The Golden Age of Beer

New laws help local brewers flourish
5 Seasons Brewing, Sandy Springs

Photograph by Josh Meister

Given how far we’ve come, it’s almost hard to remember just how dismal Georgia’s beer scene was a mere eight years ago. Harp was the most exotic lager found in grocery stores. Few breweries flourished. Festivals (the handful we had then) could feature only a narrow selection of ales and lagers. The revolution began in May 2004, when then Governor Sonny Perdue signed a law that pole-vaulted Georgia’s malt beverage alcohol-by-volume sales limit from 6 percent to 14 percent. The significance cannot be overstated: Many of the world’s finest microbrews, traditional and innovative, are of the “high-gravity” variety, which generally indicates an alcohol-by-volume content of 7 percent or more. With the limit raised, Peach State residents could finally enjoy potent lambics, barley wines, sours, imperial stouts, and double IPAs.

In 2010 sales of craft beer grew 24.6 percent in the Southeast, faster than any other region in the country. Five local breweries opened in 2011 alone. New notables like brawny, chocolate-malted Breakout Stout from JailHouse; crisp, refreshing Long Day Lager from Marietta’s Red Hare; and smoky, satisfying Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale from Monday Night Brewing joined longtime favorites like Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale and Red Brick’s Laughing Skull Amber Ale. In 2011 SweetWater (see our story on page 74) was the twenty-
fourth-largest craft brewery in the country by volume. At least five more breweries are expected to open in the next two years, including Decatur’s much-anticipated Three Taverns from brewmaster Brian Purcell, known for his exactingly crafted Belgians.

Growlers—thirty-two-ounce to sixty-four-ounce refillable glass containers designed for consuming draft beer at home—became legal in Atlanta last year. Specialty beer stores like Westside’s Hop City and Decatur’s Ale Yeah! installed taps to accommodate growlers, and several metro-area Whole Foods stores followed suit.

There’s room for improvement, of course. Distribution laws make it difficult for breweries and brewpubs to sell their suds on-site, which prevents us from competing with Southern craft beer destinations like Asheville and Charleston. The popularity of gastropubs has given beer a place alongside ambitious cooking, but more restaurants on all levels could curate lists that look beyond Stella Artois and Dale’s Pale Ale. Overall, though, there’s never been a better time to be a beer lover in Georgia.

Check out our list of the best places to drink beer

This article originally appeared in our June 2012 issue.