Kellan Bartosch remembers the time his brother, Davin, told him he wanted to open their shared business, Wiseacre Brewing Co. in Memphis, Tenn., with an American Pilsner called Tiny Bomb.
“I was like, ‘Man, I think you’re crazy,’” he says. “But this past year at CBC, they were talking about what’s hot right now, and it’s Pilsner.”
Wiseacre was ahead of the trend, which means they’re benefitting from the style’s come up in a big way. In fact, the honey-spiked Pale Lager is the #2 best-selling Tennessee-made craft beer in the state, right behind Wiseacre’s Ananda India Pale Ale. But they also make a lot more Tiny Bomb to ship to other locales like Arkansas, Mississippi, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans because it’s more shelf-stable than the hoppier beer that's just ahead of it in The Volunteer State. Plus, most craft breweries don’t have a killer Pilsner.
“In markets where we’re a little farther away from home, Tiny Bomb stands out so much in its style, which gives it [an advantage],” Kellan adds. “IPA is such a saturated category. Whereas, in most markets, we can say, with some confidence, ‘This is the best Pilsner.’”
Tiny Bomb’s also just a delicious, refreshing beer, full stop. Before traveling to Memphis for this story, I’d only heard rumor of the veritable shit-ton of it that Wiseacre was making—a source who shall remain nameless told GBH founder Michael Kiser that he’d heard they were making something crazy like 10,000 barrels a year of just this Pilsner. I’d never tasted the thing.
My first sips came during the interview for this story. It was on draft in Wiseacre’s quiet taproom that hadn’t yet welcomed in the Friday-night hordes. And yet, on this weekend visit where we were trying to experience as much new beer and culture as possible over a scant 50 hours or so, there I was, the very next day at the bottle shop, buying a few six packs of it. One for the flight home and my fridge after that, of course, but also a couple for the fridge at our Airbnb. Those cans disappeared quickly. And then we had it at a few bars as well. Tiny Bomb's a very tasty beer, is what I’m saying.
“If someone’s never made Lagers before, and now they’re just gonna try and make one without that experience, they’re already too far behind,” Kellan says. “If the trend’s already happening, you’re too late. So yes, Tiny Bomb is great. We won the [Great American Beer Festival bronze] medal the first year we were open. But Davin was making versions of Tiny Bomb for, like, six years at that point.”
Tiny Bomb was born in Chicago—sort of. “It was just something I grew to love when I was in brewing school,” Davin says. “Pete Crowley, the head brewer at Haymarket, loves Pilsner. He was always barking about how it doesn’t get enough respect, and that people don’t love Pilsner like they should. So it was ingrained in me in brewing school, and then, working for Pete, I had to hear it a lot.”
After graduating salutatorian in his class at World Brewing Academy, Davin began his professional brewing career at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in the Windy City. Meanwhile, in the years to come, Kellan transitioned from a job with a distributor to the marketing team at Sierra Nevada. While he was in California learning one side of the business, Davin was in Chicago, collaborating with breweries like Three Floyds, Solemn Oath, and Half Acre.
“Davin created a festival around popcorn and beer, so we collaborated on a popcorn malt liquor,” Half Acre co-owner and head brewer Matt Gallagher recalls of King Puff. “I had to borrow a friend’s Suburban to transport all that fucking popcorn to the brewery, we clogged our heat exchanger trying to cool it, Davin probably took his shirt off at some point, and the beer turned out stellar.”
It was in Chicago where he worked on “tons of light Lagers,” not to mention frequently with honey—two things he wouldn’t combine until he was running his own place with his brother. “I loved this honey Lager that I made, and I loved this hoppy Pilsner that I made,” Davin says. “And I thought, ‘We should just make ‘em into one thing.’ They became one beer.”
The brothers eventually resettled back at home, together, and the time was right to open their business after earning their stripes at other breweries. And when Wiseacre opened in 2013, their brewery housed the very first taproom in Memphis.
“That was terrifying,” Davin says of his thoughts leading up to the opening. “I had learned to make beer in Chicago, and Chicago is, I think, ahead of everywhere else in the U.S. People are figuring things out a lot faster. I had been brewing there, and I was scared, coming back to Memphis, that we would be making beers that would be offensive to people here.”
As it turned out, “offensive” couldn’t have been farther from the truth. They only had two beers (Ananda and Tiny Bomb) to offer when they opened the doors, and the people of The Bluff City were ready for those two beers.
“The first night we were open, there was a line in the parking lot,” Kellan says. “We were behind the bar, and we just had the taps open, the whole night.”
“I had only hooked up two draft lines,” Davin says. “I imagined it would only be like 13 people, with Kellan and I talking about beers with them. But it was just a zoo. It was completely unmanageable.”
It’s been borderline-unmanageable ever since. Oh, and that rumor? It was almost true. These days, Tiny Bomb makes up 40% of the brewery's production. Of the 22,000 BBLs of beer they’ll make this year, 8,000 or so of those will be that tasty Pilsner in the yellow can.
Tiny Bomb sells a lot because, sure, it exists in an underdeveloped market, a place where many people are only just now turning from other, more mass-produced Lagers to this idea of “craft,” and are happy to drink local. But it’s more than that. Most Pilsners don’t compete with an IPA for the top breadwinner at their maker, let alone in the geographic region. And perhaps that’s because Tiny Bomb is a beer that Davin worked on for years before Wiseacre’s first batch August 2013. But it’s also because of the peculiarly baby-bottom-gentle water of Memphis.
“We basically have the softest water in the United States,” Davin says. “There’s a giant lake under Memphis where the water that makes our beer fell to the earth 20,000 years ago. It’s filtered through a whole bunch of sand. It never touches limestone. It’s just extremely soft. It’s like 23 parts/million calcium carbonate. Pilsen in the Czech Republic is like 8 parts/million. Chicago’s, like, in the 500s. Phoenix is in the thousands.”
As someone who’s been making Lagers in different regions, Davin’s learned some lessons. “Certain beer styles taste better with certain water,” Davin says. “You end up making those because they taste better. I made hoppy Lagers in Chicago forever, and the first one I made here was better than all the ones I made in Chicago. It’s entirely because of the water. Other professional brewers are like, ‘That’s amazing, tell me how you do it.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ll tell you exactly how I do it and you’re still not going to be able to do it.’ It’s just not a possibility.”
Water quality and quirks are an essential part of beer that many start-up brewers take for granted. But for folks like Wiseacre who have real production experience behind them, water profile occupies a lot of their recipe development. And it's increasingly part of the conversation. Depending on your water, you have options. Steer into it and limit your styles to those that work well with the water profile. Adjust the hardness or softness of your water as needed, which can require serious chemistry and experimentation. Or strip your water completely through reverse osmosis and build it back up with minerals—but you better crack a book or two on that one.
On these points, Davin acquiesces.
“You could very precisely and very expensively take your water down to pure H2O, and then build it back,” he says. “It’s certainly possible, but very costly and difficult. Which is why Coors originally chose Memphis to make their beers since the water here is actually a bit softer than the water in Golden, Colorado.”
Barely a year into its existence, Tiny Bomb picked up a bronze medal in the German-Style Pilsener category at the Great American Beer Festival. “Tiny Bomb was never something I thought we had a chance in,” Davin says of Wiseacre’s 2014 GABF win. In fact, a couple categories had passed where he thought they did have a chance, so the win was a bit of a surprise.
“Davin almost cried,” Kellan says.
“I’m not sure I was crying,” Davin says. “I’ve never fainted in my life, but that’s the closest I’ve ever been to fainting.”
“I don’t think I’d seen him cry since he was, like, two,” Kellan says. “These beers are like his children. He, like, loves these beers. He grew them up and developed them. It was all on his face when we won. I think we had a group hug?”
“It’s true,” Davin says. “There was a group hug. I think I blacked out.”
Big feelings and potential faintings aside, Davin thought Tiny Bomb was too weird to make it on a national stage like GABF. “To me, it’s pretty out of style,” he says. “It’s a good deal more hop-forward than most of the other hoppy Pilsners. Some people get kind of a floral, honey aroma, and that turns you a different direction.”
A lot gets made of medals, but are they more than simple marketing? Something you put on the packaging and brag about on social media? Put more simply: does a win like that change the day-to-day, move the needle, make money for a small business like Wiseacre?
“A lot of people who previously just drank IPAs, for example, before, they were like, ‘Nah, I don’t drink Pilsners,’” Kellan says. “Now, they’re like, ‘Tiny Bomb is the best beer in the world!’ I think it took a while for those people—a lot of the accolades behind Tiny Bomb have helped sway them.”
Kellan firmly believes that medals, competitions, articles—these things matter. And they have a domino effect on both each other and consumers. Which make his and Davin’s life a little easier. Of course, as consumers learn more, that can also be a bit of a blessing and a curse.
