Beer Bracket Unfiltered: High Cotton

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Two of High Cotton's owners Ross Avery and Ryan Staggs. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Two of High Cotton's owners Ross Avery and Ryan Staggs.

For those thirsty for more on the Memphis beer scene, we're presenting barely edited versions of the interviews done by Toby Sells for our cover story on the Memphis Flyer and Aldo's Beer Bracket Challenge.

Here's the High Cotton interview with two of the company's founders Ross Avery and Ryan Staggs.

Memphis Flyer: What’s going on High Cotton?

Ryan Staggs: We’re talk about lot of things. We’re experimenting with news brews. Also, we’re looking at a new package.

MF: Y’all are in cans now and that happened…12 months ago?

RS: Last May. Not even 12 months.

MF: That was a huge step forward for y’all.

RS: We were so luck to be in a position to do that. We’re thrilled to be [in stores]. For me, for both of us, really (looks at Ross Avery), coming from a home brewing to professional brewing (laughs)… let’s put quotes on (“professional brewing”). Professional is a super loose term for us.

But (coming from home brewing) and then having a packaged product, that is almost full circle for me. Days could be better for sure and sales could be better always but I’m almost ready to check this whole brewery thing off the list. I mean, it’s like…mission accomplished!

We’ve got a tasting room and been opened for four years now. We have packaged product. I never would have dreamed that a beer I brewed in my garage would end up in a can in Kroger. It’s unbelievable.

MF: What beer was it?

RS: Scottish Ale.

MF: People love that beer.

RS: It’s crazy! Who would have thought that dark beer like that would have been…

MF: Where did that beer come from?

RS: Scottish Ales are not really exotic style. There’s not Scottish ales with mango or spruce tips. It’s not a real crazy yeast strain that you produce Scottish areas with.

So, it’s not a style that gets a lot of notoriety because of these extreme things that other sales lend themselves to. Like crazy Belgian beers or high-alcohol beers or IPAs that you can do a million different things to and still call it an IPA.

Scottish Ales are a pretty basic traditional style. I hate to play it down but…super traditional but it’s also like making a lager.

You have to do it exactly right because if you don’t the flaws come through pretty quickly. Scottish ales, on a scale of ales, typical ales ferment at around 68 degrees. Scottish ales are known for a much cooler fermentation. 60 degrees is what we ferment ours at.

Some historical references show it as low as 55 degrees, which gets into lager temperatures. What that does, is what I think people really dig about that style. The clean finish. The super cold fermentation really produces a clean-finishing beer.

But it’s also a robust enough style where it’s still kind of rich and caramaly, it’s toffee, its toasty and slightly roasty. I know that — sorry BJCP — people are like Scottish ales aren’t roasty! But roasted barley is what lends that flavor and what people perceive as roasty and that is absolutely traditional in the brewing process.

What got me really stoked about it is trying got perfect a traditional style that is simple in the way that it taste and drinks but complex in the way you have to make it, ferment it and take care of it.

It’s like a lager. Lagers, people take them for granted. But it’s like, hat’s off to the Big Three [Bud, Miller, Coors] because producing a lager like that that at least tastes consistent - maybe it’s not good! - but it tastes consistent. That’s a feat in itself. Those beers are so light and so fragile. So, if anything tastes like crap, it’s obvious.

MF: So, you can’t just crank up the hops to hide something.

RS: Right. Like a big, old stout or something where it’s easy to cover up some sort of imperfection.

MF: How long did you home brew?

RS: Probably four or five years. But I got really obsessed with it. I was an engineer before I started home brewing.

MF: What kind of engineer?

RS: Civil. So, I got really into the nerdy science behind brewing beer. I brewed Scottish but I brewed other stuff, don’t get me wrong because I love drinking beer, but I kind of got obsessed with doing this thing.

Then, I got super nerdy as far as taking all kinds of specific notes when I’m brewing, like tasting notes, and then tweaking one little thing at a time. What we drink today was kind of the final result of that (research and development) at my house.

Ross Avery: It’s the only recipe that came through the three owners without being tweaked from the get-go. It was money to begin with.

MF: Did y’all have to change the recipe, moving it from the garage to here?

