Memphis is a lot of things: home of the blues, birthplace of rock ’n’ roll (not to mention Justin Timberlake), liberal enclave in a conservative state. But five years ago—when there was just one brewery, Ghost River, and one brewpub, Boscos, from the same owners—nobody would have called it a beer haven. Even though the Memphis sands aquifer provides pristine, naturally soft water that’s well suited to brewing, it took a handful of legal changes to pave the way for three more breweries to open. With big players such as Bell’s and Founders finally distributing here, it’s become a burgeoning scene worth exploring—especially during Memphis in May, when a flurry of festivals brings music and barbecue fans to the rockin’ city.
High Cotton Brewing Co.
Homebrew buddies-turned-brewers Brice Timmons, Ryan Staggs and Ross Avery set up shop in a 1920s Plymouth dealership just a block from legendary recording hub Sun Studio. Inside the taproom paneled with rough-cut cypress from a sawmill in Grand Junction, bartenders pour CTZar, a big West Coast-style IPA, or the toasty Scottish Ale, light-bodied enough for steamy summer days.
598 Monroe Ave., highcottonbrewing.com
A favorite of local brewers for its stellar Memphis-style barbecue, Central’s downtown location (the newest of three) pours two-plus options from each of Memphis’ breweries from taps built into an upcycled cast-iron sink from an elementary school. Fans file in for Craig Blondis’ famous dry-rubbed, hickory-smoked ribs or pulled pork after a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum just steps away.
147 E. Butler Ave., cbqmemphis.com
The larger, newer Overton Square outpost (the original is located downtown) boasts the superior beer lineup, thanks to three bars and 48 taps pouring the four local labels plus national brands such as Bell’s and Sweetwater. Hit the patio—outfitted with umbrellas and misting fans—to chow down on the grilled onion topped double burger or the Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich with chili aioli and house pickles.
2126 Madison Ave., localgastropub.com
The Second Line
Though James Beard Award semifinalist chef Kelly English takes some liberties with Cajun and Creole flavors—think pimento cheese fries with andouille sausage and crawfish—his time spent cooking under chef-lebrity John Besh shines in traditional plates such as New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp. Sip hometown drafts or Southern Prohibition’s cheeky cans—Suzy B Dirty Blonde Ale, Jack the Sipper ESB—at the copper-topped bar or beneath vintage beer bottle sconces. 2144 Monroe Ave., secondlinememphis.com
Memphis Made Brewing Co.
Outside of their three year-round brews, founders Drew Barton (former brewer at French Broad Brewery in Asheville, North Carolina) and Andy Ashby (a former journalist and later bartender at Memphis’ outpost of Flying Saucer) are big on seasonals, collabs and releases just for the taproom. (For National Repeal Day, they took one keg of Drew’s Day Off oatmeal stout, infused it with orange peel and called it Orange Drewlius.) Housed in a former pie factory, the brewery and taproom boasts German beer garden-style seating inside and a loading dock patio outside.
768 S. Cooper St., memphismadebrewing .com
Hammer & Ale
Former art gallery owner/craft beer obsessive David P. Smith stocks the 24 taps at this lounge and growler shop with brews from Southern breweries Blue Pants and Fat Bottom. When he’s not scooping vanilla ice cream for beer floats, he’s hanging around Memphis’ three taprooms, convincing the brewers to give the lounge dibs on one-offs and limited releases.
921 S. Cooper St., hammerandale.com
Wiseacre Brewing Co.
The brothers Bartosch—former Rock Bottom Chicago brewer Davin and Sierra Nevada alum Kellan—were the first to can beers in Tennessee and pride themselves on perfecting their pilsner, Tiny Bomb, made with local wildflower honey. Under state law, any beverage topping 6.25% ABV is considered liquor and requires a distiller’s license, so they snagged one to brew releases such as Astronaut Status barrel-aged imperial stout. Heads up: The taproom takes credit cards only, no cash.
2783 Broad Ave., wiseacrebrew.com
At this warehouse turned gaming bar, offbeat events range from Rock Band karaoke to Bendy Brewski, a weekly yoga and craft beer night. Gamers of all stripes keep busy with pingpong, foosball, Skee-Ball, vintage arcade games and cornhole on the patio, or they rent one of six lounge areas with 20-foot projection screens to play video games ranging from old-school Nintendo to Xbox One ($10/hour).
3000 Broad Ave., recroommemphis.com
Memphis’ growing loves for bikes and beer collide at this boozy bike shop from Jim Steffen (who also offers tune-ups via his repair truck of the same name) right off protected bike path The Hampline. Order Ghost River bottles or Wiseacre cans at the counter and watch Steffen in action, or grab grub from the food trucks while bicyclists cruise the pump track, due for completion this spring.
509 N. Hollywood St., bikesmithtruck.com
Bounty on Broad
This seasonally driven, family-style eatery is known for creative veggie dishes; you might find fried cauliflower with chili-spiced honey or sauteed summer squash with bacon. It used to be a butcher shop, too, so don’t shy away from the 18-ounce prime ribe eye. The tight beer list calls on out-of-towners for high-gravity picks, such as Victory’s Golden Monkey triple.
2519 Broad Ave., bountyonbroad.com
Hog & Hominy
Italian-trained, Southern-bred chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman (of neighboring Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Porcellino’s Craft Butcher) built their biggest beer list at this boisterous hangout serving wood-fired, Neapolitan-inspired pizza. Choose from four local-leaning handles (usually with Wiseacre in the mix) and a hefty bottle and can list, then play bocce while waiting for a table.
707 W. Brookhaven Circle, hogandhominy.com
Gowler Fills at the Grocery
Need a growler to bring back to your hotel or a free summer concert at Levitt Shell? Choose from 30 taps at Madison Growler & Bottle Shop, inside the Madison Ave. location of Cash Saver grocery store. Beer manager Taylor James, whose family owns the store, has made it his mission to offer the biggest selection of American crafts at the lowest prices. That translates to limited local releases and tasty picks from throughout the South and Midwest, from non-alcoholic Abita Root Beer to Tallgrass Brewing Co.’s Bourbon Barrel Buffalo Sweat oatmeal cream stout. Bonus: James plans to bring local drafts to Crosstown music venue The Hi Tone Cafe.
620 Madison Ave., memphiscashsaver.com
HUNT THESE TAPS:
The OG of Memphis’ craft beer scene, Ghost River Brewing, doesn’t offer tours or a taproom at present, but look for Grindhouse Ale, a cream ale brewed for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA basketball team, and the latest one-off in its Brewers Series. Thanks to Belgian farmhouse ale yeast and American hops, High Cotton’s Belgian IPA is tart and crisp with a grapefruit nose. Watch for Memphis Made’s Plaid Attack, a Scottish ale with cherrywood-smoked malt, and Wiseacre’s Lord Skylark pale ale brewed with Earl Grey tea.
Memphis’ fifth brewery looks to be Crosstown Brewing Co., slated to open late fall 2016 in Crosstown Concourse, a new mixed-use development in the former Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center, built in 1927.