It’s a sign of how far Georgia craft beer has come in such a short time that Monday Night Brewing is now a seasoned veteran on the scene. In 2011, when MNB was founded, Georgia craft beer meant little more than SweetWater, Terrapin, and Atlanta Brewing Company. Today, the state boasts dozens of breweries, with more on the way.
Last September, timed to the new law that allows breweries to sell beer direct from their taprooms, Monday Night Brewing opened its expansion facility—called the Garage—just off the BeltLine in southwest Atlanta. Beyond giving the company an increased production capacity, the Garage also put craft beer—a phenomenon with a demographic heavy on white dudes—in the middle of a historically black neighborhood.
As a way to introduce itself to its neighbors, MNB provided free space (and beer) to nonprofits from around the city, hosting 30 events in the first 100 days and raising $280,000 for the organizations. Besides buying goodwill for MNB, the move also got people who’d never had reason to go to southwest Atlanta an opportunity to see the development of 426,000 square feet of warehouses. In the coming months, Wild Heaven Beer will also open a facility there, as well as a new brewery called Banyan Roots, ASW Distillery, and a third location of Hop City, the beer and wine retailer.
MNB is still run by its three cofounders, who famously met and bonded over beer during a Bible study group. Jeff Heck, Jonathan Baker, and Joel Iverson still control 100 percent of the voting shares of the brewery, which from day one has not been known for any one style of beer, but rather a variety.
“Variety” is the key word when it comes to MNB’s seventh anniversary party on August 4 and 5 at the Garage. On both days of the celebration, the brewery is rolling out some serious barrels—not just its core and seasonal beers, such as Han Brolo (which Paste magazine voted the best in a blind test of 151 pale ales from around the nation), but also obscure and one-off beers. So if you want a Piranha Dealer (a strawberry milkshake IPA), or Zhang Zishi (a barrel-aged hefeweizen), or a pineapple and vanilla Champagne IPA, or any of a few dozen others, the party is your best bet. (Sunday is family day; kids 12 and under are free.)
On the eve of the celebration, two of the three founders—Heck and Iverson—discussed how far the brewery has come, what the recent law changes has meant for their business, and what’s coming.
On its growth
Monday Night Brewing doesn’t disclose production numbers, but Iverson did allow that sales and production are both up between 35 and 40 percent year over year. MNB’s growth is reflected in its headcount—the brewery now employs 85 people, 45 of whom are full-time. And between its two taprooms—off Howell Mill in west Midtown and at the Garage—the brewery expects 170,000 people to visit this year.
“People ask us, ‘Did you ever imagine this?’” Heck said. “To be honest, we kinda did. We knew it was crazy but our goal was always to be about where we are now. What’s exciting to us now is feeling like we’re just at the starting gate. What’s surprising is how much mental energy it takes to make it a good place to work, to make [employees] feel fulfilled, to put them first while at the same time running a business.
“We do quarterly hands-on meetings [with employees]. We talk about the state of business. We’re transparent about our results, our profits, our goals. If you’re a full-time employee, you sign an NDA and we trust you, and we’re going to be completely up-front.”
In September 2017, Monday Night Brewing rebranded by launching a new can design. Shrunk down was the Mad Men-esque profile of the guy in the tie, fist in the air. (It’s actually Iverson’s likeness.) While the tie guy is still on the label, the dominant image is of a tie. What changes now is the pattern of the tie. The template evokes a similar rebranding by Three Taverns, which uses bold graphical typography to distinguish one beer from the other.
“As a brewery, your first five years are all about getting your brand out, front and center,” Iverson said. “The next five is all about the individual beer and its story. [With the new design], you still know it’s Monday Night but [the tie guy] is not the biggest thing on the can.”
On the effects of the law change
Georgia’s new law regarding on-premise sales permits breweries to sell up to 3,000 barrels of beer directly to consumers from their breweries. Each customer is allowed to buy up to a case a day directly from the brewery. Eliminating the distributor—the middleman, effectively—means higher margins for beermakers. SB85, as it’s called, “mostly helps small breweries starting out,” Iverson said. “Because they don’t have to start the way we did. It was a go-big-or-go-home state. Unless we built a massive system, where we were going to lose money for three years until we hit a volume [through distribution] where we can make money. What SB85 says is you don’t have to do that model. Instead, you can do high margin sales out of your taproom.”
For MNB, already established as one of Georiga’s major brewers, the law change’s effect on beer sales was nominal. Heck estimates that less than 10 percent of overall revenues are from taproom sales. Still, the law change did lead to the launch of the Hop Hut, a boutique brewing ancillary at the west Midtown location where brewers make small-batch beers, often sold only out of the taproom. The frequent releases mean customers not only have a reason to come back, but they’re also a testing ground for beers that could end up in brewery’s permanent portfolio.
“Our taproom is the place where people experience the brand,” Heck said. “Most people aren’t going to stop drinking Budweiser and start drinking Slap Fight because they see it on the Kroger shelf. But they’re going to start buying it off the Kroger shelf because they came to Monday Night and maybe tried a flight with four different beers. They meet employees, they had an experience, maybe they played cornhole. That’s why we think the taproom model is so critical for our continued growth.”
On how big Georgia craft brewing can get
After a decade of averaging 10-plus percent growth in sales volume, national craft beer market has slowed. 2018 was just 5 percent up over the year before. Georgia, though, is still playing catch-up. As Iverson mentioned, the number of drinking age residents of Colorado and Oregon combined are roughly the same number as Georgia’s, but those two states together boast 614 craft brewers. Georgia still has fewer than 100.
“The pie is still growing in Georgia,” Heck said, “but at a slower rate.” Part of the reason of opening the Garage where MNB did was to widen the demographic. “The market is comprised of 22- to 35-year-old white males,” Iverson said. “For craft beer to keep growing it’s got to branch beyond that. That’s part of the mission of the Garage. We’re trying to get people who aren’t beer drinkers to come in and say, ‘Wow, this just redefined how I think about beer.’”
Tickets for the anniversary party can be purchased here.