If you’ve passed by the corner of Central and Summit Hill in the last several months, you will have noticed that there are changes in the making at the shiny little building that looks more like a refugee spaceship from David Lynch’s Dune than any of its intended purposes. Empty for the past year, the artifact of a long-gone retro diner has been an unproductive parcel that acted as a subliminal barricade to the Old City.
You may have wondered when (if?) the new occupant, Merchants of Beer (or M.O.B. as the teaser banners would have it), was going to officially throw open its doors. Take comfort in the fact that its ribbon-cutting is nigh, and the beer, and more, will flow very, very soon. M.O.B.’s grand opening is set for Wednesday, May 31 and will thus commence its ongoing mission to seek out new beers and make them an essential part of your frothy life.
But there’s more than just coolers of beer and clerks with their heads in the suds here. The owners, an informal conglomerate of business-folk who prefer not to be named, have in mind an experience that’s about more than just chugging a cold one or grabbing a six-pack for the loft party.
Roy McKinnon, founder of the Red Booth Group, a hospitality consulting company, helped advise the new undertaking and promises it will be a fresh experience.
“Obviously tap houses are not unique—they’re popping up everywhere. The difference is that we’re really trying to push our 48-50 taps to be uniquely different,” McKinnon says. “You’re not going to see any of the usual suspects—we’re meeting with all the Eastern breweries and East Tennessee breweries to create unique things. And the 270 beers that are going to be in the refrigerator and in the walk-in grab-and-go are going to be uniquely different.”
They also mean to make it easy for you to design remotely your personal selection of take-home beers: When you submit your order from your preferred device, it will be ready for pick-up when you arrive. Someday, they’d like even to deliver those six-packs or cases directly to you.
There will also be a limited by-the-glass selection of wine from kegs—bold stuff, they promise—along with some cocktails, and, joy of joys, locally made sodas from the happily mad scientists at Honey Bee Coffee, who are also providing nitro cold brew.
Even better, at least from the eater’s point of view, M.O.B. will also put out some well-considered nosh. Naturally, the snacks were created with the idea that they’d be washed down with heady selections from those specially curated taps, but—if the menu plays out as well it reads—it’ll be reason enough to stop by the beer store with or without hoppy intent.
The Food Fare, as the menu is called, consists of nibbles or, as McKinnon calls them, “scoopable snacks”—all of which, he says, “can all be pushed out of a kitchen probably the size of most people’s pantry,” much like you might find behind the curtain at traditional tapas or pinchos restaurants. And just like those snack and booze experiences, the food at M.O.B. is well seasoned, flavorful stuff you can mostly eat with your hands and share with your squad.
There are platters of jerky-like meats paired with nuts and berries, pretzels with dip, and handful of hand pies, and more. At first glance, it looks like many of these snacks could be easily produced from microwave-ready blister-packs and plastic bags, but that’s not the case and almost everything has a home-grown connection.
The jerky isn’t your average fare—it’s a fresher product from bison, elk, and wild boar according to M.O.B. specs, including, McKinnon says, some inspired by South Africa’s famed air-dried, cured meat, biltong.
“We started with the African dried meats when we sat down with a local group and said here’s what we like and let’s see what we create. We couldn’t do biltong proper, but what we have is a spin on that,” he says.
And the pretzels on the menu won’t come from a bag either—they’re soft sticks, dusted with ghost-pepper salt and served with a smoky blue cheese dipping sauce that isn’t made for shy violets. And that ghost pepper shows up on the pan-roasted chickpeas, too.
Truth be told, there’s plenty of heat and some salt to be found here. Both recall a passage from Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory: “You have heard of rich men in the north who eat salted foods, so that they can be thirsty—for what they call the cocktail.” Though while M.O.B. hopes to make you thirsty for any number of their libations, these combinations of salt and heat seem particularly designed to create a longing best assuaged by crafty beer that you don’t have to be wildly rich to afford.
Forward-thinking foodies will appreciate the nature of the heat. Although sriracha may still be the popular king of warm condiments, M.O.B. intentionally left it out of their pantry to concentrate on what they see as the coming heatwave.
Ghost pepper, perhaps the most well-known of these heaters, rates at about 1 million Scoville heat units (or anywhere between 100 and 400 times hotter than the tame jalapeño and four times hotter than the habanero). It shows up on the menu mixed with salt in a balanced equation that McKinnon says won’t burn your lips off, but will certainly raise your palate’s temperature and cause delightful head-sweats.
The Chimayo pepper isn’t nearly as hot—it’s just a little ahead of the jalapeño—but its charm comes from its smoky, earthy flavor and its direct connection to its home in Chimayo, N.M. Some chili aficionados describe the flavor as a kind of terroir, which loosely means a taste unique to the specific place of origin. (Site-specific wines and cheeses are often described as having terroir, as are many Grainger County tomatoes.)
Gochujang also makes an appearance in an eponymous nibble called confetti. A Korean red-chili paste, gochujang is of that spicy/savory/sour ilk of hot sauces with its flavors coming from an alchemy of chili, fermentation, and, believe it or not, glutinous rice.
The confetti itself is really just an Asian-inspired trail mix. In fact, McKinnon opines that “many of these are things that people will perceive as trail mixes, but they’re complementing beers very well. What this is about is spices and oils and flavors and I think Knoxville is ready for it. The spices, the salts, the flavors have this ability to really bring an oatmeal stout right up front of you.”
But the menu also includes a few hand pies including beef harissa, sweet potato curry, and pimiento cheese with Benton’s bacon. McKinnon promises that they’re actually made in Knoxville, and that they’ll arrive at your table hot, brown, and crisp thanks for to the same flash-bake oven technology that allows Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to cook pizzas in 90 seconds.
But for my money, the most exciting addition is a very important milestone in Knoxville’s regular food scene: M.O.B. will serve chapulines, aka grasshoppers. Specifically, they’re roasted grasshoppers. They’ll be served on platters of butter lettuce, and tossed in sesame oil and some chili lime seasoning.
“We really wanted to do something that was outside the envelope for Knoxville, but actually, at the end of the day, I think they’re kind of cool,” McKinnon says. “They were served at the Mariners game at the opening season and really got a huge [good] reaction.”
So, maybe we’ll all meet for a beer, a lavender-ginger soda, or even a cup of coffee as we chomp on crickets and sweat through some innovative trail mix. It all looks pretty tasty even without beer goggles.
Merchants of Beer
137 S. Central St.
Grand Opening: Ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, May 31 at 2 p.m.
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Dennis Perkins' Home Palate is a tasty exploration of local options for eating out and eating well by way of restaurant reviews, features on fun or unusual foodstuffs, and interviews with local food purveyors and tastemakers. It’s a candid and personal look at what’s right (and sometimes what’s wrong) with eating in Knoxville and its environs. He is also the artistic director of the Knoxville Children’s Theatre, has directed and performed at the Actor’s Co-op and Black Box Theatre, and is a foodie par excellence.
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