- Joeff Davis
- FILL ’ER UP: Brewmaster and CEO Brian Purcell raises a glass in the raw space that will soon become his Decatur brewery Three Taverns.
For as long as he can remember, SweetWater Brewing Company CEO Freddy Bensch says Georgia has been known as a "craft-brewing wasteland." Surprising words, perhaps, from the man who co-founded the state's most successful local brewery 16 years ago. But they're words forged in the trenches of the craft beer-less days of decades past, when drinking local meant buying Budweiser from the grocery store up the street.
Between 1993 and 2002, a handful of craft breweries and brewpubs began popping up around the Atlanta area. Elder statesmen such as Red Brick (formerly Atlanta Brewing Company), SweetWater, Five Seasons, and Terrapin introduced such household names-to-be as 420 and Hopsecutioner, and laid the groundwork for the current craft beer boom. Unfortunately, by the early aughts, archaic distribution rules, and prudish, restrictive alcohol-by-volume (ABV) laws had stifled the homegrown industry. Georgia capped ABV at 6 percent, limiting the ability of local brewers, barkeeps, and beer lovers to experiment. But in 2004, the state raised the legal ABV limit to 14 percent, a move that not only allowed establishments like Decatur's Brick Store Pub to start serving some of the finest high-gravity beers in the world, widening palates and deepening consumer interest in the process, but also freed up local brewers to be more adventurous with their creations.
Likewise, 2013 will be a pivotal year for Georgia's craft-beer industry. More than a dozen new breweries and brewpubs are currently in the works. Their additions will nearly double the number of craft-beer producers statewide, doing in one year what it previously took 20 to accomplish. The presence of new breweries reveals Atlanta's ascendance as a Southern beer destination (Watch your back, Asheville!), and Georgia's path to becoming a craft kingpin. The key to market domination will be supporting the creative, prolific output of up-and-coming brewers, and, perhaps even more importantly, continuing to rethink the laws suffocating these small businesses. In fact, when Bensch finishes his thought, he's decidedly more optimistic: "You see a completely different picture [today], with the Southeast as a top emerging and thriving craft-beer market."
"If you love craft beer, there is no better time to live in Atlanta," says Tom Stahl of new Decatur brewery BlueTarp, which released its first beer, the Irish Red Ale Bantam Weight, on Dec. 27. Its second beer, the Mother Hoppin' Double IPA, is set for an early February release.
Raising ABV limits completely altered the trajectory of beer culture in Atlanta. A wave of bitter, aromatic India Pale Ales, monstrous, engine-oil-black Imperial Stouts, tart Belgian sours, and a myriad of other styles began flooding Atlanta's new craft marketplace. The influx of specialty beers fostered new businesses, including retail establishments such as Decatur's Ale Yeah! and the Westside's Hop City. Bar selections blossomed: More than half of the draft offerings at Brick Store Pub, for instance, now have more than 6 percent ABV. Atlanta's palate was expanding rapidly, and so was its number of breweries. From 2009-2012, seven new establishments entered the local market, including Jailhouse Brewing Company, O'Dempsey's, Wild Heaven Craft Beers, Burnt Hickory Brewery, Monday Night Brewing, Red Hare Brewing Company, and Strawn Brewing.
"I mean, when you look at all this beer, if you're stuck brewing under 6 percent, that's extremely limiting. That held a lot of people back," says David Stein. Stein recently left Twain's Billiards & Tap in Decatur, where he was responsible for the delicious, hoppy Godspeed Double IPA (ABV: 8.3 percent). He's now co-owner/co-brewmaster of the forthcoming Athens-based Creature Comforts Brewing Company.
Georgia's alcohol laws have long been restrictive. In addition to prohibiting the sale of booze on Sunday, vagaries in state law also prevented retailers from selling draft beer. But thanks to the efforts of Athens-based craft-beer retail store the Beer Growler and its lawyer, in 2010, local governments started approving ordinances allowing the sale of growlers, 32- and 64-ounce glass containers of draft beer. After Athens, beer-loving Decatur and Avondale Estates quickly followed suit. In November 2011, Atlanta and Decatur finally saw fit to leave the dark ages as citizens voted overwhelmingly in support of Sunday sales. The already-active local homebrew community flourished thanks to all of this change. Atlanta's oldest club, Covert Hops, which formed in the mid-'90s, now has more than 100 members who meet monthly. Add to this the proliferation of beer festivals throughout metro Atlanta — there were more than 15 last year — and it's clear that Atlantans love their craft beer. But it's up to local brewers and lawmakers to decide whether these people will get to enjoy Georgia craft beer.
"In the scheme of craft-beer cities, I feel like Atlanta is a juvenile," says homebrewer, beer podcaster, and craft enthusiast Blake Tyers. "We're young, hungry, and foolish, and right now, our parents are holding us back. We've got our big guy, we've got a couple mediums, but we're really missing the rest of the pack. Over the next few years, we're going to really see the beer scene round out. You'll see lots of new small- and medium-sized breweries open, specialized breweries that only do weird beers, and neighborhood brewpubs that only serve their community with local flavor. The South is going to start catching up with the rest of the U.S., and we're going to have a good time."