By Bobby Bush
In 1999, Tom Rutledge took over a floundering beer festival in Knoxville, Tennessee and turned it into one of the most popular beer events in the South. Tom's plan was to entice brewers to the Knoxville Brewers' Jam with extra amenities and praise. He wanted brewers to feel wanted and welcomed. Tom's plan worked. By all accounts, the 7th annual KBJ, staged at the World's Fair Park on October 18, 2003, was a roaring success.
Tom networked with brewers, bartenders and bar owners night and day. He established the heavily-hit BeerSouth.com website and kept it current on a daily basis. He truly lived for beer.
When Catawba Valley Brewing Company brewer Scott Pyatt called at noon on Halloween, I could tell immediately that something was wrong. Always a jovial fellow, Scott was crying. Tom Rutledge, he told me, had died. Tom had just attended my 50th birthday party in Hickory the previous Saturday night. He stayed around long enough to join my wife and I, and several other beer couples, for breakfast on Sunday morning. He took a leisurely drive home.
Life is fleeting. Death often moves quickly without reason. Tom had plans: a bigger, better festival (he always found room for improvement); maybe a second annual Knoxville beer event; an expanded website. He was happiest when everything worked as he had planned. He loved helping others. He smiled when everyone was enjoying themselves.
And then boom, out of the blue, he died. It hurts.
In our time together and in a constant stream of email, Tom talked sparingly of his background and family. Though we often communicated a dozen times daily by email and experienced many beer fests together, I knew little of Tom outside of the beer world. That was his preference and I, like most people who met Tom in the past five years, respected that.
He was one hell of a guy. He did more for the craft beer industry in the South than anyone single person I know. I will miss him. We all will miss him.
Below is a short eulogy that was submitted for publication in my Ale Street News column. It should appear in the December/January issue.
Tom Rutledge put the Knoxville Brewers Jam on the map. He didn't found the regional fest, New Knoxville Brewing did. But when the local micro faltered in 2000, Tom stealthily stepped in and took over. Originally an early June festival, this year's 7th annual Brewers Jam was delayed until mid-October so that the fest could return to its most popular site, the World's Fair Park. Well organized and brewer-friendly, it was Tom's crowning achievement. It was also his last. Sometime during the night of October 30, Tom Rutledge died in his sleep.
Tom gave unselflessly to the brewing community. Though the Brewers Jam was his most visible contribution, he also established BeerSouth.com on which he kept the internet's most current information about breweries, festivals and other helpful resources. His monthly Beer South Buzz newsletter provided news about the craft beer industry and the interesting people who make it what it is. Tom also helped several computer-challenged brewers establish websites for their breweries. Never a homebrewer, he nonetheless had a passion for all things beer and for the independent entrepreneurs who crafted good beer.
Tom was quiet, somewhat introverted. But beneath that soft-spoken interior was an organizer, a motivator, a doer, a friend. His death leaves a huge void in Eastern Tennessee and the entire Southern beer world. He made a difference. Craft brewers and beer lovers lost a true friend.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush