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Entrepreneurial brothers tap a new market in UC

Monday, Aug 2, 2010

A love for business – and beer – is ingrained in brothers Don and Dave Sergio. The brothers have recently opened Calfkiller Brewing Company in their hometown of Sparta, and are set to begin distributing their microbrew this summer. Their enthusiasm for craft beers combined with a fierce do-it-yourself attitude has fostered their evolution from “mere homebrewers,” as Don says, to entrepreneurs on the verge of tapping a rapidly expanding industry without a precedent in the Upper Cumberland.

The brothers applied for a brewing license in 2006 with the intention of expanding their armchair beer-brewing operation into a large-scale hobby. When they realized that government regulations would require them to use a much larger space than they’d originally planned, Don and Dave decided to modify the dirt-floored horse barn behind Don’s house into a small brewery. Then they decided they had better try to make a profit on their hobby while they were at it.

Being part of a family-owned construction company helped with starting the business, the siblings beginning construction on the brewery in May 2007. Limited in terms of capital, they soon became intent on using as much recycled building materials as possible. The result after two years of building? A thoroughly quirky but aesthetically fascinating structure whose interior consists of everything from 100-year-old salvaged brick to ceramic tiles recovered from a 1970s-era McDonald’s. A brewing system made from repurposed dairy processing equipment capped off the facility.

In spite of their inspired construction performance, the focus for Don and Dave has always been the beer. Each of them an avid homebrewer with more than a decade of experience, the brothers now had a fully equipped microbrewery that only lacked one thing: beer.

According to the company’s tagline, beers produced by Calfkiller are conceived to create “a revolution in every mug.” They really aren’t kidding, either. In terms of styles and ingredients, Calfkiller beers have a knack for the avant-garde. Take for example their Trail Ale, a granola-inspired beer whose ingredients list – which includes coconut, almonds, raisins and green apples – stretches the notion of what a beer can be made of. Other forays into the unexpected include brews making use of anything from potatoes to molasses to new-growth pinecones from Don’s backyard.

“I feel like we have ideas about beer that people haven’t touched on yet,” Dave said. “We also tend to pull in ideas from other places. We make beer like we cook. We take things that you wouldn’t really think would go well in beer and think, ‘Hey, this could make pretty good beer.’”

Even the company’s flagship brew, the Grassroots Ale, is made with oats in addition to barley to give it a smoother, more velvety mouth feel. The brothers describe that beer as “almost” a cross between an English-style pale ale and a West Coast pale ale. “Almost” because they have long refused to force their beers into a predetermined style category.

“A lot of our beers don’t fit the style constraints,” Dave said.

“We don’t focus on style so much,” Don added. “We focus on making something that’s good.”

But regardless of unconventional ingredients and oddball styles, the Sergios want one thing to be clear about their product. Sure, they’ve fire-roasted a grain mash inside of a pumpkin to make a seasonal brew, but don’t expect a swig of flaming marshmallows and dried gourds coming from a specialty Calfkiller tap.

“Our goal is to make all these different beers using different ingredients but to always make it beer,” Dave said.

So far, that approach has provided the Calfkiller lineup with the appropriate balance of variety and deliciousness that its growing consumer base can’t get enough of.

The Sergios have already successfully tested their experimental homebrewing methods using their 220-gallon vat, the result of which they christened The Guinea Pig, a large-scale version of their Grassroots Ale that turned out a bit hoppier than its predecessor but matched the gravity of the small-scale original.

So far the “fuzzy math and junk science” (to quote Don) that has guided the Calfkiller brewing process has turned out some exceptional beer. And while sourcing local and fresh ingredients will prove a bit more difficult on a larger scale, they are committed to using the best quality ingredients in every batch. One of their meticulous brewing methods testifies to this: grains for the mash are milled on site for every batch.

“As close to nature as you can get is what we want to have in our beers,” Dave said.

But ultimately, the Sergios see their enterprise as benefiting more than just the area’s taste buds.

“We’d love to able to employ as many people as we can from the area and keep it here,” Dave said. “We both grew up in Sparta and we love it here. We want Calfkiller Brewing Company to be something people in Sparta are proud of and for it to be something that brings people here.”

The brothers plan on growing slowly, with the regular production and distribution of one batch per week starting within six months. To augment the brewery, they’ve also formed Grassroots Distributing, a separate company under which the Sergios will get their kegs to area restaurants.

“We’re going to ease into it, and then we’re going to get our feet on the ground, and then we’re going to run,” Don said with a laugh. “That’s our business plan.”

In a way, the brothers have already hit the ground running: they’ve reached agreements to set up tap handles at several regional restaurants including Foglight Foodhouse, Crawdaddy’s, Char and Spankies. On top of that, they have plans to bring Calfkiller to Oktoberfest celebrations across the region this fall.

“If the beer goes over well, it will help all the businesses that carry it,” Dave said. “So if people go, ‘Oh, now they’re carrying Calfkiller Beer. Cool, let’s go there.’ Hopefully it will be an avenue for other businesses to buy locally.”

Don and Dave have already begun planning for the tourism opportunities the brewery might present. The brothers would eventually like to brew their flagship beers at a downtown Sparta location, an expansion that would still allow them to draw the water for their beers from their company’s namesake river. According to this plan, they would then designate the existing facility for brewing specialty beers and for hosting tours and tastings. Beer lovers can look for offerings from Calfkiller Brewing Company in select area restaurants by early August.

The brewery is located at 1839 Blue Springs Road in Sparta.

Reader Reaction      8 COMMENTS      New Comment

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Tuesday, Aug 3, 2010 at 10:45 PM
Congratulations! I wish you guys all the success in the world, you truly deserve it.
David Vidrine
Wednesday, Aug 4, 2010 at 5:23 PM
I can attest to all what is claimed in this article. I've tried the brew several times; even lent a hand for a few hours helping with the brewry construction. The place is unique, and the beer is great.
Thursday, Aug 5, 2010 at 1:24 PM
I have been lucky enough to try beer from the calfkiller brand, and it really is fantastic. Their innovation for beer is unmatched by any other beer i have tasted so far. All i can say is WOW, and these guys really deserve it.
James J. Veccie, Jr.
Thursday, Aug 12, 2010 at 2:42 PM
These guys are not only great brewers, but genuinely nice people. They provided the brew for my buddy's wedding, and it was spectacular. Basil infused on the spot, you can't get better than that!
Keith Lilly
Thursday, Aug 12, 2010 at 10:26 PM
Great article about some great brewers. Dave and Don have demonstrated their prowess for brewing. Glad to say that the inaugural Ale for the Trail brew-off, in Cookeville, was testament to their business plans. Best of luck. I'll be there to support your product and your local restaurant customers too.
Thursday, Aug 19, 2010 at 2:08 PM
I grew up in this area with these guys. Couldn’t be more proud! They need to open up a Bed & Brew in Sparta where all the stressed-out Atlanta folk can have some weekend downtime.
Friday, Aug 27, 2010 at 5:56 AM
The beer is some of, if not, the finest I have ever tasted. The Sergios are, hands down, the most gracious and talented guys this town has to offer. If their success is measured by their talent, personality and persistence this business will be around for their kids to run.
Monday, Sep 19, 2011 at 11:08 PM
Dave and Don have just catered the beer for my Sons wedding and I have to say that the response from the guests was incredible. Not only I but everyone at the reception loved the beer and the feedback was unanimous. Bottom line is that I would reccomend Calfkiller for any event. Great job guys