Hip Hops: Atlanta's Craft Brew Scene Leaps onto the National Stage

by Nicholas Rummell with Antoinette Bruno and Katherine Sacks
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
May 2012

Atlanta's not much different than many of the other cities just emerging on the craft brewing scene. It's riddled with antiquated (and stifling) distribution laws, but an old guard still struggling to earn credibility and a group of young brewers are fighting to change the business model. And while still a relatively small market for craft beer, its catching up to other more developed markets and may indeed surpass some of them. Low-alcoholic session beers, barrel-aged ales, malty porters, Scotch ales, and baby IPAs are all now available for the drinking in Atlanta, and most of them are starting to hold a candle to some of the best West Coast and Northeast craft breweries (they have the shiny medals to prove it).

The change in Atlanta's attitude toward beer came sharply. Flip the switch on your time machine to the mid-1990s, and you'll find an age where unadventurous drinkers thought light red beers were "too dark" (according to a few brewers we spoke with), Scotch ales were unheard of, and blue laws severely limited distribution.

Atlanta has matured quickly and exponentially, though, in its appetite for good beer, and the sky's the limit. There's the young Bible study trio at Monday Night Brewing, proving that a garage sale can be a great pop-up model for brewing. And there's the local favorite, and well-established Terrapin owners, who won Best Pale Ale six months after unveiling their now-signature brew. Even the stodgy lawmakers in the State Capitol building have changed their tune; in 2011 they voted to allow Sunday sales of beer outside of restaurants, and nearly all the Georgian counties approved the measure, by huge margins in some counties. This year the House voted again, almost unanimously, to allow brewpubs to increase the barrels of beer they sell and to remove the requirement that beers be slung across the bar only in draft form (bring on the growlers!).

What more is there to say? Atlantians like to brew and chug beer. And it looks like there's no stopping them.

Monday Night Brewing

Monday Night Brewing
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Monday Night Brewing

Brewers Jonathan Baker, Joel Iverson, and Jeff Heck may own one of the only breweries in America to start out of a Bible study group, but they are hardly austere choir boys. "We're strong believers that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine," Baker says. "Jesus was not anti-alcohol." Coming together six years ago, the trio not only loved the process of beer making but they appreciated the community it engendered; every Monday night they congregated in one of their garages and "crowd sourced" their brews to about 100 people, who would then give feedback on the flavor, the beer names, even the logos on the bottles. Five years later Monday Night Brewing was born.

With their logo "weekends are overrated," the trio at Monday proves that super hoppy, hyper-alcoholic beers are not necessarily the future of craft brewing. Theirs are mid-range, 6 percent alcohol brews, taking classic styles like Scotch ale and giving them a twist. "Our sweet spot is really that guy who works nine-to-five as a lawyer and comes home and wants to drink a beer that he can not only be proud that he's drinking … but that also represents who he is," Baker says. Indeed, their brewery's logo is that of a loose-tied professional raising a fist to the sky.

Eye Patch Ale: A lightly hopped IPA that uses several different hops. It has an upfront maltiness and a lingering bitterness, but ends cleanly and freshly. This was one of Monday Night's launch beers, and it really pays tribute to the history of the IPA (even its name is an homage to the seamen who poured extra hops into their brews as they rounded India) without overdoing it.

Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale: Their other signature brew, this 7.2 percent alcohol Scotch ale uses cherrywood-smoked malt, chocolate malt, and roasted barley to pull off a roasted flavor with just a bit of smoke. It pairs really well with meat, and is an amazing counterpoint to their other ales.

5 Seasons Brewery

5 Seasons Brewery
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5 Seasons Brewery

If you ask Brewmaster Crawford Moran how he got into brewing, he'll modestly claim he's no different than any other brewer: "Start with a low IQ, make a lot of bad decisions in life, and you, too, can be a brewer." Actually, the real answer is a trip to Europe in the late 1980s, when (on the cross-ocean flight) he read Michael Jackson's Pocket Guide to Beer. Moran's "aha" moment stuck; for a kid who had been weaned on the clear, tasteless Bud-Miller-Coors monolith, a brave new hoppy world awaited. "I was blown away," he says.

