Is a craft beer-pocalypse coming for Atlanta?

Craft beer hit its gold rush era in the 2010s, but now, some breweries are closing their doors. Here's what's happening in Atlanta.

Is a craft beer-pocalypse coming for Atlanta?
Craft beer sales fell by 2 percent nationwide last year, with over 385 breweries shutting their doors.

Photograph by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

When Sam Kazmer ranks 2023 as the worst year of his life, you know it’s serious. After all, in 2017, the ex-Army Ranger plummeted several hundred feet to the ground in a gruesome parachuting accident that forced his early retirement and months of rehab. What could be worse than that?

The craft, it turns out.

Last year, Sam and Sara Kazmer, the husband-and-wife duo behind Atlanta’s Elsewhere Brewing, were struggling to run their Grant Park taproom while opening a second outpost in Midtown. Sales had declined so sharply that closure loomed, and an unpleasant thought gradually dawned on them: Maybe people had lost their taste for local beer. Shouldn’t they be anywhere but Elsewhere?

“There were days we looked around and just thought, Oh yeah, we’re f***ed,” says Sam. “We were navigating in and out of bankruptcy.”

The Kazmers’ story is more common than you’d expect. Craft beer hit its gold rush era in the 2010s, with new taphouses opening around the country faster than you could say Hefeweizen. “The theory used to be: build craft beer, and they will come,” says Kazmer. “And it is just not that anymore.” The beer biz has lost some froth lately—and it’s not all Bud Light’s fault.

According to the Brewers Association, craft beer sales fell by 2 percent nationwide last year, and over 385 craft breweries closed their doors. More than a dozen shuttered in the Atlanta metro area alone, including Orpheus Brewing, Second Self Beer Co., and Biggerstaff Brewing. Others contracted, like Sandy Springs-based Pontoon Brewing, which abandoned a second locale in Tucker less than a year after its launch. More operators may shutter later this year.

Orpheus Brewing’s Atalanta
Orpheus Brewing was among the Atlanta breweries who closed last year.

Photograph by Martha Williams

Who took the hop out of the craft beer step? There’s no one culprit. Industry experts and brewers blame a range of factors, including the rising cost of labor, inflation, and supply chain problems that raised the price of ingredients. “For the span of about 20 years, it was all new brewery openings, openings, openings, and virtually no closings,” says Joseph Cortes, executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. “Now there is a leveling out, which is the thing with small businesses—they certainly rise and fall every day.” Cortes denies a coming “beer-pocalypse,” but admits that the craft beer scene is “maturing”—meaning it might have already peaked.

Still, Cortes and others believe beer has plenty of room to grow in Georgia, which ranks 44th in the country in total brewery licenses. Part of the problem stems from musty, Prohibition-era laws still on the books in Georgia, which block beermakers from selling their boozy wares directly to bars and restaurants. Instead, they’re forced to go through middlemen: Wholesalers and distributors with their warehouses and beer trucks. In 2023, Orpheus Brewing founder Jason Pellett pulled up stakes and headed for the greener pastures of the Netherlands; in an essay he penned for the digital anthology, How I’d Fix Atlanta, he cited Georgia’s legal handcuffing of craft beer makers as one of the reasons he called it quits. “You can thank Georgia booze distributors and the deep pockets that they’ve been emptying onto Peach State lobbyists for decades,” wrote Pellett, “For what results in one of the most unfair alcohol markets in the entire country.”

To address the issue, a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced the F.O.A.M. Act this year, which would have allowed small brewers to sell up to 6,000 barrels of beer offsite per year. Alas, it failed to advance out of committee, despite the efforts of over a hundred Georgia brewers who rallied at the capitol, wielding a petition signed by thousands of customers.

Like other local brewery owners, the Kazmers are battling to stay in business. They lowered prices and ramped up daily event programming like drag brunch and trivia. Their current slogan: “Survive till ’25.”

A version of this article appears in our May 2024 issue.