On Tuesday, Ghost River Brewing Co. hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony at the brewery to celebrate their new bottling line and the distribution of bottled Ghost River Golden Ale to local stores, restaurants, and bars. The addition of the new bottling line is part of a recent $750,000 expansion that began early this year. Additional fermentation tanks were also added, increasing Ghost River’s production from 5,000 to 10,000 kegs a year.
Members of the greater Memphis Chamber (John Duncan), the Barzizza’s of Southwest Distributing, members of the Wolf River Conservancy, and a crowd of about 100 Memphians gathered between fermentation tanks and pallets of kegs to show their support of Memphis’ own microbrewery.
“We started this project [in 2007],” said Jerry Feinstone, co-founder and president of Boscos and Ghost River. “The equipment was down here for another project, and we put together this Ghost River idea which has been a grand experience for us. Slowly, we were able to get this system up and operating. We’re excited [that our bottles are now] in the stores, and hopefully we’ll develop some very long-term customers who enjoy Ghost River beers in bottles.”
Later in the week, Chuck Skypeck, co-founder and head brewer of Boscos and Ghost River, graciously took time to sit down with me and chat about the craft beer movement in Memphis.
Just a quick preface, here: my conversation with Mr. Skypeck ran well over an hour, so I’ll break this thing up into three or four parts. Part two should be published early next week.
How do you think today’s Memphis beer scene compares to years past?
I think it does appear to be very popular in the circles that you and I move in. I guess I kind of have to look at much longer perspective than just the past couple of years because, when we first started Boscos, which will be 20 years old next year.
I guess to put some twenty year things into perspective, when we first started Bosocs we had five taps, and four were beers we produced. Just considering at that time, there wasn’t really any craft beer available in the Memphis market at all. You had no recognition or perception that someone could brew beer in town and sell it. And with the idea that we were opening a restaurant that brews its own beer, you can’t operate a successful restaurant without offering the things that people want to consume. The understanding was that there was a lot of education to do about the consumers about craft beer, considering the vast majority of people walking through the doors of Boscos back then had absolutely no experience with craft beer, we decided to open with Bud Light as our fifth beer. I don’t regret that simply because I think I’ve been one of the few people on the planet that’s been able to say that they’re discontinuing Bud Light because it’s not selling. We couldn't sell it— or not enough to keep it on tap— and also, as we built up our production capabilities, we were able to supply that fifth tap with our own beer.
Wait, that was the case from the very beginning? No one was interested in drinking Bud Light?
No, which was good. But there’s another way of looking at this: I think this is probably dated to a certain extent, but we did some market research in Nashville in the late 90’s— Blackstone was there at the time, along with Big River, and Old Market Street Brewery was functioning as a brewpub then down on 2nd Street, but they’re no longer open— and we found, mostly through looking at credit cards used in our Nashville location, that about 1.5% of the Nashville population came through our doors.
Still today, in Boscos, the most common question we get is “Oh, can I get a Bud Light?” We recently did a customer survey in all of our stores, and that was the most common suggestion we got. So that’s still there. Things have certainly changed, and all the things we hear about Budweiser’s sales being down— yes, they’re down, but we’re talking about them being 55% of the market to 49.5%...that’s still a whole lot of beer. Craft beer is far from supplanting them from the majority of [beer] sales.
I think the most important thing that has changed over the course of the last 20 years, though, has been that the first people to be really interested in craft beer did tend to be people that had been exposed to good beer, either from traveling abroad or to the east or west coasts, and homebrewers who, at that time, those people tended to be older. For the longest time I really felt that the future of craft brewing was in jeopardy because the customer base kept getting older and older. So that was really the biggest question mark for me: what would the future hold if craft brewers couldn’t attract younger consumers? There is a huge group of younger consumers now that have become craft beer drinkers, and the interesting thing about that is most of them are not exclusive craft beer drinkers...in a way, though, craft beer has become hip or cool.