I spent my late twenties working in Egypt, and on one of my trips from the U.S. back to Cairo, I packed a couple of six-gallon plastic buckets, a hydrometer, a bag of bottle caps, and a few boxes with all the fixings to brew my own beer. I was a bit nervous when I landed. Egypt in the late 1990s was, ostensibly, a dry country, although the state did operate a brewery, which produced a foul swill called Stella (no relation, not even by marriage, to Stella Artois) that came in big, green bottles. Among the expat community, rumors about the Stella plant had taken on an almost mythic status. We’d heard the taste-tester was Muslim (Islam forbids alcohol), and I wouldn’t have been surprised. Once I found a cigarette butt in a bottle, another time a tooth. I think it was human.
At the airport, the customs agent asked me to unzip my bag. He knocked on the side of the plastic bucket and looked at me quizzically. My Arabic did not include the phrase “I come bearing instruments that will deliver my countrymen from your fetid sewer water,” so I just said, “It’s for gardening.” He nodded and waved me through.
Within a few months, in our fifth-floor flat on Qambiz Street, we poured our first home brew. I think it was a pale ale—nothing too adventurous, but coming amid the privations to which we’d sadly become accustomed, it was a revelation. A deliverance, to put it in biblical terms. (We were in Egypt, after all.)
When I moved back to New York, the home-brew movement was gathering steam. But I didn’t quite get it. Amazing craft beers were everywhere. Why bother making beer when you could simply buy something that was just as good, and probably better? In Egypt home-brewing had been a necessity. In America it seemed superfluous. But then I got a job in Georgia, which at the time did not permit the sale of beer with alcohol volumes over 6 percent. It was time to brew again.
If you’re not much of a beer drinker, it may seem like increasing that limit is just a way for frat boys to get drunk faster. The truth is that when Georgia finally relaxed the limit, in 2004, it transformed the beer culture in the state. There are, as the beer lobby likes to point out, more varieties of beer than there are of wine, and the change in law not only permitted package stores to offer up something besides Budweiser and Miller Lite (I exaggerate for effect), it also allowed restaurants to make their beer lists as robust as their wine lists.
Georgia’s beer renaissance is just one aspect featured in this month’s cover package, which we see as a guide to navigating Atlanta’s wonderful and ever-evolving world of cocktails, beer, and wine. As the beer law demonstrates, it’s amazing the wonderful things that can happen when government gets out of the way.