The Rise of Georgia Beer: Everything you need to know about our craft brew scene

Why all the craft beer buzz?


Photograph by mediaphotos via Getty Images

In an age when we fetishize even the appearance of authenticity, few professions tick as many boxes as beermaking. What could be more noble than applying an ancient technique to make something that tastes great and gives us, to quote Barney from The Simpsons, an inflated sense of self-esteem? That craft brewers are up against corporatized and sanitized versions of the same product (“Dilly Dilly,” shut up) only makes us root harder for them.

“Brewing beer is one thing,” says Ryan Fogelgren, a cofounder of Arches Brewing in Hapeville. “Starting a brewery is a whole other game. When I’m having a beer with a customer, I say to them, ‘This is the best part.’” The visitor isn’t seeing the owners cleaning out the fermenting tanks, discarding the bad batches, repairing the canning line, paying the water bill, filling out endless tax forms, fighting for shelf space at package stores.

For years—generations, actually—breweries in Georgia had one additional obstacle: They could sell beer only to their distributor. But last September, Senate Bill 85 allowed for what’s called “on-premise sales,” which permits breweries to sell their beer to customers right out of their tasting room. Before, breweries could serve customers only by charging for a tour; the beer, technically, was free. Now you can belly up to a brewery’s bar, buy a pint or two, then buy up to a case to take home.

“[SB85] is something everyone wanted.”

SB85’s impact was immediate. Georgia brewers last year sold 36,601 barrels of beer through their tasting rooms—6,000 more than the year before—and the new law didn’t even go into effect until September 1. (A barrel is equivalent to 31 gallons.) Today, brewers’ tasting rooms have become quasi-bars, albeit with only one brand on tap (and, for the most part, no food). “Where before it was a single line-item where they paid $10 or $12 [for a tour or tasting], now they’re running a tab,” says Nick Purdy, president of Wild Heaven Beer. This new revenue stream prompted Wild Heaven to announce plans for a second brewery—on the BeltLine Westside trail, next to Monday Night Brewing’s Garage, itself an expansion.

Today more than 40 new breweries, brewpubs, or brewery expansions are in the works across the state. Even if only half of them come to fruition, they would still push Georgia close to 100 breweries and brewpubs statewide. Consider that just 10 years ago, there were only three craft breweries—SweetWater, Red Brick, and Terrapin (now majority-owned by MillerCoors).

Nationwide, craft beer sales are up year over year, but the growth rate last year slowed to 5 percent, no doubt in part because more than 1,000 new breweries opened up in 2017. The market for hops is glutted. Optimists point out that Georgia is still playing catch-up and is nowhere near the average number of breweries per capita nationwide. (We ranked 49th in 2016 and currently have roughly the same number of breweries as Iowa, which has less than a third of our population.) But can Georgia beer drinkers support dozens of breweries?

“The craft beer world is not a loyal fan base,” says Lou Barbato, former vice president of sales and marketing at Jekyll Brewing. “They’re always looking for the next new innovative product that’s out there.” So, breweries are releasing more styles or different versions of the same style. At Three Taverns, whose five-year anniversary this summer practically makes it an elder statesman in the business, it was Belgian-style beers that inspired founder Brian Purcell to open the brewery in the first place. Now, they comprise less than 15 percent of his facility’s production. “We’ve journeyed way outside the monastery walls,” Purcell says, wistfully. “Night on Ponce IPA is now 45 percent of our sales. But you have to make beer you can sell.”

The beers that may have defined a brewery’s DNA are now taking a backseat to the demands of the market. That’s a challenge for brewers—but it makes finding the beer of your dreams easier than ever.

What do the wholesalers think?

“It’s something everyone wanted,” Martin Smith, assistant director of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, says of SB85, which permits breweries to sell beer out of their taprooms. Given all the years that wholesalers opposed any change, Georgia brewers can be forgiven for spitting out their beer. But, as Smith says, the new law retains the “integrity of the system.” Meaning, any sales outside a brewery’s walls must still come through a distributor.

As Smith (as well as many brewers) argue, that’s a good thing. Distributors provide trucks and warehouse space—expenses and hassles that small brewers can’t afford. Distributors also sell the beer, representing the brand at bars, restaurants, and stores.

Each of the state’s 38 wholesalers enjoys the benefit of Georgia’s “franchise law,” which is essentially a marriage for life between a brewery and its distributor. Only a convoluted appeals process can sever that relationship.

Most Georgia wholesalers are big, legacy businesses. Think United Distributors, a 78-year-old company that employs more than 1,000 people. But last year, Modern Hops joined their ranks, selling a different model to upstart brewers. “We do brewery-friendly contracts,” says founder Eric Levin. “There’s about 20 escape clauses.” Meaning, if a brewer is dissatisfied with Modern Hops, it can get released from the contract.

Modern Hops is small—it just bought its second truck—but it boasts that it often delivers beer from a brewery to a bar on the same day. Of the 11 breweries it works with, two—Cherry Street and Akademia—are based in Georgia.

Although Levin believes brewers should be able to self-distribute in their own counties, don’t expect any further changes anytime soon, according to Smith. “This growth is great,” Smith says. “Everyone is sitting happy.”