Moran's brewing operation in Atlanta's Westside neighborhood is one of the biggest in the state, and affords him the tools necessary to carry out his brewing mission: "I'll do anything to make great beer," his motto reads on the brewery's website. "There are no limits." And the gastropub at the brewery—helmed by Chef David Larkworthy—is churning out such high-brow pub grub as Grilled Cocoa-crusted Lamb Chops, and Spring Vidalia Onion and Lemon Soup with Ghost Chili Foam, as well as donating valuable kitchen grease to help Moran boil his brews.

Peated Scotch Ale: Moran had the same Scottish peat used by whisky makers shipped over to make this 8 percent alcohol ale. The simply named ale follows the characteristics abided by most Scotch ales: malt accents, not too hoppy, depth of character. But Moran also turns up the heat on the kettle, caramelizing the beer as the kettles fill, giving it even greater flavor and making it a great match with smoked fish or meats.

Flower Child Saison: Moran says this Belgian farmhouse-style beer has a lot of history behind it, but that he is not sure of the real answer. The yeast acts more like a wine yeast, absorbing nutrients and developing hints of mango, papaya, spice, and an earthy mustiness. The ruddy-colored beer finishes dry, and pairs well with just about any dish.

Square Peg Whiskey Barrel-aged Dubbel: Another Belgian-style beer, but much stronger, the Dubbel has a caramel and chocolate malt flavor, with some darker fruits (plum and raisin) and spice underneath. Aged in Jack Daniels barrels, the beer goes well with grilled meats, game, and trout.

Red-Headed Step Child: What would Pinot Noir taste like if it were a beer? Moran says this is as close as you're likely to get. The beer is barrel-aged in Oregonian pinot casks and then stored for eight months in the brewery's natural cellar, and it shares much of the flavor and the same deep red hue as Pinot Noir. It has a faint sweetness, a touch of spice, and a versatility that allows it to be paired with many types of dishes.

Red Brick Brewery

Red Brick Brewery
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Red Brick Brewery

The oldest craft brewery in the Atlanta area (opened in 1993), Red Brick offers everything from golden ales to complex barrel-aged dark beers. Its four core beers—Blonde, Brown, Hoplanta, and Porter—and four seasonals are now produced to the tune of more than 100,000 cases a year. When Brewmaster Dave McClure first started, he was the only employee for the first two years, but they've been growing ever since. And in five years, he expects to be in the same place, brewing beers for Red Brick, doing what he loves.

Laughing Skull: A blend of hops infuse the second incarnation of this local favorite with plenty of acidity, but not too much alcohol (only 5.3 percent). It has slight chocolate flavors, some malt, some citrus, and lots of earthy tones. A very easy drink.

Hoplanta: A West Coast-style unfiltered IPA, but with a moderate 6.5 percent alcohol, the Hoplanta is produced with two roe barley and Vienna malts. McClure says he can't make enough of it, and we know why: the acidity and orange and grapefruit notes stood out prominently. This is definitely a brew for those who like to taste Cascade hops in their beer.

Porter: This was originally a winter release based on one of McClure's home recipes, but now it makes the lineup five months a year. It is aged in used bourbon barrels with smoked vanilla beans. As McClure says, this beer has been "the inspiration for a lot of things that go on around here." And for those who visit.

Terrapin Beer Company

Terrapin Beer Company
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Terrapin Beer Company

Terrapin Owners John Cochran and Brian Buckowski took years to realize their dream, but once they got going, there was no stopping them. Cochran moved to Seattle in 1993 after graduating from University of Georgia, and got into home brewing once he saw the plethora of craft beer in the Pacific Northwest. Buckowski went farther south to Florida, and eventually attended the American Brewers Guild program. The two put their heads together and created Terrapin. A few years later, when they entered the American Beer Festival in 2002, they won the Best Pale Ale competition there—only six months after creating their Rye Pale Ale.

Today, the two are respected members of the Georgian craft brewing community. Cochran is a founding member of the Georgia Craft Brewer's Guild, and Terrapin has a long list of brewery awards to its name.

