The Unlikely Story Of One Northern Woman’s Southern Brewery
How a Harvard-educated woman from the North went from law school to owning an iconic craft brewery in Nashville, TN.
Bailey Spaulding might not fit your idea of a typical beer brewer. Raised in Vermont, Spaulding attended Harvard University before moving to Nashville to attend law school at Vanderbilt. Somewhere along the way, a passion for beer brewing became more than a hobby, and Spaulding went from planning a life as a lawyer to starting Jackalope Brewing Company with a friend she met while studying abroad in Scotland.
Now a brewmaster and the brewery’s CEO, Spaulding finds that she fits right into the community of brewers and doesn’t take her role as one of the few women in the industry too seriously. She’s more concerned with making good beer (like Wet Hopped American Summer and Dire Wolf IPA) and expanding her business, which is growing faster than even she expected.
She does, however, have thoughts on the emerging Southern beer identity, local support for craft beer and how to make peace with taking the plunge into the great entrepreneurial unknown.
What drove you to brew beer, and what made you want to go beyond homebrewing and start a beer business?
I am originally from Vermont, which was one of the first states that really got into craft beer in the ’80s and ’90s. A lot of the great craft brews came out of Vermont, so when I was growing up it was just kind of always around. I lived in Baltimore for a couple years and then I moved to Nashville in 2006, and that was when I started home brewing. At the time, there was a really small craft beer scene in Nashville, which has grown quite a bit since then. So I just kind of started brewing my own, and quickly realized just how much I loved brewing beer. It’s one of those light bulb type moments that I just knew I wanted to actually start my own brewery.
You’re from the north, you went to Harvard, you went to law school, and now you own a brewery in Nashville — does any of this ever make you feel like an outsider in your own industry?
No, not really. I think a lot of people come to brewing from different careers and backgrounds. Now, you’re starting to see some colleges actually have brewing science majors and stuff like that, but most people have come to it from a different place. Sometimes I wish I were an engineer or a chemist, but I feel like everybody’s background helps them in a different way.
Traditionally, going back many years, it was mainly women who brewed beer. Why do you think there are fewer women in the industry today?
That’s a good question. I think it just kind of got labeled somewhat, like a man’s drink by post-Prohibition marketing – almost, I guess you’d say, by the mass breweries. I think they weren’t always this way, but I think they’ve gotten to a point that they’re really marketing companies that make beer.
I think it got stereotyped as a big man beer and flannel kind of thing. Now women are starting to come around – we have so many people who come to the brewery who are like I don’t like beer, but I like your beer. I’m like, no you probably don’t like the watered-down crap that you had in college. This is beer, you like it.
So, are you often made conscious of being woman in what is mostly a male-dominated industry, or is the community more inclusive than one might think? Or does it only come up when people like me ask about it?
Yeah, it really just comes up when people ask about it, kind of on the consumer end. When you’re at work every day, you’re just at work every day.
People ask about it and I think maybe from the consumer side we might have some more women who actually come to our tap room and drink our beer because they heard that it was founded by women. I feel like we can help recruit some women into craft beer – we can make them feel a little bit more comfortable. Generally I don’t feel like I’m treated differently by my peers or that type of thing.
What made you want to open a brewery in Tennessee? Was it just because you were in school there? Why not go back to Vermont, which is traditionally a huge craft beer state? (I believe it’s ranked first in breweries per capita.)
Yeah, it is. There’s definitely a point when you have to make that decision. It was like, so do you go home where there are 30 years of craft beer history, as you said, we have more breweries per capita, or help be a part of starting something.
You can feel the energy that Nashville is ready for it. People were really interested in craft beer and we have this really strong local support for local entrepreneurs and creative types and basically anything that’s made in Nashville, and I love Nashville. Moving here, it was like this place is awesome, I really loved it here. I felt like we could be a part of creating something new or helping to create something new.
In Georgia, there are a number of legal barriers that make it tough for craft breweries to succeed. Have you run into many political or legal issues in Tennessee or do you think it’s a good state to own a brewery?
Well, we definitely have some political issues, but they’re starting to move in the right direction. We have the highest-taxed beer in the country by about 20 percent. I think Alaska is the second highest and our taxes are 20 percent higher.
It’s a pretty significant thing. When we opened, the wholesale tax was a 17% tax based on the price of your beer rather than being volume based, so craft breweries were really bearing the brunt of this tax because our beer’s more expensive. It was pretty messed up that craft brewers were paying higher taxes than the big companies. We got some tax reform through that made it volume-based, so it really didn’t lower the average dollar amount in taxes, but it made it equal.
