'We’re changing something': can alcohol boost the Bible belt's economy?

When some residents in the area around Chickamauga, Georgia wish to imbibe, they will drive 15 minutes into nearby Chattanooga, thinking that distance will give them anonymity to drink in public. Grown adults, 40 years old or so, will not drink in front of their parents.

Customers ask Skip Welsh, the co-founder of Phantom Horse Brewing Co in Rock Spring, to put their beer into a Styrofoam or red solo cup. They don’t want anyone to know what they are drinking.

In the heart of the Bible belt, alcohol is still steeped in stigma.

For years, blue laws and a cultural condemnation of alcohol has kept much of the rural south dry, or at least sipping light beer. Yet there is a growing embrace of alcohol in this corner of the country.

In 2010, Welsh had planned to sell domestic beers on tap like Bud Light, Coors Light and Shock Top at Pie Slinger, his pizzeria. A year and a half later, he abandoned the taps. Beer wasn’t selling the way he expected, and he lost customers because he offered it.

That’s why Welsh expected pushback last year when, after discovering craft beer in 2014, he decided to take his homebrewing operation pro. Phantom Horse was the first brewery to open south of the state line in north-west Georgia.

He was surprised there was no public outcry. At first, there were looks when patrons entered to see Welsh and Randles mixing brews. But those changed, Welsh said, when they realized they were creating and building flavor profiles.

The switch began, Welsh said, when local kids went to college in the cities, and came back around 2011 with a taste for craft beer. They drank in front of their parents, and they approached drinking differently – to enjoy the taste of it, not to get drunk.

Growing up in Alabama, Welsh said beer was viewed as sin. His father would buy a six-pack when he was angry and fighting with Welsh’s mother. “I’m a God-fearing man, and I’m quite proud of what we do,” said Welsh. He sees little support in the Bible for a prohibition on alcohol. Jesus turned water into wine and the original Greek made it clear it contained alcohol, he said. The key, Welsh said, is responsibility.

Beer barrels are destroyed by prohibition agents in an unknown location.



Beer barrels are destroyed by prohibition agents in an unknown location. Photograph: AP

Over the last few years, the beer industry has been a bright spot in US job growth. “Beer has never been more dynamic, which is reflected in economic numbers,” said Michael Uhrich, chief economist for the Beer Institute, an industry organization headquartered in Washington, DC. “Employment among brewers is growing at nine times the rate of total US employment.”

“Georgia has 78 permitted breweries today, compared to 48 in 2014,” Uhrich continued. “Today in Georgia, 1,721 people have a job in a brewery, up from 1,473 in 2014.” A similar story is occurring in Tennessee, where the 69 permitted breweries in 2014 grew to 108 two years later.

Towns across the area are taking notes: loosening their local ordinances could boost their economic potential.

In March, voters in Rossville, Georgia passed ordinances that legalized liquor by the drink and Sunday packaged beer and wine sales. Adjacent Fort Oglethorpe has had liquor by the drink for several years, allowing restaurants like O’Charley’s, Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings to spring up along its main strip.

But alcohol isn’t just a local issue. It’s a state one too, and whiskey startup Chattanooga Whiskey Co had to find out the hard way: to get up and running, they first had to change Tennessee law.

About 100 years ago, before Tennessee passed prohibition, Chattanooga’s Market Street was home to 20 distilleries. In 2009, the Tennessee legislature finally passed a law that re-opened the state up to distilling. However, lawmakers were able to opt their regions out of the bills, and so Chattanooga was passed over.

Doing what most startup whiskey companies do to quickly have a product, Chattanooga Whiskey purchased a whiskey made in Indiana, and sold it under its brand. It also launched a “vote whiskey” campaign to lobby, first at the county level, for a change in the law. It got it in April 2013 when the state bill went through.

“We’ve lived [the startup phase] for five years,” Tim Piersant, co-founder of the distillery, said. “We’ve had to change laws, raise capital, build a distillery, learn how to distil. We’ve almost come out with our product. Now, we’ve built a second distillery, learned a second operation on a larger scale.” Whiskey barrels take at least two years to age and the first of Chattanooga Whiskey’s genuine, locally-distilled product will be ready in July.

Recently, Chattanooga Whiskey expanded past its 5,000 sq ft experimental distillery in the heart of Chattanooga, and opened a second location in a former car dealership where they have begun to scale up operations.

Meanwhile, there are reasons why people in this area do not participate in the changing alcohol culture. Jordan Metzger, 33, doesn’t drink because it would undermine his ability to be a role model and minister as a youth pastor to sixth- to 12th-graders at Oakwood baptist church, located in Chickamauga, Georgia.

