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Georgia's Brewed Awakening

Atlanta leads the charge in Georgia's craft-brewery boom

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FILL ’ER UP: Brewmaster and CEO Brian Purcell raises a glass in the raw space that will soon become his Decatur brewery Three Taverns.
  • 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."

HOUSE OF BREWS: Three Taverns is taking over Push Push Theater’s old space off College Avenue.
  • Joeff Davis
  • HOUSE OF BREWS: Three Taverns is taking over Push Push Theater’s old space off College Avenue.

One new establishment on the smaller end of the spectrum will be Alpharetta's Jekyll Brewing, which could be brewing as soon as April. Brewmaster Josh Rachel says his company will start with a lighter, German-style Kolsch ale and an IPA. He says Jekyll's goal is "to appreciate the love of beer" and to keep its focus community-oriented. "Jekyll Brewing will be one of the smallest microbreweries in Georgia," he says. "This is something that I'm actually very proud to say."

Others are starting small by necessity, with hopes of expanding over time. Jason Pellett intends to set up his operation, Orpheus, near the Atlanta Beltline's eastside trail. While he's only about half-funded and plans to order his brewing equipment in March, his thoughtful, boundary-pushing beers include a King of Pops-inspired plum saison called Siren, and a winter IPA brewed with coniferous tree branches. "I love sours," Pellett says. "I want there to be an easily accessible, year-round, not-very-expensive sour."

The three men and one woman behind Atlanta's Eventide, opening in late summer or early fall, plan to roll out a Kolsch, an American pale ale, and a stout. Brewer Geoffrey Williams is excited to be a part of Georgia's craft-beer boom. "A rising tide raises all the ships," he says. "As more and more [craft beer] becomes available, more and more people are learning about it. Every single article that's written, every billboard you see, every bottle that's turned up, it's a movement toward that craft direction."

The movement extends outside the metro area to Athens and beyond. Reformation Brewing plans on making its Belgian dubbel and Belgian pale, among other styles, in Cherokee County. The folks at Second Self have helped loosen laws in Chamblee in case they end up brewing there. "You couldn't brew in Chamblee, so we had the law changed," Second Self's Jason Santamaria says. "We went to them and said, 'We might go here; what do we have to do?' They voted, and now it's in there."

Amid this burgeoning group of beer purveyors, Athens' Creature Comforts and Decatur's Three Taverns will likely define the Georgia brewing conversation over the next decade. Stein's Creature Comforts will initially produce an IPA, pilsner, and a Berliner Weisse (a gently tart, low-alcohol, German wheat beer). For Brian Purcell's Three Taverns, the focus is on a Belgian IPA and a Belgian-style single to start.

Stein apprenticed at Scotland's renowned BrewDog, known for its extreme beers, some of which hit ABV marks of 18 to 55 percent, and most recently revamped the beer lineup at Twain's. He's pushing his carefully recruited team to innovate. "We're going to have our pilot system at the brewery forever, where employees will be encouraged to brew beer all the time," he says. "If their beer is good, it'll be a taproom-only release, and if it's really good, there's the potential for larger-scale release. I want at least one of my brewers focusing on pilot batches, being creative, experimenting. If it's terrible, you pour it down the drain and move on."

Purcell, 50, a former marketing professional who's worked for Coca-Cola, has been carefully crafting his homebrew recipes for a decade. His exacting Belgians have found an underground following in Atlanta beer circles, helping him secure 135 percent of the necessary funding to launch Three Taverns. He's taken his time building his brewing empire, and it shows in everything from the brewery's elegant web presence and classic packaging design to the beers themselves. "I believe people long for permanent things, for things they know will last, that won't let them down," he says of his slow-and-steady evolution and attention to quality. "We live in a world where we are constantly disappointed. All of us long for something we know is real, [and] that takes work. That takes commitment."

