Beer Bracket Unfiltered: Wiseacre


Wiseacre co-founders Davin Bartosch and Kellan Bartosch. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Wiseacre co-founders Davin Bartosch and Kellan Bartosch.

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 Wiseacre interview with Kellan Bartosch and Davin Bartosch.

Memphis Flyer: This is the dumbest place to start, but how do you name your beers? Y’all have great names and even have fun with the game of naming beers. Like Adjective Animal (Double IPA). It was a comment on the typical naming convention of how breweries name their beers.

Kellan Bartosch: Here’s the silly formula.

MF: Exactly.

KB: I think our branding strategy is to either be clever or stupid, in the Beavis and Butthead kind of way where it’s funny because it’s so dumb. My mom would be like “that’s dumb, Kellan.” And I’d be like, yes! She thinks its stupid!

We take the names very seriously. Sometimes it take weeks. Some of it is free association. I’ll have a list of words I like. Sometimes something happens and it comes to life.

MF: I liked Men, Not Machines (brewed for the 17th anniversary of The Commercial Appeal).

Davin Bartosch: That took about four weeks. (Laughs.) They handed us a 200-page book. Each page had 15 articles on it. We just paged through looking for something but wanted to reference the time component of the 175th anniversary and newspapers.

(Men, Not Machines) seems perfect because it references beer as well. We have machines here. But what are the machines without the people? What’s a newspaper without the person. So, it worked.

MF: Tiny Bomb?

DB: Tiny Bomb came from my frustration with people always drinking Bud Light. You ask: What do you like? Why do you like it? People always say, it’s because I can drink four or five (Bud Lights). It’s low in calories.

I got some answers that, to me, sounded absurd, just being the kind of beer drinker that I am. So, I thought, I’m going to find a way to satisfy everybody. So, tiny alcohol, tiny calories, flavor bomb.

MF: Ah!

DB: We like to drink four or five beers, too.

KB: And sometimes you just want to shotgun a beer.

MF: How are things going in general? That really is the smartest question a journalist can ask. Trust me.

KB: We’ve been open three-and-a-half years. We have beers in seven states. Memphis is still our biggest market by far. If you count our taproom along with the city of Memphis, it’s almost half our volume.

To put that in perspective, we sell beer in Chicago and Philadelphia. Those are giant cities but they have their own hometown breweries as well. We do have success there. People there want our beer and we sell it. But that’s not where our attention is going. So, it’s fun to be focused on our hometown and home state.

MF: What are the other states y’all are in?

KB: Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, we’re in every town. We’re in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago.

MF: Expanding your reach past that?

KB: We’d love to. We can’t make anymore beer currently. We can’t put anymore tanks int he building. So, we’re heard from people in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, California, Florida, places that we could really pursue but we currently can’t do anything else in our building in terms of production.

We’re happy with what we do, too. We make a lot of Tiny Bomb and Ananda. Those are the two best-selling Tennessee-made beers in the state. We make a lot of Gotta Get Up To Get Down. But we can’t contract any more coffee.

We do seasonals with Starless right now and overall we’ve made almost 100 beers. So, we get to keep inventing, which is why (Davin) started doing this in the first place. So, we get to experiment and our customers get to experiment.

We don’t want to lose that. So, we’re not going to drop that other stuff so we can add more (Tiny Bomb and Ananda). That’s the kind of brewery we want to be.

MF: We’re standing in front of a wall (pallets filled nearly to the ceiling with empty beer cans) of Ananda. How much do you think that weighs?

DB: It’s really light. You can drag it with your hand.

KB: Yeah, one hand and the whole thing just leans and slides.

MF: The whole thing?!

DB: Yeah!

MF: Don’t do it, guys! (Laughs.) Well, what else is going on at Wiseacre?

DB: Our staff here his amazing. We’ve got about 20 full-time staff. We can see Fabian right here who is from Germany. He’s one of six diplomaed German Braumeisters in the country.

He’s brilliant. And he’s found his real identity as a Southern redneck. He wears camo, and he rides four-wheelers. It doesn’t make any sense.

We’re like, what did you do this weekend?

He’s like (in thick German accent), “oh, I drove the four-wheeler. I saw a deer with six-point antlers.”

Everybody here is a character and a really hard worker. They’ve really helped build this. So, we have a lot of fun at work with those people.

KB: Years before we opened, Davin was convinced that we were going to make a pilsner. That was eight years ago. I was working for Sierra Nevada out west. I said, obviously we’re making an IPA. That’s going to be what’s going to take off.

He was in love with this style of beer (pilsner) for a long time. That’s because of the things he said (about Tiny Bomb) earlier. But we also think pilsner is on this sort of Bell Curve. It’s that style of beer you start drinking when you first start drinking beer because it’s not as offensive. Then you drink really heavy beers or something. But then you come back around to (pilsners).

As a brewer, it’s a challenge to make something really delicate. You can make a hop bomb and hide any mistake that you make. The same goes for something that’s really malty. So, it’s a bigger challenge to create [a pilsner], and you can appreciate the simplicity of it, the nuance, the subtleties.

He knew he wanted to do it forever. I just didn’t even believe him. As we keep growing, that’s the beer we’re making more of as a percentage. It’s about 35 percent of our production. The markets that are outside of Memphis, like New Orleans (Tiny Bomb) is over 50 percent of our volume there. In Chicago, it’s about 40 percent. In Philadelphia, it’s about 40 percent.

So, of the stuff we make, (Tiny Bomb) stands out the most. You can go to another city and say this is the best pilsner you can get in Philadelphia. That’s because (Davin) has loved for such a long time.

We won a medal for it the first year we opened. But he made Tiny Bomb, or a version of it, for six years in Chicago, like 50 or 60 iterations of it. So, when we opened, it was this thing that had already been developed.

MF: Why on earth were you messing around with a pilsner?

DB: I went to brewing school in Germany. That part of my school was really focused on lager production. That’s what they really teach in Germany. That’s what everybody makes in Germany. It’s a more institutionalized thing.

So, I loved the beers while I was there. I though, there’s nothing like this in the United States and, by the time those beers get here, they’re awful. They’re not meant to survive a sea voyage. So, they’re something that need to be made and consumed quickly, especially something that is four-and-a-half percent alcohol like Tiny Bomb is.

It’s made and you’re supposed to crush it, basically. (Laughs.)

MF: You told me one time that y’all made Tiny Bomb so you’d have something to shotgun. Does that story still hold up?

DB: Yep. That’s true.

KB: There are some days when you just need to do it.

DB: It has to be kind of hot. It’s not hot enough yet to shotgun Tiny Bomb. You also need a lot of refreshment to get there, too.

MF: Then, when you get there, (shotgunning a beer is) the only idea that makes any sense.

KB: It’s funny, though, that I have the sales and marketing background in the beer business, but the brewer was correct about what was going to make sense for sales and marketing in the future.

It’s just a fun conversation for art anywhere. What came first? The chicken or the egg? But the artist knew what mattered to him before…the whole culture of beer is getting more into pilsners. So, how do you make great lagers or more sessionable beers or whatever. But he knew it a decade ago and we’re just now getting it.

(Vincent) van Goh died before people liked his art. Thankfully, Davin is still alive to see people enjoy Tiny Bomb.

DB: You can paint a pretty picture and it looks different to people from different angles. It’s the same thing.

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