When Wiseacre Brewing Co. opens the doors to its Broad Avenue taproom on Wednesday, Aug. 30, brothers Kellan and Davin Bartosch will be behind the bar, slinging beers and playing tunes like they did exactly 10 years earlier.
Pints of Tiny Bomb American Pilsner and Ananda IPA, the only beers available on opening night in 2013, will cost $3, just like they did back then.
“I think that’ll feel like an emotional moment to me,” said Kellan Bartosch, reflecting on Wiseacre’s 10th anniversary, and the party that’s happening this week.
“I’m really proud of Wiseacre, of the people here. I’m really proud of Davin’s beers, and the way we’ve been able to find a place in Memphis.”
Today, Wiseacre is Memphis’ largest craft brewery and producer of the 4th best-selling craft pilsner in the country, Tiny Bomb.
Wiseacre is expected to brew nearly 30,000 barrels of beer this year, a record for the brewery. The brewery’s beers are now available in 21 states, plus the District of Columbia.
Just last week, Wiseacre added San Diego, California — one of the country’s craft beer meccas — to its distribution footprint.
While Wiseacre has gone national, the brothers behind the brand are still largely focused on home.
“The most important thing to us still is Tennessee, is Memphis. This is our biggest state. Memphis is our biggest market,” said Kellan Bartosch.
The Bartosch brothers, born and raised in Memphis, took unique paths in the beer industry before coming back together to start their own brewery.
Kellan Bartosch focused on the sales and marketing side, working for a distributor and also for craft industry pioneer Sierra Nevada.
Davin Bartosch went to brewing school at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and later served as brewmaster with Rock Bottom in Chicago.
When they opened Wiseacre, Memphis was somewhat of a craft beer desert. Ghost River Brewing was the only craft production brewery in town before 2013. And while you could certainly buy craft beer off the shelf in Memphis, the selection was much more limited than it is today.
As a result, the Bartosch brothers thought craft beer might be a tough sell in the Bluff City.
The brothers, who employ more than 60 people now, initially didn’t even think they’d hire anyone for awhile — potentially years — after opening.
On Wiseacre’s opening night, Davin Bartosch said he thought five people might show up, but it was so packed, he couldn’t even leave the bar.
“It was like, oh shit, I can’t quit pouring this beer,” Bartsoch said.
At closing time, they had to kick people out. They had to brew the next day.
The reality, they learned, was that in 2013, “the consumer demand outstripped supply severely,” Davin Bartosch said.
Focus on Tiny Bomb
Inside Wiseacre’s Downtown brewery, there are mountains of empty aluminum cans waiting to be filled. Most of those cans will be filled with Tiny Bomb.
Of the 30,000 barrels of beer Wiseacre expects to brew this year, about 13,000-14,000 of those will be Tiny Bomb.
“Thirteen years ago, Davin was telling me, we’re going to make a pilsner one day. And I didn’t get it. I was like, why are we doing that? The whole point, at the time, was for beer to be ‘craft,’ it had to be to be really different from domestic,” Kellan Bartosch said.
To be craft, it had to extreme, palate-destroying beer, like the ones being brewed by Rogue, Stone and Dogfishead.
Davin Bartosch’s focus on a more traditional beer like Tiny Bomb was intentional, stemming from his Chicago brewing days.
“There weren’t a whole lot (of craft breweries), especially back then, that were making lower alcohol, lower calorie — but still very delicious, flavorful — beer,” Davin Bartosch said.
“When I looked at it before we opened the brewery, it looked like a big, gaping hole to me.”
Kellan Bartosch said part of his brother’s desire to make a pilsner was simply the challenge of it.
“It’s much harder to make a beer that’s really subtle and still has a lot of flavor than to make just some big explosion. You can’t hide mistakes in a pilsner. And I think that, as that message has trickled out to retailers and consumers, people start to understand it more and appreciate it more,” he said.
Wiseacre has, indeed, made its share of over-the-top beers.
But, ten years in, Wiseacre’s top seller remains the more traditional beer that was on the menu opening night.
Amid challenges, Downtown expansion fuels growth
Wisecre’s growth has been fueled, in part, by a new Downtown brewery.
In 2020, Wiseacre built its state-of-the-art production facility in Downtown Memphis, featuring a 50-barrel brewhouse and massive fermentation tanks to provide increased capacity.
At the original, still-open Broad Avenue location, production had plateaued at 20,000 barrels a year.
The new location has also led to the development of new beers and packaging options.
Wiseacre is now the only Memphis craft brewery with an in-house lab, which is critical for quality control, especially when scaling up.
In addition, Wiseacre’s Downtown facility also included a new taproom and large outdoor space.
Wiseacre’s recent expansion came amid more challenging times for the craft beer industry, with overall sales flat, and brewery closings almost equal to openings.
Like all businesses, COVID-19 also proved a challenge for Wiseacre. In 2020, sales dipped 9%.
Pre-COVID, Wiseacre’s draft vs package sales were 60%-40%. At one point, early 2021, draft sales plummeted to just 3%, as bars and restaurants were essentially shuttered.
Ultimately, Wiseacre’s sales rebounded, growing 31% in 2021 and 10% in 2022, with growth expected to be 10% this year.
Wiseacre’s next 10 years?
Reading the tea leaves is difficult, but looking ahead, the Bartosch brothers see a lot more Tiny Bomb in Wiseacre’s future.
Just like New Belgium is synonymous with Fat Tire, the Bartosch brothers see a future where their brewery is defined by Tiny Bomb.
To that extent, as Wiseacre continues to expand, the brewery is specifically seeking to work with distributors interested in selling Wiseacre’s flagship beer.
“I think definitely trying to find partners that understand us and love lagers and see a value in Tiny Bomb is the number one goal,” Kellan Bartosch said.
Wiseacre has started marketing some of its beers, Tiny Bomb included, as lighter alternatives in a sea of heavier craft beers. A 12-ounce can of Tiny Bomb, 4.5% ABV, is just 129 calories.
And it’s not just people worried about their waistlines that Wiseacre is speaking to.
“People our age — the 35 to 50 category of humans right now — none of us are going to switch to drinking more heavy IPAs. It’s going to go the other direction,” Davin Bartosch said.
“People are going to drink more beers that they can drink more of, and not feel bad. That would be my prediction.”
Wiseacre’s birthday beer
Davin Bartosch brewed a special beer to celebrate Wiseacre’s 10th anniversary.
And, unlike Tiny Bomb, this one’s a monster.
It’s a Portuguese-style barleywine, aged in port barrels for two years, and clocking in at 18.8% ABV.
Only 600 bottles of the beer were produced. They’re being sold for $25.
The 750-mL bottles were capped with a bartop cork, which means they can be enjoyed over time.
In a first for Wiseacre, the beer is not carbonated — something mentioned no fewer than five times on the label. It’s meant to be kept in the fridge and sipped on in small portions, or shared with friends in one sitting.
“This particular one, after trying it, we were like, I think we’d be messing it up to try and carbonate it,” Davin Bartosch said. “It’s very rich, a lot of toffee, caramel, tons of malt character … obviously booze.”
“It’s fun. It’s very unique,” he added. “I don’t think anything like this has been done before.”
In another first for Wiseacre, this beer doesn’t have a name. The label says, simply:
Tens Years of Decadence”