Georgia's craft-beer boom has been a long time coming, but it also has a long way to go before it can keep up with juggernauts like Oregon and Colorado. "I'm not sure Atlanta is pushing the envelope, so much as catching up to the kind of beer culture other cities have enjoyed for a long time," says Southern Brew News editor and Atlanta Journal-Constitution beer columnist Bob Townsend.

Annual craft-beer sales in the United States doubled between 2007-2012 from $5.7 billion to $12 billion, and experts anticipate it will triple to $18 billion by 2017. Like the rest of the country's, Georgia's sales are trending upward, but the bulk of that revenue stems from sales of beer brewed outside the state.

BEER OF THE FUTURE: David Stein left Twain’s to open the forthcoming Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens.
  • Dustin Chamers (left)/Jason Thrasher (top-right, bottom-right)
  • BEER OF THE FUTURE: David Stein left Twain’s to open the forthcoming Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens.

"Atlanta has become the perfect overflow for saturated craft-beer markets such as Northern Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. [BlueTarp is] one of the many breweries attempting to change this," says Stahl.

"If you look at the numbers, beer sales are down year to year, and craft sales are up double digits, literally taking away market share from macrobrewing," says Santamaria. "I think we'll see it peak elsewhere besides the South first because we have a long way to go before we become a San Diego or Seattle. We have a similar [size] to San Diego. They have 125 breweries. There's definitely some headway to go."

There are obstacles, of course, primarily Georgia's handling of the three-tiered distribution system. The nationwide post-Prohibition legislation splits the alcohol industry into three parts — manufacturing, distribution and retailing. The intent was distribution of power, and control of the unruly flow of spirits. But when it comes to beer, in Georgia the scales are tipped in favor of the distributor. (Wineries can sell directly to consumers, but breweries cannot.) A brewer's deal with a distributor is a deal for life. The only out: halting operations for five years — a deathblow to any business.

"It's sad to see that the higher powers in our state seem to have a sense of distrust [of] our industry," Bensch says. "Georgia breweries are severely limited in how we can go to market compared to the vast majority of the rest of the states across the nation. Neighboring states such as Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina have embraced the craft-brewing industry and have been rewarded with a huge influx of development, increased tax revenues, and more importantly, jobs."

With the exception of tours, Georgia law doesn't allow breweries to put their products directly into the hands of consumers. And even then, tour attendees are only permitted "tastes" - they can't purchase and take home what they just enjoyed. Georgia could learn from states such as New York that permit self-distribution among home- and nanobrewers. The freedom helps aspiring beermakers earn fans and money, and, in some cases, become proper microbreweries that sign with distributors, benefiting everyone. There's also the growler situation, which is absurd to the point of hilarity when you break it down.

"Currently, I can buy [growlers] from candy shops, corner stores, butchers, gas stations, grocery stores, you name it," Tyers says. "All these places, and I still can't buy a beer from a brewer. Can you imagine if we told the butcher he couldn't sell his meat to his customers, and if we wanted his product we'd have to buy it from the candy shop or the beer store?"

North Carolina, in particular, is seeing the benefit of opening its arms to brewing culture. In addition to a flourishing local scene, big craft names such as New Belgium (Colorado), Sierra Nevada (California), and Oskar Blues (Colorado) are building out East Coast locations in the state. Meanwhile, Georgia has the third-highest beer excise tax rate in the nation — $1.01 per gallon compared to North Carolina's $0.53, and Oregon and Colorado's $0.08.

It's a chicken-and-the-egg scenario: A booming craft-beer scene would prove legislative reform is a good idea, but legislative reform is needed to nurture a booming craft-beer scene. Beyond dollars and cents, quality regional goods elicit local pride, something that's lacking for a particular kind of Georgia craft-beer consumer.

Dogfish Head, a brewery known for its high-quality, adventurous products, comes up frequently in craft-beer circles. Many Georgia beer obsessives long for Dogfish-level innovation on their home turf. The Delaware Brewery offers a Belgian-style brown ale with beet sugar and raisins, brews an apple cider-enhanced collaboration with rap group Deltron 3030, and has a forthcoming beer/wine hybrid IPA made with Syrah grape juice. "The problem is, there's not a lot of local stuff people can relate to, like 'This is my home beer; I love it,'" Santamaria says. "I'm a huge fan of Dogfish Head; that's just one of my favorites. I own it. I love it. But I want something in Atlanta the same way."