RS: There were a few challenges. A couple of batches we did, the way we used the roasted barley, which gives it the color and lot of that flavor, that was over-utilized in our large-scaled system and we had to dial that back. Other than that, the rest of the stuff came through.

RA: We were tweaking on the system just like cooking on a different stove.

RS: That was the only thing we had to tweak was how we introcuce that super-strong ingredient.

MF: What do you make of the success of that beer?

RS: It’s unbelievable. We have our ESB, which we also started making year-round right out of the gate. It’s funny to see how far Memphis has come. But people were just intimidated by the color of (ESB). But the (Scottish Ale) people were like, yeah, this is a lot more pallatable.

RA: It’s sort of a gateway to craft beer for Memphians. They had experience the Ghost River Golden. So, we weren’t going to make another Golden.

RS: And now (Scottish Ale) has become our best seller. It’s unbelievable.

RS: Summer before last, (the temperature) started spiking up in the summer. A dark beer in the summertime! All I could imagine were this people in these dark bars where it’s cold.

MF: What’s the alcohol content on Scottish? 5.5?

RS: It’s 5.5 percent-5.3 percent depending on the efficiency of each batch. But, yeah, it never exceeds 5.5 percent. So, it’s not a super high-alcohol beer.

MF: Y’all have had the taproom open for…?

RS: Three years. We bought this place in June of 2012. One of the biggest decision-making factors when it came to this place was the facade and the opportunity the front of this place provide to make a taproom.

We had all intentions of creating a taproom right out of the gate. But we built the brewery first. We wanted to get the ball rolling first and make sure people wanted to drink our beer.

MF: I know people love your taproom. It’s gorgeous and one of a kind.

RS: Thank you. There’s a lot of personal touch. The reclaimed wood, we got a lot of this stuff out of the Cotton Exchange Building, believe it or not.

The bar came from The Butcher Shop, which was on the bottom floor of the Cotton Exchange Building. So, once we were picking up the bar, my dad - being the junk scavenger, nosy, son of a gun — just starts meandering around. The Butcher Shop was (a small part) of that building. So, he starts meandering around all the different hallways and rooms of this place and sees this paneling in there.

He was like, oh my god, this would be great. We need to get this stuff. When The Butcher Shop shut down, they were cleaning it out to rebuild condos. So, nothing was really super important to them. So, my dad hooked up with the superintendent and he gave (the wood to us).

So, we spent two days in there pulling it all down. My dad and I sat around on nights and weekend sup here drinking a few beers, pounding nails out of the end of them. But the best part of the story (on the wood), is that we then spent en entire day planing each one of those boards. We had over 5,000 boards we got from those people.

Then when we decided to get the ball rolling on the taproom, we brought an interior designer in. We told them we have the pieces we want to integrate in, like this bar and a few others things, and the wood was on our list. I showed him all the stuff we had planed and said, wouldn’t this be cool if we stained it and made it like an old English pub?

Then, he flips it over and he’s like, no, this shitty-looking paint that’s chipping off is awesome.

RA: He came in and placed each board. I came in and told (the designer) they were planed on the other side. Are we going to we going to paint this? He said, no, just wait for it. And at night time I think it’s just gorgeous, the way the lights reflect off of it.

RS: So, every one of those boards (on the ceiling over the bar) looks like this (the boards that top the table in front of the bar). So, we had to do something with all the wood we planed, right? So, we made tables.

MF: Has the Memphis beer consumer change since (High Cotton, Wiseacre, and Memphis Made) opened in 2013?

RS: Something I’m really proud of, is that we have seen a lot of great brands come in our market, and people drink that stuff but they’re a blurb on the radar for a week or two.

Then, everyone in Memphis is like that whole thing was great and thanks for brining that in, guys, pour me another Wiseacre, pour me another High Cotton, pour me another Memphis Made, or another Ghost River.

People are really sticking to local beer and being loyal to what ever brand they are the most loyal to or a group of brands. They’re saying, thanks Atlanta for bringing that stuff in and it’s good and I’m going to order it because y’all are doing a promo. But tomorrow, when I come back to the (Young Avenue) Deli, I’ll have another High Cotton Scottish Ale.


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