Written by Sam Prager.
Photographed by Nate Packard
Fifteen years ago brothers Davin and Kellan Bartosch decided to open the “universe’s greatest brewery.” A decade later the duo opened the doors to Memphis’ first taproom and the Wiseacre Brewing Company was born. Five years and 160 different beers later, the two are still going at it as they work towards opening their second location in downtown Memphis.
Each brother runs a different half of the business. Davin’s title is Brewer.He oversees the production-side of Wiseacre. Kellan’s is Teller of Tales and Captain of Industry.He manages almost everything else.
Wiseacre can now be enjoyed in nine states. From Chicago to New Orleans the brothers are making a name for themselves and spreading the good water of Memphis while they’re at it.
As bohemic and light-hearted as the “good folks from Wiseacre Brewing Company” are, their success couldn’t have happened without strategic planning and hard work.
Though the duo had a goal—and the passion to pursue it—it took years of cultivating talent and acquiring experience before they were ready to tap their first keg. Their journey started long ago, in a place not so far away.
“Davin went to cooking camp in fourth grade, which is like an obvious foreshadowing now that someone that young was like ‘Hey, I want to go do this.’ Our parents were like ‘Okay. Go do it.’It was like a Home Ec class for fourth-graders. I remember he came home one day and made these like chicken puff pastry things for the family,” Kellan laughs. “Then my parents started having dinner parties where Davin made food for people. It was a short-lived thing, but he was interested in it. And I think it was important our parents allowed and encouraged unique interests. Which is why I think he had the courage to go to a brewing school in his mid-twenties, which was risky at the time because there were only like a 1,000 breweries in the whole country, which is a whole lot less than there are now. So, he had the courage to do that because I think he had the courage to pursue unique interests, which is something our parents instilled in us at a very young age.”
What their parents might not have purposefully instilled in them was a love of beer. The duo started exploring their future craft while in high school, when Memphis’ beer selection was much different than it is now.
“We drank plenty of beer in high school. Davin bought me my first beer,” Kellan reminisces. “But he was drinking a bunch of different beer in high school. That continued on into college and eventually he started homebrewing. I always felt like I was just tagging along. Davin would always be like, ‘Here taste this. Try this.’ and I’d be like, ‘Cool. Sure. Whatever.’ He had all of these beer labels tacked up on his wall when we got to college. We’re talking back in the ‘90s here.”
“Late ‘90s,” Davin jokingly interjects. “I started homebrewing in college because it was a way you could be a super nerd about something, but still be pretty socially acceptable because it is beer. The really cool thing about beer is that you basically have four different ingredients that can turn into over a million different tastes. Another big motivator for me is that I'm just kind of cheap and I found out that I could brew a case of beer for less than half of what it would cost me to buy it.”
Davin continued pursuing homebrewing throughout college, and his hobby slowly started turning into a career. He began reading more about the processes behind different styles of beers and began using grains instead of extracts.
“It was taking over his apartment,” Kellan says. “I would go visit, because we didn't live in the same place at the time, and we would homebrew together. When I got out of college, I didn't know what I wanted to do and neither did he really. We were both working at regular jobs and I was like, ‘Man you need to figure out how to become a brewer because you really love this and you’re never going to find a normal career path you like.’ A couple months after that I said, ‘We need to figure out how we could start a brewery,’ knowing that he would figure out a way to be really good at this.”
“It’s pretty safe to say my understanding of beer as a homebrewer was not complete. The ideas I had back then are almost laughable to me now. Not that they were bad ideas, they were just the only ideas I had with my previous understanding,” says Davin.
Kellan was eager to get started. However, Davin knew they weren't ready. It was the beginning of a long journey that would take the pair on separate paths across the country.
“I soon learned the difference between homebrewing and running a distillery is like making food for your aunts and uncles is not the same as running a restaurant. Davin was always aware of that. He thought his beer was good, but not that good,” explains Kellan. “Every step of the way I was like ‘Let’s do it! Let’s get started!’ He is very risk averse. He knew we had zero experience.”
In 2007 Kellan started working as a beer distributor and in 2008 Davin went to brew school at Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago to further advance his studies in brewing science.
“When he got out of school for brewing, I was like ‘Are you ready to start a brewery yet?’ He was like ‘No, you know you don’t just go to medical school then do brain surgery the next day. You have to train under somebody else.’ So, he went and worked for a guy as an assistant after brew school. After that I was like ‘Are you ready yet?’ He was like ‘No, I have to go make more mistakes. I need to be better,’” says Kellan. “That’s always been his thought process, over and over and over.”
Davin graduated as salutatorian and began his career as a professional brewer by working at Rock Bottom. He earned his first gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in fall of 2008. By 2010 Davin had won three more medals at the GABF and Kellan, now a Level 1 Cicerone, had started work for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
Getting experience is an integral part of starting a business, says Kellan, and was a big part of why Wiseacre was able to succeed.
“A couple of times I've been asked to talk about entrepreneurship and whenever I do it, I get up there and I say ‘I know nothing about entrepreneurship. I know how to start a brewery.’ But maybe that's the key to entrepreneurship, getting really good experience. We never had these snap sessions where we were like. ‘What if we do this, or do that?’ We had to think through bad ideas. Sometimes it took us a couple years to realize something was a bad idea. But you have to make those mistakes, that's my advice for somebody who wants to start something. Go get experience. Make mistakes. Put yourself out there,” says Kellan.
