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VOL. 130 | NO. 158 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Craft Brew Alliance Comes to Blues City Brewery

By Don Wade

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This year, some 100,000 barrels of Craft Brew Alliance products will be produced at the Blues City Brewery in South Memphis in the second year of a five-year agreement between CBA and Blues City’s parent company, City Brewing Co., out of Lacrosse, Wis.

The brewery, at 5151 E. Raines Road, got its start under Stroh’s and later was owned by Coors. Now, Craft Brew Alliance brands such as Kona Longboard Lager and Redhook are rolling off the lines.

City Brewing Co. bought the 1.3 million-square-foot facility for $30 million in 2011 from Hardy Bottling Co.; at the time, the brewery portion of the plant had been dry for years.

Blues City doesn’t discuss its specific customers, which plant manager Tom Brouillette described as “a few large” and “many small.” But he called the partnership with CBA a “perfect fit.”

Leon Fyfe, who is brewery operations manager here for Craft Brew Alliance, agreed.

“When Coors had in it the 1990s, they dumped a bunch of money into it, gave it a modern brewery makeover with all the bells and whistles,” Fyfe said. “We want to make high-quality beer as safely and efficiently as possible and we kind of look at ourselves as on-site consultants.”

Brouillette says CBA’s influence was a game-changer: “It made us a much better brewery.”

While Craft Brew Alliance employs two people in Memphis, including Fyfe, it utilizes City Brewing’s staff of 260 employees. The plant brews and packages five days a week, and sometimes a sixth, Brouillette said.

Fyfe, however, is in charge of brewing the CBA brands: “I run the process. I’m making the beer.”

Craft Brew Alliance, which reported net sales of $58.5 million in the second quarter, a 3 percent increase over the second quarter of 2014, was formed in 2008 with the merger of two Pacific Northwest craft brewers – Seattle-based Redhook Brewery and Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers Brewing.

Kona Brewing Co., Hawaii’s oldest and largest craft brewery, joined the Alliance a short time later.

Fyfe says CBA’s arrangement with Blues City is not unique.

“There are a variety of brewery platforms like this across the United States,” he said. “We didn’t start out to set ourselves up as a contract brewer.”

Memphis, however, was attractive not only because of the facility and operation, but also its location far from Craft Brew Alliance’s home markets in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

“For us, the quality of the beer is paramount,” Fyfe said. “The goal is to supply locally as much as we can.”

Blues City’s plant also was appealing because in addition to bottles and kegs, it can produce a large volume of cans. Previously, that might not have mattered to a craft brewer. But recently craft beer customers have proven they are accepting of the canned product.

“This place had a lot of capability,” Fyfe said of Blues City.

Back in the early days, when the plant on E. Raines Road was just making working-man’s beers such as Stroh’s and Schlitz that’s about what one could expect to find in grocery stores – along with other macro beers such as Budweiser.

Now, the beer cases at the grocery store take up a lot more room and the market is flush with new craft players. A craft beer connoisseur almost needs a scorecard to keep track.

“It’s a lot more competitive,” Fyfe said. “Every time I’m at a brewing conference all they talk about is the growth of the business and the permits for opening new breweries.”

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