"We are serious about what we do, but we don't take ourselves seriously,” Matthew Cummings says of his dual businesses, a brewery and a glassblowing shop. The flourished letters on Pretentious Beer Co.'s shop window in the Old City neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee might give you the impression that that’s not the case. But the beer, the brewers, and the city itself are anything but pretentious.
Cummings, a native of Albany, Kentucky, got his start attending Centre College in Danville, followed by time at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Cookeville, Tennessee, along with his masters in glass sculpture from Illinois State University.
“I went to school to become an architect. And then I had to take an elective and it was either ceramics or glass and I'd begrudgingly took glass and had no interest in it whatsoever,” Cummings says of how he found his passion. “I immediately fell in love with it. Changed my major that semester.”
During this time, he made a name for himself selling his glass sculptures to art collectors around the country. These incredibly intricate works would sell for upwards of $6,000, helping Cummings finance his education.
He also experimented with making glassware with an artistic flourish that his friends said were “pretentious as shit.” Leaning into the description, Cummings continued to make outlandish glassware with delicate stems and curved bodies. When he formed his glass blowing business, he even added a monocle and mustache to the company logo, a la Mr. Peanut.
When sculpture sales slowed in 2012, the success of his glassware led him to launch an Etsy shop as a “side hustle”. The original glass he created, the Hoppy, is still for sale there, with its etched handprints for easy holding. There’s also the Juicy, which sits on a sturdy stem with a curved body and narrow opening, ideal for juicy IPAs. There’s even what’s known as “THE Beer Glass,” a glass with a wide opening and a rounded base with a seam through the middle, lending itself to just about every style of beer.
“Last week our bestseller was the bamboo glass, you know, so we have a lot of the designs stay up there and then, if it doesn't stay up there, it gets called out and replaced with something that will stay up there,” he says.
Since launching his online shop, Cummings’ operation has grown, starting with a gallery and glassblowing studio in Knoxville’s Old City. He now employs five other glassblowers, who you can see shaping the molten glass into shapes in custom 200-plus degree ovens.
“It's definitely a team effort. We'll have two gaffers plus myself… and two assistants,” Cummings says. “The gaffers are the people that are in charge of making the glass, and then the assistant is the second person helping them out, executing things.” It’s a delicate dance of people moving in unison, carefully balancing molten glass.
Vases, glassware, and sculptures are on display in the gallery, which is open by appointment. Before the pandemic, Pretentious Glass also offered glassblowing workshops where you could make your own.
The glasses, which start at $30 each, have also been sold to high-end restaurants and bars, including Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. If this isn’t in your price range, there’s also Modest Glass Co., the company’s affordable line with sculptures and votives.
The playful energy in each piece of glassware is also extended to the brewery, conveniently located next door to the shop. Cummings began homebrewing as a hobby before launching Pretentious Beer Co. in 2016 and brought on a team of fellow brewers.
After opening the brewery, Cummings and his team took on a new task of researching which glass styles work best for different types of beer, combining design and artistic elements while still being functional.
“Any glass is going to enhance or dull a specific flavor profile or aroma. So, you know, the trick is choosing the glass,” he says. “Drinking the same beer out of different glasses, especially our glasses that are targeted to enhance different elements, will teach you so much more about that beer because each one will bring out, you know, the hops or the aroma or the yeast or the malt.”
For Pretentious, that means curving glasses that comfortably fit into your hand with an opening large enough to pick up a beer’s aromatic notes. Cummings even has a patent on a dual chamber glass, which he serves filled with a Berliner Weisse with a house-made hibiscus syrup.
A courtyard connects the brewery and glassblowing shop where the team grows hops, fruit, and other ingredients to add into the beer. As a continuation of the “maker culture” that Pretentious has created, along with the city of Knoxville overall, the tables, chairs, light fixtures, and tap handles are also made by the team.
If you’re looking for flagship beers that are the same week to week, you might be disappointed. Instead, the Pretentious makes whatever interests the team at the moment, just like the glassware. The brewers get to pick the often-humorous names and combinations like a recent peanut butter and jelly sour. Two IPAs on tap feature Talus hops, known for its floral and citrus notes. Most beers in the lineup hover around 5% ABV.
Pretentious also supports causes they’re passionate about with their brews, including a collaboration with Beardsley Farm, which supports the food impoverished, and another with Black Mama’s Bail Out, an initiative of Southerners on New Ground.
“That kind of became our culture,” Cummings says. “So that, once that gets started, the new hires are within that culture and it's kind of a self fulfilling thing. The causes we focus on are equality based. So sexual, gender, racial, or the other flip side of that is, like craft, art, cultural-based.”
It’s this maker culture that Cummings and his team have fostered that makes Pretentious so unique. The experience of seeing a product go from grain to glass is something unmatched anywhere else.