Dogfish has influenced and inspired many of the brewers readying their new Georgia establishments. Purcell admires Dogfish Head's "Off-centered ales for off-centered people" motto. "You can just email [founder/president] Sam Calagione and he'll email you back," says Eventide's Mat Sweezey. It's true, and when Creative Loafing emailed him, it was obvious that the love coming up from Atlanta is reciprocated.

"We sell a good amount of Dogfish beer in Atlanta, but I also know Atlanta has a strong and growing indigenous beer scene," Calagione says. "I did a beer dinner at the Brick Store years ago. Awesome food and great people. I vaguely remember late at night being led to some dark, cellar-like room and being fed old Lambic-style beers. That was my last memory of the evening."

SMART MOVES: Jason Pellett intends to set up his operation, Orpheus, near the Atlanta Beltline’s eastside trail.
  • Joeff Davis
  • SMART MOVES: Jason Pellett intends to set up his operation, Orpheus, near the Atlanta Beltline’s eastside trail.

What Atlanta's craft-beer scene may currently lack in weirdness or abundance, it makes up for with ambition and confidence. Plus, the bigger the hole in a market, the bigger the potential. As Terrapin co-founder and brewmaster Brian 'Spike' Buckowski advised prospective brewers in a recent CL interview, "Have a unique product. If your flagship beer is an IPA or pale ale, find another hobby." A bitter, bracing India Pale Ale is a wonderful thing, and it's a style that's generated serious buzz over the last decade. Celebrated Michigan brewery Bell's recently released the much-hyped 2013 edition of its winter seasonal, Hopslam double IPA. It's dangerously smooth, thanks to "a solid dollop of honey" added during brewing, and a dizzying 10 percent ABV. Atlanta stores like Hop City and Ale Yeah! sold through their morning-delivery allotments within hours. The bottom line: If you're going to introduce an IPA into a saturated market, you'd best come out swinging.

One painstakingly crafted selection that may lead Georgia's craft-brewing direction by example is Three Taverns' Quasimodo. This Belgian-style quadruple ale, which Purcell has been tweaking for six years, will be the brewery's dark, boozy winter seasonal. While Purcell has relished the opportunity to craft a rendition of his favorite beer style, the road to a Quasimodo he feels confident selling has been arduous, slow, and sometimes painful, "with inferior batches unceremoniously dumped only to start over again." Purcell's careful attention to detail and restless, perfectionist spirit should be a model for Georgia's craft-beer community going forward.

Purcell thinks the complex ale he named after Victor Hugo's hunchback is getting close to just right, and he's not alone. In an effort to get some unbiased feedback, Purcell set up a blind taste test in the Brick Store's Belgian bar. Brick Store's Dave Blanchard and Bryan Rackley were there, as were Savannah Distributing's David Little and Henry Monsees. Purcell "brown-bagged" three Belgian quad exemplars — Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10, and St. Bernardus Abt 12 — each made by monks at Trappist breweries in Belgium, as well as his own Quasimodo. "We all put his first or second," Blanchard remembers. "His was first or second on everyone's list, which is pretty amazing."

Keeping to his mantra of transcendo mediocris (Latin for "surpassing the ordinary"), Purcell is in no hurry to release Quasimodo. His Belgian baby won't hit the market until it's perfect. After all, when you go around plastering classy-sounding Latin phrases on your smartly designed brand, you can't skimp on quality.

"I want to be judged by that," Purcell says of the Three Taverns modus operandi. "I want people to expect that, and to judge us by whether we hit that. I don't want to be ordinary. I have always had a vision of making a Belgian quad that makes you wanna write poetry. That's where I wanna go with it."

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