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New Johnson City brewery expects to open downtown by early March

David Floyd • Updated Dec 21, 2019 at 12:34 PM

In 2014, Chris Cates was an avid home brewer enchanted by saison beers.

“Saisons are really cool and versatile, and I just fell in love with that style of brewing and the history behind it,” Cates said. “And like anyone who starts home brewing, to my wife I said, ‘Oh, we should open a brewery,’ and she was like, ‘Pump the brakes.’”

Now, after spending several years acclimating to the industry, Cates and his business partner are getting ready to open Little Animals Brewery at 324 E. Main St. in downtown Johnson City.

The business received its beer permit from the city on Thursday, and Cates expects to begin brewing by mid-to-late January. He anticipates the business will open its doors in either February or early March at the latest.

The brewery’s name is a reference to its stock of beers.

“A lot of people assume it has something to do with the animal shelter or something like that,” Cates said, “but the name ‘Little Animals’ is a nod to the fact that we brew beer that feature little animals — the microbes that drive flavors in beer and differentiate one beer from another.”

The brewery’s primary focus will be on barrel-aged sour beers — which Cates said will have an acidic, tart quality to them with tropical fruit flavors — and hoppy, brettanomyces beers (“brett” for short) — which can have a dry, champagne-like crispness with overripe mango and pineapple fruit flavors. Cates said the brewery’s brett beers will be the star of the show. Brett is a type of yeast used to ferment beers.

Little Animals Brewery will also offer clean saison beers, IPAs, lagers and vintage British beers.

Cates’ foray into the industry began in 2014, soon after he suggested the idea of starting a brewery to his wife Brandi, who he said has been his voice of reason.

“We thought, ‘How can we get a foot in the door to the brewing industry but not open a brewery just yet, because we’ve never owned a business before?’” he said.

Cates said the couple learned about a week later that the home brew shop in Kingsport, Ozark Mountains Brewing Supplies, was closing. The couple bought the remainder of the store’s inventory and opened the Edisonian Brew Shop at 236 E. Main Street in Johnson City, selling brew supplies like yeast and equipment.

As he and his wife were operating Edisonian Brew Shop, Cates was brainstorming the business plan for the brewery and looking for suitable locations and a business partner.

Entrepreneurship runs in Cates’ family. His grandparents, father and uncle have operated Cates Music Center on West Walnut Street for years. His grandfather Carl Cates, who recently died, founded the music store. Before he started the brew shop, Cates worked in the family business for about 10 years.

“Working over there got me into the mindset of wanting to be an entrepreneur, I guess,” he said.

After their lease expired at 236 E. Main St., Cates continued to operate Edisonian Brew Shop at 324 E. Main St. as he and his business partner were working on the brewery, but it was difficult to juggle the two ventures.

Cates said he ended up closing the brew supply shop on Oct. 30 after the home brewing industry began to experience a national decline and sales at his store started to dip. When they opened the brew shop, sales were strong, Cates said, and they were hoping to continue that momentum and hire employees.

“It just didn’t work out because it got to the point where really I just had to choose,” he said. “No one can do two jobs at the same time.”

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