Cookeville’s first brewery and taproom celebrates six years of business

Red Silo founders, Jim Helton (left) and Mark van Der Bleek (right), celebrate the taproom's six years in business. (Photo: Alexis Johnson)

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

COOKEVILLE – Seven years ago, if you wanted a craft beer you had to travel to a major city. Then a couple of friends took a leap of faith and opened Cookeville’s first brewery and taproom, Red Silo, on the corner of First Street and Cedar Avenue. Saturday night, Red Silo celebrated six years in business with an anniversary celebration featuring live music, fun games, food, beer and giveaways.

How did the friends meet and become two of Cookeville’s favorite entrepreneurs? 

Jim Helton and Mark van der Bleek were neighbors. Helton brewed beer and van der Bleek was a chemical engineer. Beer and chemistry definitely go together, so the duo began to brew beer together in Helton’s kitchen in 2011. Later, van der Bleek bought a cabin, and the beer production moved there.

Three years later, they contacted WCTE’s Becky Magura for questions about the 2014 Blues and Brews and to get the number for Jim Patton who was in charge of the home brewers for the festival. It was the first time that the festival had invited home brewers to participate, and Helton asked if they could join in. They took four different beers. Their beer was such a success, they decided to investigate what it would take to sell beer.

In 2015, they started researching laws regarding brewing and selling beer. At that time, state law prohibited counties under 75,000 people from having tap rooms. Undeterred, they began the search for a location for their business, reviewing zoning and local codes. Soon, they heard that the state legislature was considering eliminating the population-based restriction that only allowed the largest counties in Tennessee to have breweries that sold beer on site. 

“The law was changed and opened up Tennessee to small breweries like what we have here,” Helton shared.

The duo formed an LLC in October 2015, and by 2016, they had 15-20 different recipes that they were brewing in five-gallon batches. 

“We gave a lot of beer away,” said van der Bleek. “Up until the time when we could have a license to sell, we brewed enough beer that we couldn’t even drink it all. We were giving it away at charitable events, fundraisers for the Children’s Museum or other fundraisers.

The current location is one of the first they considered for the brewery. The building wasn’t available to lease at the moment, so they looked across town at Lovell Farm and Home. They didn’t find a location for their business there, but they did find a name. They named their business Red Silo, after the silo on the building – a red silo. Fate stepped in and before they signed a lease, the original site miraculously came available.

Other things seemed to fall into place for the duo. When van der Bleek went to look at the brewing system that they are currently using, it just fit on the red brewing room floor, as if it had been made to go there.

“The length of the hoses fit. The tanks fit,” Helton said. “There’s a lot of things that just fell into place. And the location was one of them.”

They signed the lease in January 2016. After signing the lease at Big O Doughnuts in the snow, they immediately went and started work renovating the site for business. After receiving all their permits, they opened the doors for business on August 27, 2016.

By 2019, business had increased and thus demanded an increase in brewing capacity, patio seating and storage. Seating inside and out doubled, and people were surprised to see a huge red silo erected at the corner of First and Cedar. Six additional restrooms were added, along with more storage capacity. 

A crowd attended Red Silo’s sixth anniversary celebration.

Red Silo’s business continues to grow. Over 90 beer varieties are rotated, with 24 usually on tap. There is also a rotating selection of root beer and crème soda in a variety of flavors. 

There have been several groups to develop from their customer base. In 2016, they were invited to bring beer to Cummins Falls for the marathon to raise funds for the state park, and they have returned each year. 

There is often a connection between beer and running, and Red Silo was no different. Customer Tammy Wright helped start the Red Silo Runners, a running group that has reached over 500 members.

Red Silo Books & Brews also has drawn quite the following. Each month a member gets to select the next book, the club reads it, then gets together to discuss and drink a beer at Red Silo.

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