I often say that when I first started writing about beer some 20 years ago, there wasn’t much in Georgia to write about.
Right now, though, the number of new and notable breweries in the state, and especially around metro Atlanta, seems to grow exponentially from month to month and year to year, to the point that it can be overwhelming to keep up with.
Arches in Hapeville, Dry County in Kennesaw, Gate City and Variant in Roswell, Pontoon in Sandy Springs, and Wild Leap in LaGrange are beginning to make a mark on the scene — often with beers that reflect the cutting edge of the craft movement.
In the bigger picture, though, there are six brewing companies that I think are changing the game here and now, both with the quality and popularity of their beers, and expanding and experimenting with new equipment and facilities.
A New Realm
Opening in January 2018, New Realm Brewing is perhaps the biggest game-changer. Not only did it bring world-renowned brewmaster Mitch Steele to Atlanta, but it debuted a new kind of hybrid brewery restaurant concept and built it on a busy stretch of the Beltline that offers stunning sunset views of the skyline.
Steele came to Atlanta from San Diego, where as brewmaster at Stone he was at the forefront of the development of West Coast IPAs. But at New Realm, he’s been turned loose to explore almost any style imaginable. And with a state-of-the-art brewhouse and pilot brewery, he’s turning out everything from Pilsner and Belgian blonde to hazy and triple IPAs.
Along with executive chef Julio Delgado’s takes on pub grub, as well as more sophisticated dishes, the space itself has already become a big draw. The former warehouse was designed and reconfigured with a rooftop bar and beer garden, plus a growler bar with merchandise and beer to go. And with all that, it’s poised to take advantage of the recent changes in Georgia beer law.
The Scofflaw way
With a name that celebrates ignoring the rules, Scofflaw Brewing burst on the scene in August 2016 with Basement IPA, described as “a seriously juicy and tropical India pale ale made with Citra hops.” Much like Creature Comforts’ buzz beer, Tropicalia, it quickly became a sensation, and Scofflaw began a growth spurt that hasn’t stopped since.
Under the direction of co-founder and brewmaster Travis Herman, a microbiologist who worked at two of California’s most revered breweries, Lost Abbey and Russian River, the lineup of imaginative beers has expanded and so has the brewery. Outgrowing its 20-barrel brewhouse in record time, a new 50-barrel, four-vessel brewhouse is set to come online later this summer.
But while Scofflaw has exploded like no other brewery in recent memory, there have been growing pains, too. Co-founder Matt Shirah, who handles the business side with a pugnacious determination, has often been at the center of controversies over quality control and branding. Shirah also engineered a unique partnership with an international renegade, BrewDog, with Scofflaw using the brewing and canning operation at its new U.S. headquarters in Ohio.
More Creature Comforts
Arguably the hottest brewery in Georgia and the most recognized elsewhere, even when its beers rarely went out farther than Atlanta, Athens’ Creature Comforts made its name and built its business with Tropicalia. Described as “a balanced, soft and juicy IPA,” it has often been in short supply, and overshadowed a portfolio that includes great examples of Pilsner and Berliner Weisse styles.
But as the company celebrated its fourth anniversary in April, the opening of its new $11 million state-of-the-art brewery was on tap, too. Housed in a 40,000-square-foot building at the historic Southern Mill complex on North Chase Street in Athens, it boasts a fully automated 85-barrel four-vessel brewhouse from German manufacturer Steinecker, 50,000 barrels of annual fermentation at current capacity, and room to add more fermentors on a “plug and play” basis.
Now the question becomes, what will Creature Comforts do with all that capacity? And will fans of its highly rated seasonal and one-off beers see more of their favorites from the brewery that Trop built? Of course, devotees can still enjoy one of Georgia’s best taprooms, as the West Hancock Avenue location continues to host new release and community events in the heart of downtown Athens.
Monday Night moves
Monday Night Brewing has taken on a new life lately. The company, which recently celebrated its sixth anniversary, has always been a respected and successful part of the state and local scene. But even with some major medals under Monday Night Brewing’s belt, beers like Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale didn’t always create a buzz.
Then, in September 2017, Monday Night opened a second location along a section of the Atlanta Beltline in West End. Dubbed the Garage, the ambitious 22,000-square-foot warehouse space at Lee and White streets was transformed into a new facility for sour and barrel-aged beers. And since then, the taproom and large event space have become lively destinations.
What’s more, a rebranding campaign that included new cans and new year-round and seasonal beers debuted around the same time. Han Brolo, a contemporary hazy-juicy pale ale, and Dr. Robot, a blackberry lemon sour/Pilsner hybrid, were both well-received. But Han Brolo took off to become one of brewery’s current signature styles, topping a Paste magazine blind tasting of over 150 pale ales.
Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing turned 21 earlier this year. Over that time, its accomplishments as one of the top U.S. craft brewing companies are myriad, including a slew of Great American Beer Festival gold, silver and bronze medals. But in spite (or maybe because) of that, it doesn’t always get the respect of younger beer bros, who tend to favor the new and unusual.
With that as context, it was a big surprise to many when SweetWater debuted the Woodlands Project in late 2016. It was conceived as both a barrel-aging and sour beer program and a brand, and I said at the time that it was poised to be a game-changer for Atlanta. Housed in a sleek new two-story brick building, the 37,000-square-foot space is deliberately isolated away from the brewery operation in order to allow bugs like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus to go wild with wood and create new flavor profiles.
Cork-and-caged releases like the blackberry Brett beer Through the Brambles and the peachy Pit and the Pendulum have been well received. But barrel-aging takes time and patience. And for now, the Woodlands’ dual role as a tasting room and event space has perhaps been its most successful function, so far, hosting birthdays and wedding receptions among the foeders and wine and whiskey barrels.
Terrapin and the Braves
In major news in 2016, MillerCoors struck a deal to take a majority stake in Terrapin Beer Co., the popular Athens brewery. Terrapin was co-founded in 2002 by brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski, who remains with the company, but according to the Brewers Association can no longer operate as a craft brewer.
Of course, Terrapin continues to be a major brand in Georgia and beyond with beers like Hopsecutioner IPA and seasonal W-n-B Coffee Oatmeal Stout among its most popular styles. But its place among the other five breweries on this list is because of the April 2017 opening of the Terrapin ATL Brew Lab and Taproom at The Battery Atlanta adjacent to SunTrust Park.
In its second Braves season, the combination restaurant, bar and brewery is a happening destination, serving up a combo of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q favorites and Terrapin beers, including the signature Chopsecutioner Bat Wood Aged IPA. More innovative, the Brew Lab is home to a five-barrel pilot brewery, where the Terrapin team is producing a series of new and one-off beers that will be served at the Taproom and, like Chopsecutioner, might one day make it to seasonal or year-round production.