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Sweet Dreams

How two college buddies from Colorado stumbled into town, built a brewery, threw outrageous parties, and forever changed the way Atlanta drinks beer. An oral history of SweetWater.

Illustration by Oliver Hilbert

First the governor arrived, aides in tow. Later came the mayor, riding in a black SUV with tinted windows. There were state officials, city council members, and local TV stations, illuminated in a dazzle of flash photography. But it wasn’t the dignitaries or the media that caused a traffic jam on Ottley Drive in Brookwood Hills. No, it was the giant flatbed bearing one of two sixty-five-foot, shiny, silver fermenters, each with the capacity for 1,000 barrels of beer (that’s 31,000 gallons), being delivered to the newly expanded SweetWater Brewing Company that morning.

The March 20 ribbon-cutting made it official: Atlanta’s beloved brewery with the iconic rainbow trout logo and the laid-back image (“don’t float the mainstream”) is no longer the scrappy upstart it was sixteen years ago—back when two beer-loving buddies from the University of Colorado gathered up their belongings, packed their trucks, and took their knowledge of brewing beer to the unconquered Southeast. Today SweetWater ranks thirty-fifth in the top fifty breweries in America by sales volume. Among just craft brewers, it ranks twenty-fourth. Close to 77,500 gallons of beer gets brewed in SweetWater’s Midtown plant each week. This year’s expansion will enable the brewery to potentially triple its current output. SweetWater now employs eighty-three people, with plans to hire more. Tough economic climate? No wonder the governor wants to
hang out.

Amid the success and visibility (it was all over this season of The Office), SweetWater has held fast to the youthful spirit that brought it this far. The brewery’s tap handles still evoke carefree college days: Road Trip, Happy Ending, 420. Lines for SweetWater’s tours stretch down the street, bringing young singles and seasoned professionals to the same party. And even forty-one-year-old Freddy Bensch, a Californian who cofounded SweetWater with New Jersey native Kevin McNerney, still shows up to work in flip-flops and shorts whenever he can (he upgraded to a sport jacket on the day of the ribbon-cutting).

But don’t let the casual vibe fool you. The two men have been serious about making beer since scrubbing nasty kegs clean as college kids. Bensch went on to study at the American Brewers Guild, while McNerney took brewing positions in Colorado and California. Bensch was the first to arrive in Atlanta, and it was hot with Olympic fever.

Freddy Bensch, forty-one, cofounder, CEO, aka Big Kahuna. The Olympics were coming. This was early ’96, so there was an incredible buzz here. Everybody was amped—there was tons of energy, buildings were going up all over the place. The girls shaved their armpits and legs, which they didn’t do in Boulder, which was nice. That helped immensely. And you know, people were extremely nice, and I thought this town was really going someplace.

Kevin McNerney, forty-one, cofounder, former brewmaster; now brewmaster at 5 Seasons Brewing in Sandy Springs. The craft brewing industry was very much at the beginning stages here. The Southeast was kind of the last frontier.

Bensch There was Dogwood, Red Brick Brewing Company [then Atlanta Brewing Company], and Marthasville.

McNerney Only one of which still survives, Red Brick Brewing Company.

Bensch All my shit was in my truck, including my dog, Badger. You don’t think too deep when you’re that age. It was probably the shaved legs. Really.

McNerney We were only twenty-six years old.

Bensch Kevin was a ski bum in [California]. He was living pretty large; he was the man. Still had his ponytail. I called him up and said, “Hey Kev, we’re gonna do it in Atlanta. If you’re gonna get on, you need to come.” And I suckered [Matt] into coming down here.

Matt Patterson, forty-four, former sales director, aka Consumption Consultant; worked at Breckenridge Brewery in Denver—Bensch and McNerney met him while buying kegs for a party. I moved out right after the Olympics. I had never been to Atlanta at that point. My wife was six months pregnant. She quit her job, I quit my job, and we packed up. I think it was just cockiness on all our parts. Luckily we were as dumb as we were, because if we really had given it some thought, we may never have made that jump.

Bensch We raised under a million [dollars]. Friends, and family, and a couple of local people. We got an SBA loan, and we leased a space, the cheapest space we could possibly find in Atlanta. Off
we went.

Patterson I knew Freddy was going to put a good company together, Kevin was going to make awesome beers, and I knew I could sell it.

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