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
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.
Without a doubt, Boscos blazed the trail for the modern craft beer scene in Memphis. Founded by Jerry Feinstone and Chuck Skypeck, this locally owned brewpub opened its first location in Saddle Creek Shopping Center in 1992, moving it to Overton Square in 2002. Nine years later, in 2011, Skypeck and Feinstone opened Ghost River Brewing downtown off South Main, and the brewery’s flagship Golden Ale and Glacial Pale Ale began flowing to Memphis bars and restaurants, and then into bottles that could be found in stores all over town.
But craft-beer culture in Memphis is still in the very early stages. Fresh questions arise daily at The Growler, a 24-tap bar and growler shop in Cooper-Young. David Smith, co-owner of The Growler, says he’s always happy to initiate new customers with a quick “30-second spiel” on how the whole process works. Much of the time that conversation begins at the beginning: What exactly is a growler, anyway?
Basically, it’s a jug of beer. Growlers are typically stumpy, small-handled, glass vessels that look like the moonshine jugs seen in cartoons or Ozark gift shops. They usually hold 64 ounces, or four pints. Growler shops will sell the jugs to customers, with a separate charge to fill it with beer, of course. Bring the jug back to the shop and you’ll only be charged for the beer.
Beer education will continue in Memphis as the industry becomes better established here, Smith says. Craft breweries make beer in small batches. This means they have the flexibility to change quickly the styles of beer they make. Brewmasters usually time new offerings with the changing seasons. Lighter beers usually come out in the spring and summer, for example, and darker, richer beers are more likely to be seen in the fall and winter.
“It’s changing constantly and you can always test your palate with something new,” says Smith from behind the bar at The Growler. “It’s exciting and it keeps people in tune with what’s going on the beer world.”
Consumer tastes are already changing in Memphis. Alan Creasy, a bartender at Celtic Crossing for eight years, says he sees new patterns every month. When Ghost River first came around, for example, patrons asked for it by name, passing up international powerhouses like Guinness, Smithwicks, Harp, and more.
Now those patrons are better-educated. “If we had had five Ghost River beers on tap in the past, we could have handed any one of them [to the customer], said it was brewed in the 901 area code, and they would have been happy with it,” Creasy says. “Now, customers are much more discerning about the beer they drink.”
Patrons will now ask which particular Ghost River, which particular Wiseacre, which Memphis Made, or which High Cotton beer is on tap, and which of those beers are seasonal, Creasy says. And this demand for craft beer now has reached mainstream Memphis establishments. Even Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, the iconic Memphis rib institution that prides itself on tradition, now serves Ghost River and Wiseacre beers.
Back at the Wiseacre brewery off Broad Avenue — this time on a weekday morning — the tasting room is dim and all is quiet; no music plays overhead. Brothers and brewery owners Kellan and Davin Bartosch are getting ready for a day of brewing beer, Kellan with a travel mug of coffee in his hand, and Davin in rubber boots.
The Wiseacre brewery has been a dream for the brothers for years. Raised in Memphis, Davin and Kellan went separate ways geographically and professionally.
Davin studied brewing in Chicago and Munich, was the brewmaster for Chicago’s Rock Bottom brewery and restaurant, and racked up tons of brewing awards at the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup, and more. Kellan went west and studied the beer business, working for a beer distributor, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and became a certified cicerone, the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier.
The two had a handshake agreement that they would open a brewery one day. They made good on their gentlemen’s agreement last year when they brought their collective beer and business knowledge back home to Memphis. They opened Wiseacre Brewing on Labor Day weekend 2013.
“A lot of [craft beer’s surge] just comes from the fact that people want to drink something that’s made closer to their house,” Kellan Bartosch says. “They want to drink something that’s fresh.”
Civic pride has certainly underpinned the rise of craft beer. It’s that same pride that has fueled a new respect for local music, art, and food. People want to see something of themselves in the cultural experiences they have. Local creativity comes from places we’re familiar with, like Midtown, Downtown Memphis, or the source of the Wolf River up near Moscow, Tennessee.
These are real places, not the proverbial “mountains” or “the Colorado Rockies” where national beers like Busch and Coors are purportedly made. (The latter brand is now part of the international Molson Coors Brewing Company, and joint ventures in the U.S. with Miller.) So, when folks from Memphis — people we may even know — make beer in a building down the street, we consider their product a bit differently. And we want to taste it.
Kellan Bartosch agrees that Memphis drinkers are still figuring out much about the craft-beer scene. But they are learning and want to learn, he says. Drinking through the immense and ancient beer family tree to seek out what you like can be daunting and take time — with hundreds of varieties of ales, porters, stouts, barleywines, browns, saisons, and more to be tasted and explored.
Still, Bartosch insists that there are only two important things people need to know about his craft. “Beer is fun, and it’s for everyone,” he concludes.
Toby Sells is a staff writer for The Memphis Flyer.