photographs by Amie Vanderford
Boscos founders and majority owners (left to right) Andy Feinstone, Jerry Feinstone, John Kinzel, and Chuck Skypeck.
If you had to name one Memphis establishment that captures the flavor of the legendary TV sitcom Cheers, Boscos just might be it. Walk into this Overton Square restaurant on a crowded Friday night, and the joie de vivre of the place can’t help but lift your spirits. Sit down at the bar and order, say, a Midtown Brown, and you’re suddenly reminded of what good beer really tastes like: Fresh, full-bodied, a tangy, malty delight.
When founders Jerry Feinstone and Chuck Skypeck first discussed merging their individual dreams of opening a pizza cafe and a brewery back in the early 1990s, theirs seemed an unlikely marriage. Feinstone had spent 25 years in finance as a stockbroker; Skypeck’s career was as a store manager for Walgreens. And neither knew the first thing about restaurants. They did, however, share one thing in common. “Jerry was dumb enough to think I could brew beer, and I was dumb enough to think he could run a restaurant,” says Skypeck. “It was a leap of faith for both of us.”
Their aim was to produce good food and well-crafted beer, something not done in Memphis since the Tennessee Brewery was shuttered back in 1954. That objective required a change in state law which, prior to 1992, kept separate the manufacture, distribution, and retail sale of beer. State Senator Steve Cohen led the charge, changing a law that dated back to Prohibition and following other states that had struck down similar measures.
The legislative change effectively opened the tap to aspiring brewers. So when Boscos Pizza Kitchen and Brewery launched in Germantown back in December 1992, it became the first restaurant in the state to make and sell their own beer. In doing so, it joined a clutch of small, emerging breweries in places like St. Louis, Kansas City, and Boston. All were beginning to produce hand-crafted beer, ushering in a new era of American beer making. Today, Boscos boasts four regional locations — Memphis, Nashville, Franklin, and Little Rock — and the company recently launched Ghost River Brewery, distributing bottles of golden ale and kegs of draft beer to 120 restaurants and 140 retail outlets in the Memphis area.
The division of labor between these two partners has always been fairly well defined. Skypeck strives to perfect the art of brewing, while Feinstone embraces the food and numbers side of the business. In December, I meet Jerry Feinstone for a mid-week lunch, and when I arrive, the Overton Square restaurant is in full-swing. I hear several attorneys comparing notes at the bar, while tables of office workers, students, and ladies-who-lunch mingle in the adjoining dining rooms. Since the crowd ebbs and flows throughout the day, you seldom find yourself alone here. The Germantown location was busy only four hours a day, I’m told. But the Midtown Boscos stays busy, with four different crowds, from mid-day into the late night.
In fact, the original Saddle Creek location was closed after a 10-year run because, as Feinstone explains, “Growing it was like pushing on a rope. No matter what you did, you couldn’t find more customers.” At the Madison and Cooper location, which opened in 2002, they have found the magic mix that successful brewpub/restaurants require: a great location, tasty food, consistent quality, and a vast, ever-changing beer menu.
Boscos produces 50 styles of beer each year, with offerings that are adjusted seasonally. “Craft beer is all about freshness and variety,” notes Skypeck. They brew 200 gallons of beer at a time, which is then served over a two- to three-week period. Typically, they have eight beers on tap: four “regular” brands like their popular Bombay IPA and award-winning Famous Flaming Stone, as well as four others that rotate. “So on average, we have a new beer every week or two. People look for that variety, and I think that’s one of the keys to our success. People look forward to a certain beer showing up at certain times of the year.”
Regional manager Andy Feinstone (Jerry’s son) oversees all four Boscos locations and is responsible for the restaurant’s menu design. “We’ve had this menu in variations for a long time. We add new items every so often and offer a fair number of specials. We may even create a new menu item and pull something else off the menu, but that gets us in trouble because it’s always someone’s favorite.”
Initially, Boscos created nearly 20 different types of pizzas, which were baked to perfection in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven, the first of its kind in Memphis. (That’s also where the restaurant gets its name, from the Italian bosco al forno.) Most of their creations found an appreciative audience, and favorites like the Germantown Purist and California pizza remain on the menu today.
On Feinstone’s recommendation, I order the daily lunch special: a hearty plate of fish and chips, a dish he says exemplifies the company’s focus on using fresh, quality ingredients instead of canned or frozen foods. In fact, when it first opened, Boscos offered mesclun greens for salads, something no one else was doing at the time. “We had to have them shipped in from California because you couldn’t get them locally,” he notes. The importance of being fresh and local has long been a company mantra and with the growth of the slow food movement here, it’s a message that is finally resonating.
