The Year of Beer

Ghost River brews success with Memphis water, plus marketing.

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What tax cut? You say there was an election? Another football season? All right, but this was also the year of the growler and Ghost River beer.

Ghost River Brewing on South Main Street downtown is one of two breweries in Memphis. The other one is Boscos. At either one you can grab a "growler," a half-gallon brown returnable bottle of home-brewed beer that's relatively expensive at $10 plus $3 deposit but really good.

This was a breakout year for Ghost River. Its output, microscopic compared to Miller, Coors, and Budweiser, was 4,500 kegs. Craft beer, which has been around for more than 20 years, finally achieved critical mass thanks to changing tastes among younger beer drinkers turned off by generic brews. Ghost River is available at several locations in Memphis and in Southaven. There is a good chance it will be available in 12-ounce bottles next year.

Beer is 95 percent water and 5 percent yeast, malt, and hops. Selling it is 100 percent marketing, from burly ex-jocks touting low-calorie Miller Lite to bearded brewmasters pitching Samuel Adams. Doing its part to brand Memphis, Ghost River is named for the ghostly section of the Wolf River in Fayette and eastern Shelby counties.

"What we're doing is the way beer was brewed and sold for centuries," said Chuck Skypeck, head brewer and founding partner of Boscos Brewing and Ghost River Brewery. "It became an industrial commodity in the 1950s and '60s, and we're just returning it to its historical roots."

In Memphis, a brewer cannot hold an on-premise permit and an off-premise permit, but there is a state law that allows beer sales at the location of a brewery. Ghost River has four fermenting tanks and two more tanks for finished beer that goes into kegs and growlers. In 2011, Skypeck hopes to have another row of tanks, plus a bottling line.

"Right now, we are shipping all the beer that we can brew to metropolitan Memphis," Skypeck said. "It's literally going out the door as soon as it's made."

Skypeck and his partner, Jerry Feinstone, own both Boscos and Ghost River. Boscos brews its own beer with different recipes and more variety. But selling beer to other restaurants under the Boscos name was obviously a problem, hence the Ghost River line.

"Our Boscos in Germantown was the first brew pub in Tennessee," Skypeck said. "We had to get the law changed to open there, with the help of Steve Cohen. For 20 years, we have been scratching and clawing until this year a critical mass seems to have been reached. Two things helped. One is the age 21 to 30 demographic has really bought into it. We have those drinkers for life. The other thing is that the local food movement has finally resonated with people."

The secret ingredient in Memphis-brewed beer is no secret. It's the water.

"It's pure and soft and excellent for brewing," Skypeck said. "The reason different styles of beer evolved in different parts of the world goes back to the water. Ireland has Guinness, because they have hard, high-alkaline water, and the beer has to have acidic dark malts added to balance that out."

Schlitz and Coors have bottled beer in Memphis in the past, and Yuengling is trying to acquire the 130-acre, former Coors plant from Hardy Bottling. But Skypeck's expansion ambitions are limited to Memphis. Brewing is highly regulated and taxed at the state and federal level, and other cities have their own craft beers.

"I'm not that interested, at this point, in the Nashville market," he said. "We operate on small margins. Everyone gets a cut. My desire is for us to grow and sell more beer in Memphis. If we go to Nashville, we have the extra cost of transportation, warehousing, and sales people in another market, so our margins decrease."

Skypeck often asks people who they think is the largest American brewer. The answer is Samuel Adams. Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch are foreign-owned.

"The new domestic," he said, "is craft beer."

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