pairings, and he credits Nashville’s evolving restaurant scene with aiding Yazoo’s early growth. “We have such great food here, but for the longest time, our beers were just bland lagers,” Hall says. “We wanted to show a breadth of flavors and styles that paired up. The restaurant evolution has carried on the demand for good beer as well.”

5. Build coalitions
Hall became a political organizer when he and fellow brewers “realized the Tennessee lawmakers were willing to change laws to try to lure Sierra Nevada.” Sierra was concerned about Tennessee’s restrictions on higher-gravity beers; a state lawmaker proposed lifting the cap for Sierra, but was surprised to learn local brewers chafed at the cap, too. “They didn’t even know we exist,” Hall says. Yazoo responded by helping launch the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild. The Guild is currently spearheading efforts to lower Tennessee’s sky-high beer taxes—levies that keep many larger craft brands out of the state, and force domestic brewers to work on razor-thin margins. Yazoo has released a High Tax Ale statewide to rally consumer support, and enlisted the support of more powerful wholesalers to show that “it’s not just us crying in the wilderness.”

6. Keep moving
An IPA landed in Yazoo’s regular rotation in 2008—the year small brewers struggled mightily to source any decent quantity of hops. Yazoo brewers built each IPA batch around whatever ingredients they could secure at any given moment. The malleable recipe struck Hall as an asset, and he kept his IPA recipe in flux, even as hop supplies stabilized. Yazoo has now brewed nearly 70 different IPAs, under the banner of its Hop Project series. The beer’s grain bill has remained constant, but no two recipes have been the same. “The fun thing with hoppy beers is, everybody is looking for the next one in the market,” Hall says. By never settling on a single IPA recipe, Yazoo keeps customers coming back.

7. Harmony, not ham
Hall had fallen in love with smoked Porter during his homebrew days, and despite the fact that it paired perfectly with Nashville barbecue, he couldn’t find any locally. With Sue, Yazoo’s Imperial Smoked Porter, Hall put a spin on traditional smoked beers. He uses malt smoked with cherry wood, rather than hickory, so the smoke comes off as tart and slightly acidic, rather than heavy and hammy. Hall brought the Porter’s smoke into balance after having some local barbecue pitmasters tell him to dial it down. “It needs to be in harmony,” Hall argues. “Sometimes in craft brewing, the question is, how much of this special ingredient can I pack into the beer? The smoke is a unique taste, but it needs be balanced. There’s no point turning off people just to turn them off.”

8. Stay cool, finish sweet
Dos Perros, Yazoo’s take on a dark Mexican ale, has its roots in Hall’s early homebrewing days. Hall’s sister asked him to brew a dark beer for her outdoor wedding, and Hall struggled to find something that would hold up to the Mississippi heat. He settled on an ale rendition of Negra Modelo—an Austrian-style Amber that went down coolly and refreshingly. Dos Perros adds a charge of flaked maize to Munich and English pale malt, for a light, slightly sweet finish. “It looks really malty, but if you drink it with your eyes closed, it’s really refreshing,” Hall says. And it pairs perfectly with all sorts of Southern fare.

9. Dive deep
Hall and his wife had put off a planned trip to Belgium for years. They finally took the trip last year, biking between villages, pubs and breweries. The beers they tasted helped shape the next stage of Yazoo’s evolution. Hall and a local homebrewer, Brandon Jones, are partnering on a new, funky barrel-aged beer series called “Embrace the Funk.” They’re developing a Lambic-style ale and a Flanders Red based on Hall’s Belgian travels, as well as sour takes on Yazoo’s Sue Imperial Porter. They’ve already released a batch of Pediococcus-infected Sue blended with bourbon-barrel aged Porter, and are readying a version of Sue aged with Brettanomyces and sour cherries. Having carved out a solid base of craft drinkers in the Southeast, they’re now bringing that customer base a whole new world of flavors and styles.