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Beer Bust

How state laws leave Georgia microbrewers with a hangover


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A majority of the committee members, including Epps, agreed. Their conclusion was "to refrain from any significant legislative changes at this point."

The committee didn't hear from any of Georgia's three microbreweries -- Dogwood, Sweetwater or Atlanta Brewing; they were never invited to testify.

"We never even heard about it," says Freddy Bensch, co-owner of Sweetwater Brewing Co.

When Moran was looking for a distributor back in 1996, there were about six choices. He finally settled on Empire Distributors Inc. Founded in 1940 by Max Kahn, Empire is a family business. Kahn's son, Roger, is the former CEO and chairman (and a past unsuccessful congressional candidate). His grandsons, Michael and David, now run the company. With operations throughout the Southeast, Empire last year saw revenues of $300 million.

Empire's bread and butter is wine and spirits. But Moran liked Empire's pitch -- that it wanted to build up a beer portfolio with specialty brews like Dogwood. He figured he'd get individual attention and ride the crest of a growing wave of beer sales at Empire.

But as the years went by, Moran says, the promises fell by the wayside. Empire's enthusiasm for selling beer waned. It eliminated its beer manager position, Moran says. He'd walk into a grocery store and see four varieties of Sweetwater beer, four kinds of Atlanta Brewing beer, and only one of his own. He'd argue with the warehouse to send back empty kegs, and end up driving down and picking them up himself. He'd complain to Empire and they'd shrug their shoulders, he says. "Crawford," he says they told him, "we're not a beer distributor. We sell wine and liquor."

One premise of the three-tier system is that with distributors selling beer to retailers, brewers will be free to concentrate on making good beer. Except the system doesn't work that way. No matter how small you are, brewers know they have to sell their beer at least as aggressively as the distributor does.

"Brewers can't just hand their product over and say to the distributor, 'Go sell it and make me rich,'" says Daniel Bradford, president of the North Carolina-based Brewers' Association of America. "It doesn't work like that. More and more, you're finding that the small brewers, like the big ones, are providing market support. You've got to come in with the plan. You've got to know where it is you want to go. You've got to know how to get there. It's a two-way street. If you provide support, they're going to work with you. But if you're going to be passive, they'll be passive."

Moran insists he was anything but passive, employing his own salesperson to open new accounts. More than once, he says, the rep would go into a new bar or restaurant and find that Empire salespeople had been there, but had never breathed a word about Dogwood.

Eventually, Moran began asking Empire to release his brand. "I said, 'You've got to release my brand or you'll drive me out of business.' That was a few months ago, and here we are."

It´s mid-afternoon on a weekday, and Freddy Bensch is exercising his prerogative as co-owner of Sweetwater Brewing Co. He is dressed in cargo shorts, T-shirt and Birkenstocks, leaning against his pickup outside his brewery, chatting on his cell phone, and sipping from a pint glass.

Bensch was born 33 years ago in California, but his education came in Colorado, where he worked in breweries while attending college. The fact that he has made his passion his occupation hasn't diminished his enthusiasm for beer-making. Quite the contrary. On a tour of the brewery's new facility in Midtown, Bensch flips a spigot on a massive 100-barrel fermenting tank, and fresh beer fills up a glass.

"This is a little piece of heaven," says a guest.

"Man," Bensch says, "this is a great big piece of heaven."

Last year, Sweetwater brewed 14,500 barrels, and this year is on track to brew 18,000. Atlanta Brewing is far back, brewing about 4,000 barrels. And before it closed, Dogwood was also at a 4,000-barrel pace.

Last spring, after seven years on Fulton Industrial Boulevard, Sweetwater sold its facility to an upstart called Zuma, which is brewing a beer aimed at the Latino market. Sweetwater moved to an old dry cleaners in an industrial area off Monroe Drive. Bensch and his colleagues outfitted the cavernous space with tanks shipped on semis from a brewery in California. Tinkering with any element during the brew process -- much less moving an entire brewery and installing new equipment -- can alter the final product in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, so Sweetwater put a moratorium on new sales while the company calibrated the machinery and re-captured its winning formula.


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