Rye Pale Ale: The beer that started it all for Terrapin. A light IPA with 10 percent rye, it has a bit of everything: dry-hopped aroma and upfront bitterness, sweetness when you swallow, and dryness after. This is an "all day sipping session beer," Cochran and Buckowski say, and whether enjoying at a bustling outdoor Athens festival (as we did) or relaxing on your porch, it's certainly an award winner.

Anniversary Beer: To celebrate their 10-year anniversary, Terrapin put out this little number, which has a really lovely mouth feel, excellent orange peel flavor, and a hint of coriander. Do what the Terrapin boys suggest: sip the beer and ponder the paradoxical success of craft brewing.

SweetWater Brewery

SweetWater Brewery
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SweetWater Brewery

SweetWater doesn't have its roots in Atlanta—it began in Colorado when Owners Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney were roommates in college. When the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, they moved back into town and, realizing there was fertile ground for good beer, established one of the city's first craft breweries. A decade and a half later, Sweetwater is now brewing close to 100,000 barrels a year (they're 27th largest in the country; with their new location, they expect to hit close to 400,000 a day). All of SweetWater's beers have a 90-day shelf-life; they will last longer, but the crew won't stand behind a later date on the labels.

Brewer James "Nick" Nock has been working at SweetWater since it opened, and he's constantly hunting for more knowledge. The beers under his watch never get stale—three or four times a year Nock gets creative, brewing a newfangled brew in a 50-barrel "dank tank" (decorated with a psychedelic masked tribal spearman wearing a bra).

Schweet: An American wheat with Amarillo hops, this beer is light to the point of addictive (as if you were drinking beautiful, frothy air). A little rough, a little dirty, but all the way refreshing, the wheat and citrus meld into a refreshing libation.

420: Chuckle all you want, this beer (one of SweetWater's flagships, behind 60 percent of the brewery's sales) is a great entrance beer, almost like a baby IPA. Created on Earth Day and a winner of several awards, it has a light, crisp, balanced flavor and a good hoppy (not hippie) aroma.

Brown: Originally called the Sweet Georgia Brown, the brewers changed the name because people expected it to be sweet, not hoppy or malty. The English-style beer has chocolate and caramel notes that belie a licorice undertone. Word is that SweetWater is planning another version ("on steroids") that will have beefed up hops and alcohol for their 15th anniversary.

Red Hare Brewing Company

Red Hare Brewing Company
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Red Hare Brewing Company

Owners Bobby Thomas and Roger Davis are newcomers to the craft brew scene in Atlanta, and while they're still a little wet behind the ears (a little back splashed ale?), they're by no means novices. They started home brewing using a 15-gallon brew pot, water coolers, and hoses. They burned too much sugar during one of their batches, and Davis' wife kicked them out of the kitchen and into the basement, where they jerry-rigged their own equipment. After realizing how much potential there was in Atlanta, Thomas and Roger graduated in August 2011 to a 20-barrel warehouse that brews 620 gallons of beer at one time, and are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Atlanta craft brew scene. Their bare bones bar (with pink rabbit beer taps) is often filled with customers or tour groups, and their brews can be found on roughly 100 taps around metro Atlanta. Thomas hopes the brewery gets to 20,000 barrels a year and canned beers soon, which is why they opened with as big a building as they could afford.

Long Day Lager: A Bohemian-style beer, and Red Hare's flagship, it's lighter with a citrusy twist at the end. This ale takes a good 14 to 16 hours to make (because it is fermented at a lower temperature, hence the name), but it might only take 14 to 16 seconds to finish.

Gainway IPA: A self-described work in progress, this beer is fairly hoppy but with a good mouth feel and an easy-drinking flavor. Instead of trying to follow the current trend of "More hops! More hops!" in many craft IPAs, the Gainway is subdued, a beer that you can drink and doesn't get stuck in the back of your teeth.

Watership Brown: A play on the favorite children's bunny book, this brown ale is chocolaty and malty, and also has a touch of citrus and smoother overall flavor.