It was one of those nice rare times when craft brewers and the big brewers are all on the same side. And so we got that tax reform through a couple of years ago, which definitely saved us about $20,000 in taxes last year. That’s a lot for the craft brewer.
Then the other thing is beer in Tennessee is defined as under 5% by weight, which is about 6.3% by volume. To brew anything over that amount you need to a distiller’s license. That’s what they created a your high gravity brewer’s license, but you just have to fill out the distiller’s license forms. We got some reform through last year on that where it’ll be raised to 8% by weight, which is a little bit under 10.5% by volume. That goes into effect January 2017.
That’ll be big because right now we’re still at a little bit of a competitive disadvantage when people want double IPAs and all these big beers that we can’t brew. It does make you have to be creative though and really work on your basics because making a very flavorful low gravity beer is hard. There’s a little silver lining to it.
That being said, are you happy you opened your brewery in Tennessee?
Yeah. No, I mean I definitely still love being in Tennessee. I think like you said, most states have their weird stuff going on.
You take the good with the bad. I think we’ve definitely had great success in Tennessee. We’re still tiny by brewery standards, but by our standards we’ve grown faster than we expected to. I think the tides are turning and part of that is because we’re becoming a really popular industry in the state.
West coast beers are hoppy. East coast beers are… Yuengling? Do you see Jackalope as part of an emerging southern brewing scene, or do you identify more as just a Tennessee brewer — or maybe you don’t adhere to a larger identity at all?
Yeah. I think there is a Southern identity, but I think right now it’s “everything.” Like you said, West Coast, you really see the hops. You get the more malty style up in New England, even though hops are kind of taking over now because they’re delicious. I think there is some Southern brewing culture, but amongst the brewers we really see a variety and I think that is because there’s just a lot of excitement. The Southeast has a long way to go in our brewing culture. We’re pretty sparse, even five years ago, in Tennessee and a lot of our surrounding states. I think right now there’s just so much excitement about what’s new, what people haven’t had before. I think you see a lot of variety but there’s a little bit of a commonality to it.
What are some of your toughest day-to-day challenges and what parts of the job are most fun?
I think the toughest parts are probably making production and sales keep in line with each other and finding that balance. It’s really hard because you have two different timelines that you’re trying to put together, because when you’re producing you know it’s going to take at least three weeks from the day you brew it for it to be ready — but then on the sales level, at first you want to keep growing, but you don’t want to sell beer that you’re not going to have. I feel like you never wake up thinking you’re going to do what you end up doing, it’s a lot of balancing.
We just really love what we do. I love creating something. I love the identity that we’ve been able to create. The identity that we’ve given to the brewery just really comes from all of us. You have this really cool freedom to express yourself. We have, including myself, 11 people who work at the brewery now and all of them are really great. It’s just a great group to be in.
Do you see Jackalope expanding into other parts of the South or the nation as a whole? What are your long-term goals for the brewery?
I think we’d like to clearly continue growing. We’re about 4 years old now and we still only sell our beer in Tennessee. We’re actually not even throughout the state. We’re going to be probably getting to Memphis in the next couple of months and then probably adding Knoxville after that. We do see ourselves wanting to become of a regional brewery. Our focus is always really on the beer and the quality of the beer. We’re going to keep growing as long as we can keep up our culture and our quality of our beer to where we want it – we’ll see where that takes us. We just always think about what we can do next.
What’s something you would have done differently if you could start this whole process over again?
I would have raised more money. We ended up doing a second investment round after we opened the brewery. An interesting predicament where we reached our maximum capacity on our brewing system in six months. It was great that we grew quickly in our fermentation space. We expected to grow fast, but we hadn’t had time to actually make any money yet. Growth in the beer industry is so expensive, so it’s all stainless steel. That was a bit of a challenge. It’s like you’re just getting off the ground and suddenly you have to turn around and are raising more money.
What advice do you have for people who might be on more traditional paths like you once were and want to make the leap to something like brewing, but are afraid of the risk or of failing?
I think one thing that helped me was trying to make peace with the idea that it was possible that it wasn’t going to work out.
So you have the passion for it, it’s like every day you wake up and you think about it, you go to bed and you think about it, and so just making peace with the risk, I guess before you launch into I think is a good idea. Then they may be a little bit less hesitant and scared throughout the process.
Bailey promptly went off and got married a few days after the interview, but her team is still hard at work, inviting customers into the tap room for trivia, yoga and, of course, tours.
Eric Goldschein is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who has written for Business Insider, SportsGrid, The Huffington Post and other digital media outlets. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he has a passion for true stories and pizza. Find him on Twitter to pitch him on brewery founders and social entrepreneurs.