Maybe you know Isaac Privett — pale and pony-tailed, stocky of build and stoic of countenance, he is the placidly unassuming fellow who frequently mans the taps on the second floor Speakeasy of Preservation Pub.
But what you may not know is that Privett does more than just pour craft beers — he’s been
known to brew them, too. And as the newly licensed proprietor of his own Cold Fusion brewing company, he is now serving some of his own product at the bar he tends, his Cold Fusion ales now being available in both the Speakeasy, and at one of the taps next door at Scruffy City Hall.
Cold Fusion was long in the making, seeded by Privett’s back room brewing efforts as a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was a weird beginning for a future craft brewer, a genesis inspired by prison culture, obscure science fiction, and sheer reprobate instinct.
“I started making what I called ‘hooch wine’ in my closet in a garbage can for my friends when we had parties,” Privett says with a wan smile. The idea came in part from an apocalyptic Warren Ellis webcomic entitled “FreakAngels”, wherein the main characters — living in the ravaged climes of London in the wake of a world-ending Flood — made wine by distilling old stores of tea.
“I did some research, found out you could really do it that way,” Privett says. “Then I bought a bunch of raspberry hot tea, steeped it, dumped it in the garbage can, added a lot of yeast and let it go for a week.
“I didn’t have any furniture back then. But by god, I always had 26 gallons of pretty potent prison hooch in my closet.”
He continued his primitivist brewing efforts for some years thereafter. In the meantime, he moved to Knoxville, where he met and married wife Nicole. She takes a good deal of the credit — and all of the blame — for Privett’s evolution from a distiller of rotgut raspberry tea.
“I have her to thank for making my first ‘serious’ beer,” he says. “She bought me a make-your-own beer kit for Christmas one year. It was the first time I’d ever made anything ‘sophisticated,’ and it turned out pretty well.
“I figured out I have a talent for making beer, and it became an obsession.”
And three years ago, that obsession became the basis for a business when Privett — once again at wife Nicole’s behest — decided to pursue his own brewing operation. “I wanted to find a way I could be my own boss,” he says.
“And Nicole said, you’re good at making beer, so why don’t you make that into a business? I had no idea what it would entail, so I came up with a name, and went from there.”
But it wasn’t easy. In fact, Privett rates starting his own brewery as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“It takes so much perseverance. It’s one roadblock after another. You have to deal with so many different people, so many different departments. You satisfy one person, and then the next person says, ‘Here’s 50 million more things you need to do.’
“I’m brand new to business, so of course I had to choose alcohol as the business I’m going to start in.”
Privett describes a veritable bureaucratic obstacle course of building permits, occupancy certificates and health regulations, befuddling hurdles to be cleared on the track to legitimate brewing. At one point, he had to scrap outright plans to move into a particular facility, after spending thousands of dollars on renovating the place.
Finally, though, he found a suitable locale for Cold Fusion HQ, a 1,500-square-foot facility in North Knoxville off Merchant’s Drive, a building which he subsequently outfitted with 150 gallons worth of brewing capacity, complemented by 200 gallons in fermentation vats. “We’re starting off pretty small,” he says.
Cold Fusion was declared “legal” by all relevant authorities around mid-summer, and Privett has been busy brewing and wrangling potential bulk buyers ever since. He’s currently vending Cold Fusion at the Pub, Scruffy City Hall, and Bearden Beer Market. “I’ve got other requests coming in all the time,” he adds.
Privett plans to brew seasonal beers in the near term, “so I can make whatever people want at the time,” and expand as sales and finances permit.
What’s the secret to successful brewing? Privett won’t divulge all of his trade secrets, but he does offer a couple of tips to the budding brewmeister at home.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” he says. “If you’re not sanitized, you’re going to make terrible-tasting beer.”
And: “It takes intuition, sort of like the intuition that good cooks have, that kind of creativity and understanding of how ingredients go together. I get a lot of inspiration from cooking. I look at food pairings a lot.”