Our lunch arrives and I bite into a crunchy, beer batter crust which gives way to the sweet Icelandic cod encased inside. The fish is meaty and flavorful, helped along with a tang of vinegar.
“I don’t think our food is on par with someone like Erling Jensen,” says Feinstone. “That would be more demanding. But if I can get [you] a good meal for $10 a plate, I’m happy. We’re volume-type cooking. We do a good job making things to order.”
After the meal, we take a brief drive down Madison Avenue and talk about the possibilities for this stretch of Midtown commerce. Feinstone serves on the Midtown Memphis Development Corporation, which is working to market this diverse mix of businesses. He’s encouraged by changes that are currently afoot at Overton Square, with Loeb Properties renovating a number of storefronts and a performing-arts district continuing to take shape. He sees the ripple effect of that project bringing good things to Midtown businesses and residents alike.
Now that I’m familiar with the food side of the business, I want to learn more about beer making. So I head to South Main Street downtown to meet Boscos co-founder Chuck Skypeck and head brewer at Ghost River Brewing as well. Like a quick-sketch artist, Skypeck touches on the history and archaeology of beer making, the impact of Prohibition on American brewers, and the growth of craft brewing. His interest in beer making began, like so many other contemporary brewers, with the home-brewing movement of the mid-1980s.
Because so much of the craft involves trial and error, Skypeck explains, “We had to depend on each other for knowledge and the experience we gained. It was totally out of necessity to share what we learned.” This collegial approach built a camaraderie among beer makers that remains today. I refer to Skypeck and his colleagues as microbrewers, but as the former president of the national Brewers Association, a trade group of independent brewers, he corrects me by saying, “We like [the term] craft brewer. We’re using quality ingredients to make traditional and new styles of beer, all of which speaks to the diversity and quality of what brewers are doing today.”
Since the 1980s the number of American craft brewers has mushroomed, from fewer than 50 to more than 1,870 today, and Skypeck himself has become nationally known for his knowledge and expertise. Several of Boscos’ beers have won the coveted gold and silver medals at the Great American Beer Festival, placing them among the best craft beers in the country.
“Our best-selling Hefeweizen is a German wheat beer,” says Skypeck, “and we’ve won three golds and one silver with that beer. To repeat in a category is very unusual; it’s very intense competition. Now Hefeweizen is one of our most popular beers, but when I first brewed it, I couldn’t give it away. It’s all about timing and reflects how people’s tastes have changed.”
As we step into the brewery, the pungent aroma of malted barley fills the air. This South Main facility was initially built to be a commissary brewery, when Skypeck and Feinstone were toying with the idea of franchising the restaurant and producing beer here. Then the recession hit, and they changed direction. Instead of selling Boscos franchises, they decided to create a new company and make their beer available to local restaurants and retailers. They quickly discovered, however, that having the Boscos name associated with the beer didn’t go over well with many local restaurateurs. Skypeck says he came up with the beer’s new identity while on the treadmill at the YMCA. Ghost River Brewing captured everything he was looking for — a cool name tied to the West Tennessee region’s water, canoeing on the Wolf River, and the idea of a healthy lifestyle. The name had Memphis ties but an identity that didn’t limit it to the city. With a $1.5 million equipment expansion and infrastructure improvement, Skypeck and Feinstone were ready for business; the company’s first shipment of bottled beer arrived at supermarkets and liquor stores last fall, just in time for the holiday season.
Memphis is a logical place for beer making, since 95 percent of beer is water and the region’s soft, pure water acts as a wonderfully blank palette. As Skypeck explains how Ghost River’s brewing and bottling plant operates, I’m reminded of the economic ripple one business can make. Producing 650 cases of beer every two weeks requires 14 to 15 tons of malted barley from Montana and North Dakota, hops from the Pacific Northwest, water from Memphis, glass bottles from southern Illinois, and cardboard cartons from a local division of International Paper, not to mention a local distributor that will carry their beer to retailers once it is packaged.
Stacked near the brewing tanks is a skid of plastic barrels that emanate heat. “Why are these barrels so warm to the touch?” I ask Skypeck. “Because they hold the remains of the malt mash,” Skypeck replies. Once the essence of the malt has been extracted and siphoned off to a second container for cooking, the spent mash remains. The contents of these barrels will become cow fodder for a local farmer. Next, hops are added — hops being essentially herbal, designed to give beers their distinctive flavors — while the beer steeps. I take a whiff of the bucket and am surprised by the bright scent of pine. “All hops have different notes, depending on where they’re grown,” explains Skypeck.
As we finish the tour, I feel dazzled by all the aromas and a bit dazed by all the information we’ve discussed. Over the past two decades, Boscos has played a major role in the craft beer industry in our region, and we raise a glass to their next 20 years.