“So many people confuse passion with ability,” Davin adds. “You might fall in love with something, but that doesn't mean you are suited to doing that. Loving something as a hobby doesn’t make something the basis for a business. If you make a bad ass grilled cheese one time that does not mean you should go and open a restaurant. That doesn't mean you shouldn’t love it or try to pursue it but going from ‘I made an awesome grilled cheese one time’ to running the best grilled cheeseria in the universe is a long, difficult process. It is experience but you also have to go through things and make sure you even want to do it. A lot of times there are parts of the experience that are not glamorous and are very dirty in a lot of different ways. People looking through the window might be like that’s super easy, but they’re not seeing the whole picture. Even out of my class from brewing school, only three of the 40 who graduated with me are still making beer.”
By 2014 Davin and Kellan were ready. The duo opened the doors to the public that year with what would become the brewery’s two flagship brews: Ananda IPA and Tiny Bomb American Pilsner.
Over the course of the next five years Wiseacre would produce over 160 unique beers, distribute throughout nine states and go on to win several national awards.
However, there is still more to learn explains Davin.
“The more you start to know about something, the more you realize how much you don't know,” says Davin.
“Davin is still trying to make Tiny Bomb the tiniest bit better. We don’t want to change it, but there are just minuscule things that are constantly evolving and he’s the devil on everybody’s shoulder in a sense,” adds Kellan. “We’re dealing with crops that are changing every season. It’s our job to make the beer taste the same every time. So little things have changed that Davin or our staff might notice, but the general public would not.”
“If you have one recipe for eternity it just won’t work because the underlying ingredients are continually changing. You have to adapt. It’s not like wine. People enjoy and appreciate different vintages in wine. The nuances and terroir. They’re like ‘Oh! This is different from last year! This is a little more peppery. I’m so glad this tastes different!’ Nobody ever has a beer and is like, ‘Wow! I’m glad this tastes different than the last one I opened!” Davin laughs.
“People don’t want beer to change. They want it to always taste the same. If it doesn’t taste like it, you’re going to be mad as a consumer because it’s not what you bought. Consistency is one of the most important parts of brewing,” Kellan adds.
Outside of consistently brewing great beer, managing a successful business has had its own growing pains.
“When we opened it was so much work. We were here very late and a lot. It was just the two of us, so we could just yell at each other and it not be a big deal. But having a growing business, has been the hardest thing we've had to figure out. How do you incorporate people, structure departments, determine meeting rhythms, instill communication,” explains Kellan. “We knew how to make beer. We knew how to sell beer. Davin had already won medals at the Great American Beer Festival before we had even opened, so I always knew he would do a great job. There have been some tough lessons to learn and we’re still constantly learning, but I always knew we were going to get it going.”
For Wiseacre to continue to grow, the company has to expand. They plan on opening another location, which includes another taproom and will exponentially increase their production, in downtown Memphis. The new location should open to the public by the end of 2020.
“We hope the new spot will be open before the end of next year. It's really exciting. Better equipment and more space. Davin always tells people, ‘You can't make good scallops in a microwave,’” Kellan laughs. “We’re going to have new packaging equipment, which is really the last step of the brewing process and with certain equipment there is only so much you can do. So, I think the new location and equipment will be really important for our future. It will not only help us in making the best beer but having the best shelf life and stability.”
When the brothers were first dreaming of opening their own brewery it was a very different world for the craft beer industry, which at the time was only a fraction of the size. In Memphis, craft beer was almost nonexistent.
“Before we knew it was going to be here, we had the mentality that we could open this in San Diego or Denver or Chicago, the great beer cities. We never wanted Wiseacre to just be a small local thing, even though there is nothing wrong with that. We always wanted to have the best brewery in the universe,” says Kellan.
“When we first got interested in this back in 2004, which was like 10 years before we opened, you just didn't open a brewery. You might as well have said, ‘I want to be an NBA referee.’ Those doors just weren’t open. By the time we felt comfortable opening Wiseacre, Memphis was definitely an option. In 2004 it just wasn’t feasible here,” says Davin.
However, the industry and Memphis have changed. Kellan says this is partly due to people becoming more involved with what they drink, promoting education in all aspects of the industry and people seeing these breweries thrive in other cities and wanting to bring that home.
It was just a matter of time until Memphis caught on.
“The people that are manufacturing the beer matter. The people that are selling the beer matter. The distributors, bars, stores and restaurants matter. The consumers matter. Within each level there is education, maturation and growth that makes Chicago, San Diego, Denver and Philadelphia what they are,” Kellan explains. I think Memphis is growing a ton on each level. There are some places like Young Avenue Deli that have been showcasing beer for a long time. There are a lot of people here that have cared about good beer for a long time. They’ve seen it in other places, and they’ve wanted it here. We felt that when we opened. We were overwhelmed with the positivity of the people who showed up and had a beer here on opening day. People were really, really excited.”
Wiseacre is not only excited about its own growth, but also for Memphis’. Kellan discusses the duality of the city’s budding redevelopment, noting that there are more opportunities in the city than ever, but that losing our city’s identity is a valid concern.
“I’m excited for Memphis. You see a lot of development happening downtown and there are a lot of people shrugging their shoulders saying, ‘I don’t want us to lose our identity.’ And I don’t want us to lose it either. We have a super unique identity. We’re a lot more like New Orleans than other cities close to us and I’ve always liked that comparison,” says Kellan. “We are an old school kind of place, but there is a lot of empty land here where people are building stuff and the city is growing. I think Memphis has some very good years in front of us.”