Beer, Art, and Memphis: The Beale Street Brewing Co. Story

Wesley goes in-depth with Memphis's first black-owned brewery founder, Kelvin Kolheim. 

Beale Street Brewing Co. is one of the newer craft breweries providing good time beverages to the thirsty people of Shelby County, and they’re doing it in an extraordinary way.

Beer is best enjoyed with others, and I think that feeling of camaraderie and togetherness drives Beale Street Brewing to emphasize collaboration at every level of their beer-making process—the beer names, the label artwork, the flavors––all of it celebrates Memphians and what we’ve created.

man standing behind several shiny silver kegs stacked up, Beale Street is visible in the Background
Adarryll Jackson, Sr.
Kelvin on Beale Street.

Interview With Kelvin Kolheim of Beale Street Brewing

I had a Zoom call with Kelvin Kolhiem from Beale Street Brewing so he could tell me a little more about the brewery and his history:

Wesley: First off, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Tell me a little about yourself.

Kelvin: I’m Kelvin Kolheim, Principal of Beale Street Brewing Co. In my previous life, I was Director of Economic Development with the Memphis Chamber for eleven yeares. Prior to that I was in Logistics.

Wesley: Wow, that’s a long time.

Kelvin: Yeah, I was an ambassador to the city, doing business recruitment, retention, you know. I was able to be an ambassador of the city that I love.

Wesley: For sure. But leaving a position like to make beer? That’s a big move. Did something specific happen that encouraged you to leave the Chamber, or was it just a spur of the moment type thing?

Kelvin: I’ve always been a culinary person. I started taking culinary classes maybe six or seven years ago, I can’t really remember. But hell, I’ve always cooked and done catering and stuff like that. I’ve always been hands-on. Wanted to have my own restaurant, blah blah blah. And beer just came right along with that, with the culinary curiosity. Like, wow, you can manipulate flavors in beer like food, stretch the flavor limit, shock palates, you know. I just jumped head-first into it. I started home brewing seven or so years ago and realized, oh shucks, this is pretty awesome. I dove head-in researching and reading. Going to every brewery I could, traveled a lot. It just grabbed me, man. That bug bit me and wouldn't let go. It’s fun! It’s been an awesome journey so far.

Wesley: I’ve always been a big fan of turning hobbies into streams of income if you’re able to. Very cool. But homebrewing beer and opening a brewery are different things, you know? What inspired you to bring your beers to the masses?

Kelvin: Memphis was and is underserved in the craft beer market. We thought our product and ideas would help celebrate Memphis while bringing some intriguing beers to the Memphis beer scene.

Wesley: That’s interesting, because I feel like there’s actually a lot of craft beer here and you’d think the market would be kind of crowded. Did you see a particular group being underserved or did you just want to do the whole thing differently than others?

Kelvin: Yeah, no, we have some great breweries already here. Since I started maybe four or five years ago, we got other cool ones coming on board. Like Meddlesome. Soul & Spirits, you know. Crosstown is one that’s come on board since then. I just think Memphis is...I say behind on local craft breweries compared to other cities of our size. It’s really just an opportunity to grow craft beer to the population density of Memphis

Tall beer can with purple "Space Age" label with Beale Street Memphis neon
Rashad Oliver of Elivisuals

Memphis's First Black-Owned Brewery

Wesley: So I’m guessing, and I don’t know a lot of the ownership of other breweries, but I think it’s safe to assume there’s not a whole lot of Black brewing going on with breweries in general.

Kelvin: [laughs]

Wesley: Did that factor into it at all?

Kelvin: Naw, it was never a Black and white thing. It was really just doing it out of a love for the city and celebrating Memphis. I saw an opportunity to do that, it’s always been a Memphis thing.

Wesley: I understand that, especially here in a predominantly Black city. So it’s like...we don’t necessarily have to look at things with that angle all the time. But I do know that the brewing industry today isn’t really a diverse one in terms of ownership, I think it’s something like one or two percent of all of them are Black-owned. I’m sure it’s still exciting, though, to be doing it in a city that’s mostly us, you know? Would you say there’s a sense of community around brewers in Memphis? When you opened Beale Street Brewing, did you feel welcomed?

Kelvin: Oh yeah, for sure. You know, there is a friendly, friendly camaraderie. Even though we're heads down our own silos, focusing on our own business, at the end of the day, we can get together and can do a collaboration. That's a pretty awesome thing.

Wesley: What are some local places you like to get food from, and what beers do y’all make that you think would pair well with those? 

Kelvin: Tsunami is a good one. Casablanca. And Mexican food. 

Wesley: I mean, I like drinking beer with anything, really. But you know how people like to drink beer with pizza and burgers or whatever. [laughs]

Kelvin: Yeah, we do everything. We do a lot of Huey's. The Kitchen on Jackson, they have some pretty decent wings and burgers. I mean, pairing is cool, and I tell people to drink what they like, but it does depend on what you're drinking. So like hot wings, I would drink an IPA, or something hazy, something that won't wreck your palate, but it actually cleanses your palate. If you're eating hot hot foods or spicy foods, it's pretty good.

Wesley: Let’s go back to homebrewing right quick––did any of those make it to shelves as Beale Street Brewing beers? Did you have one recipe that was like, oh man, this is the one?

Kelvin: You tweak them. We tweak them a whole lot. So essentially they're all home brew recipes. We haven’t veered out too far to the left on creativity until we get our own space, you know what I mean? Right now we’re contract brewing with the good folks at Lazy Magnolia in Kiln, Mississippi, but we’re working on getting our own facility in Memphis. Once we get our taproom, we’ll have a little more freedom to experiment and let people try some really funky beers.

Wesley: What’s contract brewing like?

Kelvin: We order our own hops, yeast, everything, pretty much. We go down there a lot for tasting, canning, brew days. So they burn that road up until we can get our own space. 

Wesley: Obviously the pandemic has affected your plans to open your taproom, but how long ago did that process start, and how are you making the best of this situation?

Kelvin: So we started looking for a building a couple of years ago, kicking around tires, looking, bidding on a few buildings. Then we realized this whole process will take longer than we initially thought, so we wanted to get some beers on the shelf in the interim just to continue to build momentum. Then of course the pandemic hit. The search looks a little different just because of the circumstances, but we’re still looking for a good space and good size and all that good stuff. But we don’t want to rush ourselves into a situation that’s not ideal because of the times.

Wesley: Well, how’s business going so far?

Kelvin: The response has been pretty good! People seem to like the product. I’m happy with what we put out so far. So all of that is good. 

Wesley: Next, let’s talk about the can art. I recognize all of the artists who have contributed and enjoy their work. I bought a pack of the Love & Hoppiness and ended up keeping one of the cans around for a while because I just liked the way it looked.

Kelvin: How’d you like it?

Wesley: It was good! I’ve actually never had anything like that before. The whole rosé ale thing is really interesting, which is why I decided to pick it up. 

Kelvin: It’s almost like a rosé, like a mimosa with cranberry. A little tart, just a light and refreshing beverage

 

Wesley: I thought the art complemented that taste, which I’m sure was the goal.

Kelvin: We like that the art tries to match the label. So we use Galaxy Hops for Space Age Sippin. And Memphis All Day Every Day has Isaac Hayes’ El Dorado Cadillac on it because we put some El Dorado hops in it. Of course Censational has the 100% centennial hops, which is why we call it that. 

Wesley: Did all that come from your brain, or was it more like a collaboration between you and the artist? Did you give them some beer and tell them to come up with something?

Kelvin: So I said, hey, we're doing X, Y, Z, you know, do your thing with it. We give them the freedom to do their designs and just pair with our thoughts and beers. And it's been  pretty successful so far. We've had some opportunities to work with some great artists, which has been nothing but a blessing. 

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Beale Street Brewing Co.
8 Ball and MJG signing cans.

Collaboration with 8 Ball and MJG

Wesley: Speaking of collaboration, I wanted to talk a little bit about Space Age Sippin, the collaboration with 8 Ball and MJG. How did that form and what did they add to the process?

Kelvin: So a good friend of a friend of mine, Cameron Mann, worked with 8 Ball. He owns a studio. I was telling him about our business and I said, “man, I need to talk to 8 Ball,” and he said he could connect us. So he did, and he and I went to lunch. I gave my vision of the brand and how I want to celebrate them with it, you know. He was like, let's do it!  So we sat down with MJ for another lunch and did the same thing. It was a couple of years before I teed it up with Birdcap like, hey, bro, I'm starting a brewery, I’m a fan of your work, love your work. I want you to do some label designs for us. First one, celebrating 8 Ball and MJG’s Space Age, you know. And he's like, yeah, let's do it. So Birdcap brought the project to life and it's been living ever since. I mean, he did a phenomenal job with capturing those guys and yeah, it's pretty awesome. 

Wesley: What’s a dream Memphis collaboration for you? Working with any Memphis artist, rapper, anyone to create the perfect beverage?

Kelvin: Oh, I say we did it already with Space Age, you know? Those guys are pretty awesome, you know, they're ambassadors to the city of Memphis. They love Memphis. I'm a fan of all of them.

Wesley: Can you tell us about any new collabs that Beale Street Brewing is currently working on?

Kelvin: Yeah. So we're working on some anniversary beers, trying to do two labels, two beers for one year anniversary. So that'd be pretty cool, can’t wait to share that with you all. We’re working with Holtermonster on another label that’s pretty good. We’re keeping them coming.

Unique Beer, Unique Labels From Local Artists

Wesley: That’s really cool. I know a few breweries here are either doing their can art in-house or using a creative agency for it, and everything they put out just ends up looking very similar because of that. 

Kelvin: Yeah. They get that one style and it just kinda becomes their thing.

Wesley: Right. Is that something you try to avoid? What do you think is the benefit of not having a uniform style, and having all the art look radically different from one another? 

Kelvin: I think it’s speaking to the authenticity of the city. The initial goal when we started was every time we do a release with a particular artist, we do a tasting with the featured artist and a gallery show. So we want to celebrate the artist and the collaboration. So not only not only are we tapping into the music, we’re tapping into the city's culture of visual arts.

Art is the fabric of Memphis. And we want to celebrate everything good about it. Of course the pandemic paused that idea, but at some point we wanna pick that back up. I like to explore, try different things. So I don't want to stay in one lane or, you know, do a basic label. It's nice for some brands. It looks great and it looks good. But let's just play with it, you know? Let's give artists the opportunity to showcase the work on some canned labels. Toonky's been awesome for us. He's done some great stuff. So, yeah, he's another great artist we've worked with. And that's the love and happiness label is actually a really cool story. Are you familiar with Frank D. Robinson?  

Wesley: I’m not, no.

Kelvin: So he used to be the artist over at Caritas Village, but he's diabetic and he's had his legs amputated. So I hit him up and asked him, “hey, would you be interested?” He said, “maybe if I can get my hands to work.” So I said, “OK, can we do that design for you and honor you on a can label?” He's like “yeah, that'd be awesome.” So I reached out to Toonky and connected them, and Toonky mimicked his art design, then slapped the signature on the label. Frank was like, “I love it!” So we were able to celebrate Frank.

He was able to be a part of that collaboration, even though he couldn't physically do it. But it was two Memphis artists coming together, you know, celebrating Frank and the love of Memphis. So that's pretty cool. I guess we haven’t told that story enough. [laughs] But those guys came together and did some magic on their design.

Wesley: Well, I believe you are. So finally, where can people buy Beale Street Brewing beers?

Kelvin: We’re currently only sold in Shelby County.  A majority if not all liquor stores that sell craft beer. Several grocery stores including Kroger’s, Trader Joe’s, Cash Saver, Highpoint Grocery.

Beale Street Brewing Co. Beers:

  • Space Age Sippin’ – Hazy IPA collaboration w/ 8Ball &MJG
  • Centsational IPA – West Coast IPA w/ a nod to Penny Hardaway
  • Memphis All-Day Errrday IPA – Session IPA that celebrated Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac El Dorado
  • 528hz of Love & Hoppiness – Rose’ Ale was a nob to Al Green
  • Hopnotizing Minds – Juicy IPA was a reference to Three-6 Mafia

About the Author

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a native Memphis who lives in Midtown with his partner and their two cats. During the day, he's the Communications Coordinator at BRIDGES, but at night you can find him on the internet posting his million-dollar musings about music, politics, and video games even though very few people ask. 

Wesley writes about Memphis culture, music, and more for the I Love Memphis Blog.

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