Local Beers You Can Believe In
Memphis folks making beer down the street from you.
Kevin Eble fills a growler — or small jug — with locally brewed Ghost River beer.
photograph by Justin Fox Burks
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An unseasonably warm December Friday night brought a big crowd to the tasting room of Wiseacre Brewing, just off Broad Avenue near Scott Street. It was a boisterous bunch, not rowdy, but not exactly sedate, either. The happy gathering was certainly doing more than “tasting.” Everyone was drinking. Everyone was drinking beer. Everyone was drinking Wiseacre beer.
Bartenders poured the brewery’s liquid products from a row of bright-colored tap handles set back along a wall of the airy, wood-paneled taproom. Each tap corresponded to one of a rainbow of different beer styles that flowed from them. Wiseacre’s year-round beers — their light Tiny Bomb American pilsner, their bitter Ananda India Pale Ale — were there, of course. But the other taps poured seasonal beers: a dark-colored coffee milk stout, a different and super-bitter India Pale Ale, and an American brown ale.
The huge room’s bay doors were wide open, allowing the party to spill out onto the brewery’s big back patio. In the gravel parking lot below, Central BBQ was serving up wings and sandwiches from its tie-dyed food truck. The sounds of dozens of conversations and clinking pint glasses were carried on a gentle cloud of classic rock above it all. The scene was only halted, or maybe just briefly punctuated, by the piercing blast of a freight train passing on tracks alongside Scott Street, less than 100 yards away.
Just another weekend night at the Broad Avenue brewery. But hard as it is to believe, this is a drinking experience that didn’t exist in Memphis just one year ago. 2013 will be remembered as a major turning point for craft beer in Memphis. Three independent breweries and two growler shops have opened here over the past year. Locally made beer has begun to pour from tap handles in bars and restaurants all over town.
“Those of us in Memphis who are craft beer fans have looked enviously upon Nashville and St. Louis for some time now, and all of a sudden that’s happening here,” says Michael Erskine, an award-winning beer brewer and beer blogger for the Memphis website fuzzybrew.com. “We went from one brew pub in Boscos and one production brewery in Ghost River to three more in the past year.”
It’s December, and Erskine is standing in line to get a growler filled on the opening day of the Madison Growler Shop on Madison in Midtown. With its long bar and neon signs, the 30-tap growler shop looks like a pub that’s been built right inside the Cash Saver grocery store at Madison and Avalon. On this opening day, curious shoppers stop, stare, and some ask questions. But a large part of the crowd, mostly white men in their 20s or 30s, line up and know exactly what to do.
Chances are that these guys have been to real beer towns before. Craft beer is, indeed, enjoying high times right now, but the industry has been a staple in cities like San Diego, Portland, and Asheville for well over two decades; the last-named city (population 87,512) now has 11 independent brewing establishments. The craft-beer wave has been sweeping across the country, and shows no signs of letting up.
About 2,400 operating breweries were registered as businesses in America in 2012. That’s the highest number the country has seen since the 1880s, according to The Brewers Association (brewersassociation.org), the umbrella trade group in the country for breweries and homebrewers. Craft-beer sales totaled $11.9 billion in 2012, up 15 percent over 2011. Those figures represent about 10 percent of overall beer sales. Still, with more than 400 microbreweries and/or brewpubs opening that year, the 2013 craft-beer figures will likely show a significant increase.