Untapped Potential

Tennessee Brewery draws thousands of visitors in first weekend

By Andy Meek

Since April 24, a crowd estimated at a few thousand people has flocked to the castle-like structure at 495 Tennessee St. for the chance to hang out at the Tennessee Brewery and enjoy a bar, food trucks, music and good company.

The opening courtyard of the Tennessee Brewery building provides a unique gathering spot and entry to the fun going on at Tennessee Brewery Untapped. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The reason for their revelry is Tennessee Brewery Untapped, a short-term series of events running for a few days each week that include things like craft beer, food trucks, live music, mobile retail and more.

But if it seemed like the crowds were there as part of a grassroots attempt to save the iconic landmark that’s been abandoned for decades – they weren’t.

The first public mention of what would become Untapped came when Memphis businessman Taylor Berger, one of the Untapped organizers, unveiled the idea in general terms to the South Main Association in March. As he laid it out, the game plan and the motivation behind it were straightforward.

After reading reports of what seemed to be an imminent razing of the brewery, Berger told the South Main group that “some of my friends were hanging out and started thinking about how we might do something with that building – right now.”

Joining Berger in the effort would be businessman Michael Tauer, communications professional Doug Carpenter and real estate broker Andy Cates. They decided to take possession of the brewery for six weeks and in Berger’s words “operate it as a really fun place.”

Fast forward to this past weekend. The long-vacant and now transformed brewery had launched a bar inside that at one point ran out of beer due to the crowds. Local musicians performed on the courtyard stage. The Grizzlies game was screened inside the bar room, food truck workers called out order numbers and the place, in general, was packed with visitors and activity.

But Kerry Hayes, another of the event’s organizers, points to that activity not as progress toward saving the building – a result that Untapped organizers would, of course, cheer. Instead, its backers say Untapped is a statement, rather than a solution.

“Think of the Tennessee Brewery as an incubator or a research lab, prototyping activation concepts that could be deployed at other abandoned properties,” Hayes said following Untapped’s launch weekend.

Tennessee Brewery Untapped will take place over weekly four-day stretches from Thursday to Sunday through June 1.

“If a property owner or developer has possession of a similarly challenged building and doesn't know what to do with it, perhaps he or she could visit Untapped – or just hear about how busy it is – and decide to try to do something similar to revive it,” Hayes said. “That is not to say that we think a beer garden is the solution to every blighted property in Memphis. For some, it may be a fresh produce market. For others, it might be a performance venue. For others, it might be a coffee shop or bakery. The point is to try to advance a new mentality about dealing with big, difficult properties that doesn’t require them to be developed all at once. In our local economy, the resources to buy and flip a building like the Tennessee Brewery … just aren't available.”

Tennessee Brewery Untapped patrons Layla Tabatabaie and Shahab Sadeghi play ping pong. The inside room features other games as well as a bar stocked with local beer.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

If those buildings are going to be saved, he added, a more gradual, incremental and nimble approach is what’s needed. That’s why Untapped’s sponsors are looking to prove the wisdom of thinking small at the brewery, and to show that such a concept can be profitable.

Hayes said the sponsors will split their profits after recouping their investment. And then – maybe at the brewery, maybe somewhere else – a similar “temporary activation” or tactical urbanism technique will generate new ideas at spaces and landmarks where people may have given up on the potential before now.

“Instead of looking at it as one big project to redo the entire building, let’s focus on a part of it and get some folks in there and have a good time and try to build on that long term to see if that can be done,” Tauer said earlier this month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines,” a program hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes.

Posting to the Tennessee Brewery Untapped Facebook page following the launch weekend, one Facebook user wrote that the brewery is essentially Sleeping Beauty and “has been patiently waiting (like 50+ years) for that wake-up kiss.”