Q&A with SweetWater

King of suds

In 2012 Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewery celebrates fifteen years of barreling up some of the south’s best-selling craft beer. As fans prep for the eighth annual SweetWater 420 Music Festival in Candler Park, April 20–22, cofounder Freddy Bensch reflects on his success.

What can you reveal about the special SweetWater fifteenth anniversary beer you’re creating with your former college roommate and SweetWater cofounder Kevin McNerney [who left the company in 2008]? The very first beer we ever brewed here was SweetWater ESB [Extra Special Bitter], and we ended up winning silver medals at three different beer festivals. But we stopped making it after three years. For the fifteenth anniversary, we took that recipe, dusted it off, and gave it an adrenaline shot: bumped up the hops and the alcohol and turned it into a high-gravity ESB. Kevin came back to work on the recipe and brewed it with us. We’re actually bottling it today. To have Kevin, who was a huge, instrumental part of building this place and a great friend, come back and help out with the anniversary beer was personally, for me, just awesome.

When guys on the brewery tour walk into your SweetWater Tasting Room, their jaws often go slack. It’s like stumbling into the ultimate man cave, only you get paid to work there. Did you realize that when you were creating it? When you’re around it all day, you take it for granted. But when you see someone walk in for the first time, and his eyes and tongue fall on the floor, you realize how great you have it. You’re wearing flip-flops and shorts, and they’re in a suit and tie. I have to remember that not everybody gets to drink beer for a living at three in the afternoon. It puts things into perspective about how lucky we are.

Your wife has to be psyched that your man cave doubles as your office at work, right? You know, my wife just built me a man cave at our home in the basement. I have no idea about what she’s trying to tell me with that. What does that mean? I’m completely perplexed with that one!

I love that the SweetWater 420 Music Festival starts on April 20. How much do you have to pay someone off so that date always lands on a weekend? Actually, the date is sort of a moving target; but if you drink enough 420s, it all seems to work out.

This year you’ve booked Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, former James Brown sax man Maceo Parker, Athens act Perpetual Groove, and Donna the Buffalo. How do you select the proper music to drink beer by? We pull from our roots. It’s musicians who inspire us and bands that we know put on a show and are going to blow people away. We also love giving up-and-coming acts a shot. We try and introduce the crowd to local bands that maybe people haven’t seen before. Bottom line? It’s really a personal preference and bands that are going to contribute to an all-around good time.

Each year people always come away from the festival talking about the great vibe SweetWater 420 creates. Are there any secrets to achieving that? For a beer-and-music fest, people are always surprised at how family oriented it is. That’s something I’m really proud of. It’s not Oktoberfest by any means. There’s a ton of kids’ activities. A lot of the folks who come down each year were with us fifteen years ago. They were twenty-one, twenty-two back then, and now they’re thirty-six or thirty-seven, and they have families. They still show up to blow off the dust and shake it around a little bit. They just have a baby attached to them now.

On your SweetWater business card, you have the job title of “Big Kahuna.” What’s the typical reaction you get when you hand it to someone? There’s usually a hot tub joke involving use of the word Speedo. I’ll leave it at that.

Fifteen years ago, you and Kevin followed your passion for beer and literally created a workplace for yourselves. In 2012, there are a lot of folks who have been tossed out of careers they thought they would retire from. What advice can you give others on how to follow your bliss? You have to evaluate what you consider success. When we started this, success for us was all about quality of life. We’ve been blessed that our quality of life has blossomed into financial success as well. To be able to come into work every day, bring my dog, and work with people I truly like is amazing. To love going into the office is one of the greatest things in the world. If [you’re] lucky you’re on the earth for eighty years at best. You gotta take a shot at it. You don’t want to reach sixty-five and wish you’d done what you wanted. Take the chance.

This year you made the “Georgia Trend” 100 Most Influential Georgians list along with Governor Nathan Deal, Home Depot cofounder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and Senator Saxby Chambliss. What was your reaction when you got that call? I choose to believe it was a typo. I need to be on the Most Under The Influence Georgians list.


DejaBlue Grass Band performing at the 2011 festival; photograph courtesy of SweetWater Brewery Company

Rich Eldredge is one of our editorial contributors.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him