The "leaked" beer list I received a few days before the East Atlanta Beer Festival turned out to be somewhat spurious. Three of the beers I was most looking forward to (Jolly Pumpkin Biere de Mars, Flying Dog Whiskey-Aged Gonzo Imperial Porter and Left Hand Twin Sisters Double IPA) were apparently decoys, as no one seemed to know anything about them. And I thought maybe I had overlooked Unibroue, or that it was in the back, past the "big tree" chokepoint, but a close inspection of the map handed out at the fest showed it was not listed at all.
Which is not to say I didn't get to sample a few new beers and revisit some old favorites. Innis & Gunn barrel-aged English ale is remarkable in its complexity. The aroma is musky and almost pungent, while the flavor isn't unlike a scotch and water: woody, earthy and dry. MacFoochie's Scottish ale from Atlantic Brewing Company features rich, smoky malts and a dark fruitiness that's tempered with a roasted-coffee bitterness and a grassy, herbal note from heather tips. Clipper City's Small Craft Warning Uber Pils was also a nice find. I've enjoyed some of the other beers in its "Heavy Seas" series, but hadn't tried this one. Imperial pilsners are difficult to pull off, but this one manages to balance moderate body, low sweetness and a solid floral hoppiness to achieve the goal of a high-gravity pilsner that's refreshing and crisp.
Apart from a few missing beers, the festival was well-run and had a good selection of beer. By the end of the day I was grooving happily to Entropy's funky version of Bill Withers' "Use Me," while sipping on a funky Avery 15 Anniversary ale.
Two new brands bring regional flavor to Georgia
The EABF also featured two breweries that are new to Atlanta. Their stories are so remarkably similar that I could almost write the same story and just substitute their names and the states where they're made. Kona Brewing Company and Magic Hat Brewing Company both were launched in 1994, developed strong regional identities, became the largest craft brewers in their respective states of Hawaii and Vermont, cut back their ambitious portfolios to a handful of accessible styles with good drinkability, and are expanding nationwide with deliberate marketing campaigns and distribution deals with Anheuser-Busch.
Kona taps into the laid-back surfer vibe of the Big Island with a slate of ales and lagers that are refreshing, crisp and well-suited to Hawaii's year-round tropical temperatures. Its flagship beer is the Longboard Lager (5.5 percent ABV), an easy-drinking American all-malt lager. The Fire Rock Pale Ale (5.8 percent ABV) is a light pale ale that's less hoppy than typical examples, according to Kona. Hawaii has no seasons, so instead of "seasonals," Kona has two yearly limited releases. The spring/summer offering, which is in stores now, is the Wailua Wheat, an American-style wheat beer brewed with Lilikoi passion fruit. The fruit infusion cuts some of the spiciness imparted by the wheat, while taking advantage of its lighter body. The fall/winter release is the Pipeline Porter, brewed with 100 percent Kona coffee.
Shipping beer to the mainland is cost-prohibitive, so all the beer sold by Kona in the continental United States is brewed at Widmer's Portland, Ore., brewery by Kona Brewing Company staff. Kona has had good success in California, where its style fits the beach vibe, and has expanded into other Western states and Texas. The Southeast is the next frontier, with its extensive coastline and warm temperatures that favor lighter styles. The lager, pale ale and wheat are available now in six-packs at retail outlets including Kroger and Publix grocery stores, and on draft at local pubs such as Tap, Stats, Six Feet Under and Summits.
Magic Hat plays off the trippy alchemy of its hippie home in Burlington, Vt., home of Phish and Ben and Jerry's. Although it has drawn rave reviews for such intriguing creations as Anti Oxidant Acid Ale Flanders Red and Heart of Darkness Oatmeal Stout, it has whittled down its national portfolio to a few less challenging beers that have broad appeal, anchored by its #9 "Not Quite Pale Ale." The not-so-secret ingredient in the #9 (5.1 percent ABV) is an "essence" of apricot that gives it a unique and pleasant fruitiness.
Magic Hat is doing a slow roll-out in Georgia starting with the No. 9 on tap at a few select locations including Taco Mac, The Vortex, Manuel's, North River Tavern in Roswell and Varner's Station in Marietta. Expect to see six-packs of #9, along with Hocus Pocus and Circus Boy, both American pale wheat ales, in package stores around August. Magic Hat will also be introducing its variety 12-pack that features three bottles each of #9, Circus Boy and Hocus Pocus, and three bottles of an Odd Notion, an unidentified "brewer's choice" that it uses to test potential regulars. After giving it a whirl, customers can "rave it or grave it" on the company's Rube Goldberg-like website.
I got a chance to sample all the beers that these two companies will be offering in Georgia, with the exception of the Pipeline Porter. All six will be available at the Creative Loafing Beer Festival June 14, so come try them for yourself. Here are my initial impressions:
Magic Hat #9 and Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale – Two easy-drinking pales with a bit of a fruity profile. If you like Sweetwater 420, you should give these a try. Solid, everyday beers.
Kona Longboard Lager – One of the better beers in this category (American all-malt lager), although there's not much competition. Nice toasted malt flavor with some grassy, spicy hops in the clean finish. This would go well with dinner or a ball game.
Kona Wailua Wheat – Not my cup of tea. Nice passion fruit aroma, but a too-light body and a sacchariney finish give it a soda-pop feel.
Magic Hat Hocus Pocus and Circus Boy – If you're going to introduce three styles, why would you make two of them American pale wheats? I liked the Hocus Pocus better of the two. I would have pegged it as a blonde ale. Not as grainy as a typical wheat. Either would make a fine beer to take to the beach.