Inside Chattanooga Whiskey Co, which recently expanded.



Inside Chattanooga Whiskey Co, which recently expanded. Photograph: Our Ampersand Photography

“If I was seen drinking in public, having a beer, a glass of wine, it would affect my ministry, the kids, the parents, the whole nine yards,” Metzger said.

Growing up near Baltimore, it was a non-issue if a church leader at a nondenominational church had a glass of wine while eating out with the rest of the staff.

At Oakwood, the question of alcohol is “a debate that’s alive and well,” Metzger said. The conflict, he sees, is split between the older generation’scultural values versus a new generation’s view. It’s part of a larger discussion about how to balance cultural expectations and reaching out to a new generation while staying true to the doctrines of Christian faith.

When Oakwood’s leadership discussed candidates for lay positions, the question of alcohol consumption came up as a criterion. Metzger believes the Bible does not forbid alcohol; that Paul wrote in the New Testament it is permissible, if perhaps not beneficial, although definitely not beneficial if it passes into drunkenness.

Metzger understands the old Baptist ethic that avoids activities and situations (such as dancing) because it might lead to sin. “The problem, the rub, comes in when you start judging others with the standards you set for yourself,” he said.

Like several Christian colleges in the area, Covenant College forbids its students from consuming alcohol. It’s a policy that has been on the student handbook since 1955 and has remained “remarkably consistent,” said Brad Voyles, vice president of student life at the college associated with the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).

Through the years, the college has clarified exemptions. Outside the academic school year, students, if they are of age, can drink. “You should feel free to consume responsibly,” Voyles said. Other exemptions include wine while taking communion and married students who live off campus.

A prohibition on alcohol isn’t something that’s found in the Bible, the college believes. “This policy is an extra-biblical requirement,” Voyles said. “We’re saying in this season of life as a student of Covenant College, set that freedom aside.”

The reason for the alcohol-free campus is more pragmatic. Voyles cited American Psychosocial Association statistics that say alcohol is often a contributor to sexual assault, rape, violence, fights, property damage. Academically, the abuse of it can pull down grades and cause students to miss class. “It makes sense from an academic standpoint and a life-together standpoint,” he said.

Still, views against alcohol have remained entrenched in this area for generations.

An hour drive north from, Bryan College sits on a hill overlooking Dayton, Tennessee. The college was founded in honor of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and populist politician of his time. Before he died in the town, Bryan, an advocate for federal prohibition of alcohol, said Dayton would be an ideal place to start a Christian college.

The current Bryan College student handbook says: “The use of or possession of narcotics, illegal drugs, or alcoholic beverages is grounds for immediate suspension.”

Younger southerners have developed a taste for alcohol.



Younger southerners have developed a taste for alcohol. Photograph: Our Ampersand Photography

Dayton sits in Rhea County, which is technically dry, according to Tom Davis, the county’s administrator of elections. But that hasn’t stopped local cities from dipping their toes in. Dayton legalized liquor by the drink in 2010 and voted in April to allow package store sales of alcohol inside city limits.

“I like to call the south the last frontier of craft brewing,” said Kirby Garrison, 27, co-owner of Monkey Town Brewing Company, which sits on a side street in Dayton’s downtown. The company, which Garrison started with his father, offers food, spirits and the craft beer brewed in the steel 270-gallon tanks in a room off the dining area. Residents from neighboring towns regularly visit.

Growing up in Dayton, Garrison and his family left when he was 14 to live on eastern Long Island. They wanted to start a brewery but thought Long Island or Chattanooga would be too crowded. So they went back to Dayton. “This area we chose because we know [people] would appreciate it the most,” Garrison said.

When Garrison returned, there were more empty shops and for-rent signs in Dayton’s downtown than he remembered. Unlike New York City, a small town like Dayton derives its identity from its history, Garrison said. If you’re local, people will spend minutes trying to figure out where you hang on one predominant family tree or another. “A name means something here,” he said.

When Garrison first started building out the space, he would see people slowly driving their cars past. Other times, people would go right up to the windows to peer in. They were curious, watching from a distance. The community warmed when they learned Monkey Town offered more than just alcohol.

Part of Garrison’s job is education. About a dozen times a week, if a patron expresses interest in craft beer, then Garrison pulls 2oz samples. Most people assume India Pale Ales are bitter hop-bombs. Garrison brewed his cloudy IPA to capitalize on the hops’ diverse flavor, to make something that tastes as if fruit was brewed into it.

“We’re changing something,” Garrison said. “I don’t like teaching anything other than beer. Anything else, I’m impatient. But with beer, I have no problem starting from scratch with somebody.”

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *