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Flying Blind — An Un(der)planned Weekend in Memphis, TN

My first time in Memphis, nearly a decade ago, I bourboned my way through Beale Street so hard I left without many memories. So going into this visit, I still had very little Bluff City knowledge. I knew the things it’s good at, sure—music and barbecue amongst them.

But what about the beer scene? I had heard rumor of a brewery churning out a veritable shit-ton of Pilsner—10,000 barrels of the stuff. Beyond that, I was clueless.

Here's the thing, though: contrary to popular belief, clueless is a great way to travel. It opens up opportunities you wouldn’t have if you were things like, say, “informed” or “prepared.” It lets you explore and get in trouble and experience weird things you wouldn’t have if you did things like, say, “research” or “plan.”

Long story short: I flew blind for a weekend in Memphis with GBH editor Austin L. Ray as my co-pilot. We had a blast. Long story long begins below.

The one and only place we had predetermined to visit during the weekend was a young beer maker called Wiseacre Brewing Company. They make a honey-spiked American Pilsner called Tiny Bomb, and they make a whole bunch of it. It’s a remarkable beer. In fact, the rumor was almost true: Tiny Bomb makes up 40% of the brewery's production—they'll make about 8,000 BBLs of it in 2016.

(Austin's going to tell you a lot more about this beer in the near future, including how the baby-bottom-soft waters of Memphis are an almost-perfect match to those in Pilzen.)

But while Tiny Bomb is a large part of their portfolio—not to mention the #2 best-selling Tennessee-made craft beer in the state, right behind the brewery's Ananda IPA—it’s just a small part of what Wiseacre has to offer. (A bunch of Tiny Bomb gets sold outside of Tennessee as well.) Their production facility and taproom is expansive, with an enormous outdoor patio area including some old concrete silos, a small stage, and a covered bridge made from a repurposed shipping container.

Inside the corrugated steel building is an eccentric taproom, featuring endlessly odd angles, a captivatingly bright mural, and an aquarium-like view into the brewing operations. Intricately detailed, colorful posters on the wall display the artwork of core beers, including Tiny Bomb, Ananda IPA, Adjective Animal DIPA, and, most notably, Gotta Get Up To Get Down Coffee Milk Stout.

Gotta Get Up, as the locals call it, is very much the John Candy to Tiny Bomb’s Steve Martin, à la Planes, Trains & Automobiles: big, bold, boisterous, and hard not to love. Its huge coffee flavor is backed by a richly sweet but utterly simple malt backbone, allowing the beans from Chicago’s Metropolis Coffee Company a starring role. It’s a dark-side bookend, opposite the Pilsner, establishing the bounds of Wiseacre’s lineup and allowing a spectrum of seasonality to fill the in-between.

It’s also the brewery’s fastest grower. In some pockets of Memphis, you could argue that Gotta Get Up is even more popular than Tiny Bomb. But when that brutal Tennessee sun is beating down during the heat of summer, it’s awfully tough to pass up such a classically refreshing Pale Lager.

Just down the street from Wiseacre, across the railroad tracks, past the oddly-placed, well-branded pet supply company, is City & State. Half cafe, half retail space, the former is a minimal and modern coffee shop with a rotating featured roaster and smart-but-limited menu. The latter is a maker-centric storefront filled with clothing, home goods, artisanal paper products, and local wares. The cafe is a great place to post up for a minute and figure out your next move. Which, to be clear, should be barbecue.

In the run-up to this trip, Austin and I both talked with friends who’d been to Memphis about their barbecue experiences. (OK, so maybe we planned a little.) The nearly unanimous recommendation was Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.

Now, no offense to Charlie, but we didn’t even so much as pencil that in on our non-existent agenda. Instead, and this is where not planning is a huge benefit, we talked to the locals once we were in the city. The resounding response was that Rendezvous is for tourists—locals eat at Central. We’d consumed enough Tiny Bomb by that point that we faux-considered ourselves authentic Memphians, so we took the advice of our new brethren.

The midtown location we went to is everything you could hope for in a barbecue joint. They’ve got a pig in their logo, for one. But there’s also a red-and-white checkerboard roof, a smattering of picnic tables out front, and, of course, a line out the door.

The hustle and bustle in the kitchen stood in stark contrast to all of the trophies and tchotchkes on the counter. Everything seemed like it had been there forever and had never moved an inch. Not a single person in the kitchen stayed in the same spot for more than a moment.

When it came time to order, we really went for it—pulled chicken nachos, a slab of ribs half-wet/half-dry (a strong recommendation from the cashier), a pulled pork sandwich, and sides of macaroni and cheese and cole slaw. To wash it all down, we got two tallboys of Coors Banquet Beer. Banquet might seem like a strange choice, especially since there was a handful of local craft cans and bottles available. But this meal wasn’t about the beer. It wasn’t about some immaculate pairing. It was about the meat. We needed an easy beer that would get out of the way. We needed to #BanquetAndChill.

We found a two-top tucked away in a corner of the main room—and were happy to be eating inside, out of the heat. There are certain meals at which you sit down, and from the onset, disavow the concept of being full. This was one of those meals. The baskets of food arrived and were laid out before us, covering almost the entire table. We devoured everything without so much as making eye contact with each other.

Everything was outstanding. The pulled pork sandwich, served Memphis-style with the slaw inside, was idyllic. Both styles of ribs were delicious, but the dry, Memphis-style, won out slightly. The real revelation, however, was the pulled chicken nachos. We’d almost ordered wings instead, which would’ve been a huge miss—the nachos were captivating.

The locals couldn’t have been more right.

Try as one might, every moment of every day cannot be filled with beer and food. A more-than-worthwhile diversion in Memphis is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Located in the former Stax Records, which shuttered in 1976, the Stax Museum now stands as a testament to—and documentation of—one the finest musical genres to originate in the United States.

A brief video introduction walks through the creation of soul music (an amalgam of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz), the formation of Stax records, and a laundry list of its noteworthy artists, all backed by their chart-topping hits from the ‘60s. But it’s no dull, by the numbers intro video, either. As Austin said as we walked out, “I would’ve watched two more hours of that.”

From there, a self-guided tour covers the full spectrum of soul, from its humble beginnings in a replica gospel church, all the way through to the restored Stax recording studio, maintained in its original location. There’s Albert King's ridiculously dope, hot pink flying V guitar. A few steps away from that, there's one of Rufus Thomas' many flamboyant outfits, complete with knee-high boots. Onscreen above your head, Jean Knight shakes her bouffant while singing "Mr. Big Stuff" on Soul Train. It's all as exciting and legendary as the recording company's demise was tragic and heartbreaking.

But the highlight of the tour comes about two-thirds of the way through in the form of a fur-lined, gold-plated, 1972 Cadillac Eldorado—complete with refrigerated mini-bar and television. Purchased by the label for Isaac Hayes as part of a contract negotiation, it’s the perfect representation of Hayes and his outsized, outlandish persona, not to mention the bygone era of ostentatious music industry excess.

All of which to say: it’s totally worth the price of admission.

Should you need to restock the fridge in your ’72 Eldorado, the place to do it is Cash Saver on Madison Avenue. From the outside, it looks like any of the other four cost-plus food outlets around Memphis. But inside, it’s something else. In addition to groceries, this location boasts a preposterous beer aisle (96-feet long, both sides, all cold storage), allowing them to sell more beer than any other retailer in the state. On top of that, there’s the Madison Avenue Growler Shop just an aisle over.

Behind the bar are 30 taps of local and regionally brewed beer including Wiseacre, Memphis Made, High Cotton, and Ghost River, among many others. It’s an odd site to see all those handles, especially given the setting. If you look to your right, you’ll be staring down the frozen food section. Look to the left, you’ll see rows and rows of piled-high carts waiting in line to check out.

The whole operation is the brainchild of Taylor James, whose family owns the Cash Saver. He saw an opportunity in the growing craft beer segment of the south and took a chance, transforming a portion of the former Piggly Wiggly location into something entirely unexpected.

“I wanted to create a place in Memphis that folks could buy great beer at a great price,” James says. “My dad trusted me and shared my vision for making Cash Saver the craft beer destination in Memphis.”

A destination it is, and business is booming. James only expects it to grow, especially in 2017 when Tennessee raises its alcohol cap as it relates to grocery stores from 6.25% ABV to 10.1% ABV.

We hit up a lot of bars during our two nights in Memphis. The Buccaneer Lounge had a great jukebox and some mood-lit mermaid erotica. Alchemy had a trendy space and killer craft cocktails. Hammer & Ale had a bunch of local drafts but also a bit of a sterile feel. In the end, no bar had a bigger impact than The Poor & Hungry Cafe—P&H, for short.

The self-proclaimed “Beer Joint of Your Dreams” the P&H is also located on Madison Avenue just a couple blocks west of the Cash Saver. The building looks uninhabited at first, especially in contrast to the oddly huge combination music venue/shopping mall across the street.

A dive bar if there ever was one, The P&H oozes charm. There’s shit everywhere, including the urned ashes of the previous owner encased in lucite above the bar, an inconspicuous Christopher “Walken in Memphis” sticker, a My Little Pony wall calendar, and a mural of Patty and Selma Bouvier tripping on DMT out back.

Oh, and you’re allowed to bring in your own liquor, so orders of “a cup of ice” are commonplace.

There was a such a blasé attitude about everything, it was hard to not feel perfectly at home. When I asked the bartender (and co-owner) what time the band went on, he replied, “Well, that all depends on when they show up.” When they arrived, and I asked him what kind of music they played, he said, “To be perfectly honest, I have no idea.” His interactions were the personification of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, but never in a dismissive or uncaring way. He was just rolling with it.

And that’s kinda just the way things are at the P&H. People drift in and drift out. Play a game of pool. Chat up the other co-owner, Robert Fortner—who you’ve maybe seen on television. Hunker down in a booth with unlabeled handles of hooch. Or just grab a burger and shoot the shit.

P&H was without a doubt the best people-watching we came across in Memphis, and it was a 100% judgement free zone to boot. Any and all were welcome, be them poor, hungry, or otherwise.

In the end, the Memphis beer scene didn’t blow us away. But overall, it’s still young—most of the local breweries have opened up in the last three years. There were moments around town where Austin or I would taste what was supposed to be a Saison or an ESB and wonder if we were given the right beer. (Bummer: we were.) But the energy and excitement around the breweries is palpable.

Wiseacre is definitely legit, serving as a beacon of both quality and culture for the others. They seem to have the lineup, infrastructure, and financial backing to scale up in a meaningful way, which is important. A big brewery presence in the city would go a long way toward increased beer tourism, not to mention how it would force others to up their game.

Until then, there's always blues, bourbon, and barbecue. Beer, in earnest, is coming. As Sam & Dave would say, hold on. In the meantime, there's still plenty of memories to be had in Memphis—a bit fuzzy, if you're doing it right—even if you don't know exactly where you're going to make them.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec