Crosstown Brewing Company recently signed on to be the official beer sponsor for the Levitt Shell through 2021. It’s great for the simple fact that they’re investing back into the community through a beloved gem, but it also brings the story of the brewery full circle. If not for the free shows at Levitt Shell, Crosstown Brewing Company might not exist.
Co-owners Will Goodwin and Clark Ortkiese have known each other for most of their lives. They grew up together and attended high school together at Christian Brothers. They went their separate ways for college but remained loosely connected through mutual friends.
Some years later, Will and Clark found themselves back in the Memphis area unbeknownst to each other. Clark had settled in Somerville while Will put down roots in East Memphis. Both had also taken up homebrewing and began participating in competitive clubs. Their paths crossed again at a Big Brew Day at Bosco’s where homebrew clubs from all over had convened to put their own spin on a Bosco’s base beer and see who’d emerge with the superior brew.
“They would let you add different ingredients to it to make it your own, so that’s what we were doing at the time,” said Will. “Our club was on the patio at Bosco’s and I saw Clark across the way and I said ‘I know that guy.’ And over the course of the day…”
“Beers were had,” Clark chimes, finishing Will’s sentence as they frequently do for each other.
They reconnected over beer and soon began to see each other as competitors, popping up at the same contests determined to best each other.
“We would enter our beer into these competitions and Clark might win a gold medal for his IPA. I would win a bronze and I’d say ‘Well, crap I gotta up my game. I gotta beat this guy.’ I’d go buy new equipment or try out a new recipe or a new technique and the next time, I’d win gold, and he’d win a silver.”
Something bigger was beginning to brew from their one-upmanship.
“Back and forth, we were pushing each other and elevating the game,” said Will. “After about three years of doing that we decided to collaborate and share the equipment, share the knowledge, and share the recipes that we had and that’s where we started to separate ourselves from the pack.”
As they were figuring out they were better together, Clark recalls he was still living in Somerville with a growing list of reasons to make the hour-long trek into Memphis. He says that the biggest one was the free music series at the Levitt Shell.
“That was our everything. It was three to four nights a week we were at the Shell. That’s what we did every weekend. My wife and I were newly married and we found ourselves staying at our friends’ houses who lived in Midtown over and over. We were like, ‘This is crazy. What are we doing? Let’s move closer.'”
Clark says it was just by chance that they bought a house on Garland Street, one street over from Cleveland, in the shadow of the Sears Crosstown building. The guys vividly remember the pivotal conversation they had on one of the many nights they were collaborating in Clark’s backyard.
“We’re looking up at that Crosstown tower and again, beers were had, and we start thinking we could probably start a brewery. We both had production backgrounds. Will was a production supervisor and I had sales experience for manufacturing. It’s not a whole lot different. You’re making steel products or rock products, but manufacturing is manufacturing. We could do this with beer.”
The guys reached out to Todd Richardson and McLean Wilson of Crosstown Arts to talk about putting a brewery in the Crosstown Concourse development. Clark and Will confessed that they knew basically nothing about starting a brewery but they knew their love of beer and had brought one of their homebrews to the meeting.
“We brought our Russian Imperial Stout, which Todd Richardson swears to this day is the reason that he ever took a chance on us,” said Will. From there we spent the next three to four years of our lives chasing down the money and the expertise, and all the things that we would need to get this brewery open.”
The name was a no-brainer given the location. Crosstown Brewing Company is the name that Clark was using for his homebrewing operation and the guys could never agree on an alternative anyway. It just made sense. Again, taking their location into consideration, their next step was to get some next-level branding.
“How could we possibly be Crosstown Brewing Company and not be engaged in this artist community? We have to embrace the visual arts, not just the liquid arts that are in the glass,” said Will. They turned to Tom Martin who created their logo and subsequently all of the label art, which is so striking on its own that it’s available for purchase in poster form.
“He asked what we wanted and we said we wanted it to be cool. That was almost our only direction,” said Clark. “Tom had vision and realized what we were trying to accomplish and that while we didn’t have a whole lot of money on the front end, we had the ambition and the kind of idea that was gonna be something he wanted to work on going forward. His logo was so strong I think it did help our Kickstarter. It helped us to have the legitimacy that we needed.”
Crosstown Brewing Company will celebrate its second anniversary in February. The guys credit the Shell as the catalyst for their evolution from hobbyists to brewery owners in a neighborhood and city they’re proud to call home.
“To me, it was always kind of a symbol that Memphis was back,” Clark explained. “That was one of the first beacons of light. Memphis wasn’t always the happening place that it’s starting to be right now. If it hadn’t been for Levitt Shell, I never would’ve come back. I might have moved to another city entirely.”
Just as the Shell brings all kinds of people together, Clark and Will try to carry that spirit into their taproom. They host a wide variety of events and the place is constantly abuzz with musicians, comedians, visual artists, residents of the building or the neighborhood, people heading home from work, people who’ve ventured in from other parts to marvel at what the Crosstown building has become. The guys pride themselves on having a beer to suit anyone who walks through their doors, no matter how you think you feel about craft beer or particular styles.
“Drinkability is at the forefront but also the beers are true to style,” said Will. “Crosstown Brown is fully a Brown Ale but it’s not overly sweet. It’s not too big and bold. It’s very approachable and easy-drinking, but at the same time, it’s a solid Brown. We have beers that are accessible for everybody.”
Clark adds, “If Crosstown Concourse is a vertical urban village, we strive to be the village pub and provide beers that are good and drinkable and easy and facilitate great conversation.”
When your passion becomes your business, and your good friend becomes your business partner, there’s always the risk that you’ve sucked the fun out of it all and added strain to your relationship. Clark and Will seem to be navigating it well. Even though they’re on the same team now, they’re still super competitive and pushing each other toward improvement for the benefit of the brewery. You might catch them strategizing and trash-talking over foosball on any given day. They say they often show up dressed alike and, even when they disagree, they’re on the same page.
“We talk about it and then usually at a point in the discussion, we find out that we have the exact same opinion,” said Clark. “We’ve just been talking about it differently.”
“Right,” said Will. “Our brains are so different. He’s right-brained and I’m left-brained and together we have a complete brain. That’s corny and hokey but…”
“It’s accurate,” Clark agrees. “There’s one brain between us. We’re happy we’re sharing one.”
“But also there’s a level of trust that you just have to go do your thing,” said Will.
“You finally realize there are more things to get done in a day than I’ll ever do, and here’s this other person that’s willing to do at least, as much or more, than I’m willing to do all the time. Just the two of us. It’s us against the world at the end of the day,” said Clark.