With a historical reputation as a bootlegging hub and a place for all kinds of vice, the city earned the nickname “Little Chicago” and was associated with notable mobsters from the Prohibition era.
Newspaper articles from the 1920s detailed police raids on speakeasies and stills in the city and county and the destruction of thousands of gallons of “home brew,” including beer.
Pontificating editors scolded residents for publicly demanding enforcement of prohibition laws, but then on Sunday hypocritically “enter church with a brown taste in their mouths from the effects of the night before.”
In the ’50s, nearly two decades after Prohibition’s repeal, Look Magazine listed Johnson City as a hotspot for vice, to which Press-Chronicle staff member Benny Sands wrote that blame lay not with professional gamblers, prostitutes and bootleggers, who carefully moderated their practices, but “Our big problem is the street walkers, transients and youngsters who hang out at a few shady beer taverns and end up breaking into homes and robbing people.”
But it wasn’t until the modern era that the city and its residents embraced legitimate alcohol production.
In the mid-’90s, the Sophisticated Otter Restaurant & Brewing Co. opened in downtown Johnson City’s Love-Thomas building, a former dry goods store on Ashe Street.
At the time, it was the only craft brewery in Johnson City and, until Depot Street Brewing opened in Jonesborough in 2004, was the only one in Northeast Tennessee.
The brew staff put out a modest collection of blondes, porters and IPAs with its five-barrel system.
Patrons, including heavy representation from nearby East Tennessee State University’s faculty and students, would admire the large brewing tank behind the bar, listen to live music and eat on the Otter’s outdoor patio.
Unfortunately, the brewpub came a decade before the craft beer wave crashed over the area. It closed in 2005 after an ownership change, some bad PR, a copyright lawsuit and a suspended liquor license.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Eric and Kat Latham, along with several beer-enthusiast partners, opened the Johnson City Brewing Company.
The small, one-barrel brewing system and a taproom were tucked away into a corner suite on the ground floor of the Kings Center in the heart of downtown.
On opening night, the taproom was flooded with thirsty customers, with a line stretching out into the building’s lobby. Eric, Kat and other staff, poured more than 200 pints that night.
With interest apparent, the owners set their eyes on expanding.
Two years after opening, the Johnson City Brewing Co. moved to a more visible taproom across the street, a corner space with large, ground-floor windows. In 2018, it moved production to a warehouse at 410 E. State of Franklin Road, allowing a production capacity increase to a seven-barrel system.
The size change allowed the microbrew to make more beer and more types of beer.
After Johnson City Brewing Co.’s success, more savvy entrepreneurs followed suit.
Knoxville-area lawyer Joe Baker, parlaying his lucrative home run brand Ole Smoky Moonshine, saw promise in downtown Johnson City and brought his new venture, Yee-Haw Brewing Company, to the former Tweetsie Railroad Depot in 2015.
The much larger outfit, overseen by former Lagunitas Brewing Company brewer Brandon Greenwood, grew quickly.
In three months, it began bottling and distributing its beers. The following year, it was the fourth-largest brewery in the state, and, in 2017, it opened a new location in Nashville and doubled its production capacity in Johnson City by adding a canning line.
2016 brought another brewer, JRH Brewing on West Walnut Street.
Owner John Henritze, after a lengthy approval process with the city codes department, started brewing in a former muffler shop.
Like Eric Latham, Henritze made the leap from his original career to brewmaster after several years of making beer at home for personal consumption.
His wife Jill thought up the brewery’s motto, “Dedication. Determination. Delicious Beer.” and as JRH’s official opening neared, Henritze told the Press the words kept him focused through the difficult start-up process.
In 2018, Great Oak Brewing Co. opened as an attached brand to Southern Craft BBQ and other Stir Fry Group restaurants.
Head brewer Justin Carson landed the deal with the regional restaurant group’s owner and made Great Oak a house brand for them.
With names paying homage to the region’s history, Carson, a Bristol native, said his brews would stick closer to the traditional side of beer and away from experimental concoctions.
Great Oak’s beers are made in a production facility attached to Southern Craft on downtown Johnson City’s Spring Street.
Even with four operating breweries, Johnson City’s taste for beer still wasn’t tapped.
In 2019, the joint owners of Watauga Brewing announced plans to open and received a $195,000 public grant to revitalize an empty building at the corner of Boone and Market streets for a brewery and brewpub.
Regulars at the beer-focused Thirsty Orange Festival and winners of its People’s Choice Award in 2017, Watauga Brewing aimed to open after a renovation, which included building a rooftop bar.
Across the railroad tracks, on the east side of the downtown area, Chris Cates is still working to make the Little Animals Brewery a reality. Cates, another home-brewer, owned and worked his Edisonian Brew Shop, a supply store for craft brewers, for years before jumping into commercial brewing.
Though the road to small business ownership was long for Cates, he was able to register the brewery business in May 2019 and was still working in September to build out the interior of the Main Street building among other last-minute preparations before opening.