“Most people who come into a brewery that aren’t familiar, they’re like, [affects Southern accent] ‘Well, I don’t know if I like all this whacky beer,’” Kellan says. “We’re like, ‘Just have a Tiny Bomb.’ And they’re cool with it. The people that are hard are the people who know just enough to be dangerous. ‘I don’t really like Pilsners. I like IPAs and barrel-aged beers.’ Which is silly. It’s like saying you don’t like cheeseburgers. It’s a Pilsner.”
Rachel Briggs has known Kellan since they were in high school together in Memphis. Then they both lived in Nashville at the same time for a bit after college. They stayed in touch in the years since, so when the brothers “began scheming Wiseacre early on,” Briggs says she was brainstorming the brewery’s art concepts before it was even a brewery. For Tiny Bomb, that meant getting a little weird.
“Kellan wanted to incorporate a loose nod to the honey that is in the beer with a honeycomb-style bomb,” Briggs remembers. “We wanted something graphic and very much our own style, so I threw away concepts of clean design and just let loose on the illustration with the curling smoke, colors, and lettering.”
From there, she used the design as a way to create a portfolio that made sense. “I think Tiny Bomb helped me realize each time we approached a new label to think outside the constructs of traditional can designs and illustrations,” she says. “We are limited to the number of colors we use due to the printing process, and there are a few rules we have to follow for the government, but beyond that, the world is ours. We go in wanting each can to have its own story under the greater Wiseacre collection, and that’s what I always try to aim for.”
Briggs enjoys and appreciates the design work of breweries like 21st Amendment, Prairie, and Bootstrap, art that is “intense, yet refined, detailed and pushing the limits of the [package].” And, perhaps most importantly, she knows what she doesn’t like.
“There are some beautiful, one-of-a-kind can designs out there, and there are a lot of predictable ones,” Briggs says. “There’s plenty of artwork in the market that looks the same, often this throwback, nostalgic look, and trends that are hot currently will look dated and, as they are now, unoriginal.”
“We talked about how we seemed sorta crazy to start off with a Pilsner,” Davin says of those early days when his brother questioned his sanity. “It’s not like we’re trailblazers or anything, but we definitely are making beers we love and that we think people should love.”
It’s the “should” that’s proving itself in Tennessee and beyond—and not just with everyday beer consumers, either. Brewers—2nd Shift’s Steve Crider, for example—are taking to the award-winning Pilsner.
“That’s, like, the highest praise I can get,” Davin says. “I don’t look at Untappd or any of that stuff—it’s all evil to me. But other brewers I respect telling me that, not just do they love drinking it, but that they love drinking a lot of it, makes me happy to no end.”
There’s no shortage of happy brewers drinking Tiny Bomb. “Davin has an incredible mix of technical brewing savvy, a sincere passion for the brewing industry, and the levity to never ever take anything too seriously,” Half Acre’s Gallagher raves. “Tiny Bomb rules. The balance of spicy and herbal Mt. Hood hops with a super clean malt profile make it an uber-crusher. I think it’s also making him and his brother rich in Tennessee.”
At the very least, the beer is leading them into new markets. In Chicago, for instance, while Ananda and the brewery’s seasonals hold it down in chains like Jewel-Osco and Whole Foods, Tiny Bomb is their early top seller at more than 50 bars and restaurants. Clearly, this Pilsner is a big driver of external markets for Wiseacre. But this is also happening at a time when many breweries are pulling back on new markets because a local version of their flagship is doing better numbers. As Pilsners grow in popularity, drinkers will inevitably reach for their local options, which makes a tricky future for Tiny Bomb.
“There is definitely a wingin’ it approach in some respects to this,” Kellan says. “We created a plan before we opened, but we are off-script from that for Tiny Bomb to be what it is now. I do think there’s room in the Pilsner category to further establish ourselves in markets where we sell. For example, when you think of Pale Ale, what comes to mind? Sierra Nevada for me, or Daisy Cutter in Chicago. Each market likely has a great one, but those are beers people come back to. Local people will make them in each place, but standards come from somewhere, and there are leaders in every style. This is how we see the future for Tiny Bomb.”
Unlike IPAs, which still reign as craft king in the U.S. to a huge extent, there’s something to be said for Pilsners as an everyman beer. No overpowering hop-presence, no barrel-aged anything, no fruit or other adjuncts—all of these can be off-putting to someone who’s never had a craft beer before. But a nice, cold, refreshing can of something you don’t have to think about too much? That’s easy.
“People should be more laid back—beer is fun,” Kellan says. “Tiny Bomb does wonders for our company culture and for the way we interact with the rest of the world. There’s a time to sniff your beer—”
“—and there’s a time to poke holes in cans, too,” Davin finishes.