Going with the grain

calfkiller-bannerDon (left) and Dave Sergio, owners of Calfkiller Brewery

Tech’s Sergio Brothers brew sustainable suds and encourage grassroots practices.

Along a narrow windy road a few hundred yards from one of Tennessee’s more interestingly named rivers is a small, reconstructed horse barn, a multicolored Volkswagen van and a delicious smell.

It is the home of the Calfkiller Brewery, owned by Tech alumni Dave, journalism ’02, and Don Sergio.


Dozens of visitors filter through the White County brewery most Saturdays. On a Tuesday afternoon in October, 10 current Tech students in Lachelle Norris’ Sociology of Appalachia course came by to learn about the brewery’s local and sustainable practices. While there, the upperdivision students sampled a few beers as well.

“We were talking about voluntary simplicity, environmental sustainability and working to create an economy that’s based not on growth but on sustainability,” Norris said. “The Sergio brothers just fit perfectly. They are grassroots: They’re local, and they’re running their own show.”

The class spent the semester visiting a variety of cottage and local businesses, with an eye to creating a website that catalogs the businesses and their methods. Students have interviewed soap makers, honey producers, artists and artisans, and several farmers around the Upper Cumberland with the goal of helping build a network and introduce area residents to the traditional, grassroots economy.


“It was neat that we were included because beer making wasn’t something that has been passed down to us,” Dave Sergio said. “But if we weren’t making beer, God would be making it because there would be a farmer who left grain to get wet or something. One day a thousand years ago, a guy saw a puddle bubbling and decided to drink it.”

The Sergio brothers, whose four older siblings also graduated from Tech, decided to open their brewery in 2010. After a few years and a few thousand dollars in legal fees, officials in White County – which was dry at the time – gave them a license to start brewing.

As they began brewing, the brothers continued to work in their family construction business until June 2011.

Using reclaimed debris from construction jobs, they rebuilt and refurbished the horse barn on Don’s property in Sparta. They spent months chiseling mortar off bricks from a century-old building and used washed-up beams from the Calfkiller River to expand the barn. Old wooden pallets form the bar, and all of the signs for their beer in restaurants or around the brewery are painted by hand on reclaimed pieces of wood, old cabinet doors or other random bits and pieces.

“It’s good for these students to see graduates of Tech who are doing these brave new enterprises,” Norris said. “They’re role models.”

In addition to hosting the sociology class, the Sergios have returned to their alma mater for the past two years to speak to business students about being entrepreneurs during the College of Business Professional Development Week.

“We try to go back because we believe that anytime you can inspire and bring out what’s inside a student, it helps them to realize that what’s inside them is possible,” Dave said. “The idea of selfworth is something that not everybody has built in themselves. I think it’s one of the most important things you can have – the idea that you’ve been an integral part of making the world turn.”


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