Monday night brewers envision new Atlanta microbrewery

It's a cold night in January and a Monday night at that, the kind of moment when most people are inside where it's warm and there's television to watch.

But in the cramped garage of a small house on Atlanta's Bohemian  west side, a party of sorts is going on. And the three young men hosting it hope an entrepreneurial dream is coming to reality.

The three -- Jeff Heck, Jonathan Baker and Joel Iverson, businessmen with fine academic pedigrees and serious day jobs -- are home-brewing beer from a contraption that seems all kettles and tubes and dials and steam. As they do, about three dozen friends are huddled and mingling as they sample an India Pale Ale and a Scotch Ale while rubbing their hands together in defiance of the chill.

Monday Night Brewing is not only what Heck, Baker and Iverson have been doing most Monday nights for the last  four years. It's the name of their venture, a microbrewery-in-the-making, as well as a philosophy of life that is summed up in the company's slogan: "Weekends are overrated."

The partners, who met in Bible study at their church (an irony not lost on them), plan to have their beers in local stores, bars and restaurants sometime early this year. They have lined up a contract brewer in South Carolina that will use the recipes they've honed over all those Monday nights and they are close to finalizing an all-important product distribution deal as well as acquiring the requisite regulatory licenses.

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They still have a ways to go, they admit, but just getting to this point is a victory in itself, considering how easy it would have been to chuck it all somewhere along the way.

"It's not like we have a lot of spare time," said Heck, who has been putting in 70-hour weeks at his regular job lately while also helping care for two his young children at home.

A Harvard graduate, Heck, 30, who holds the brewing sessions at his home with recipes he formulates, works in finance. Emory grad Baker, 26, who cultivates the Monday Night Brewing brand and manages the website, works in marketing. Virginia grad Iverson, 29, the handy one who built the fermentation chamber, works as an operations consultant.

Their complimentary skills and blendable personalities have kept them pulling together as they went from brewing as a social outlet among church members to brewing as a commercial endeavor.

"It's something we feel we were built to do," said Baker, who describes their effort as "more the pursuit of a lifestyle," because "this isn't a get-rich-quick scheme."

He does hope, however, that the partners can someday live off their business. That's a possibility, they believe, if they can produce consistently high quality and unique beer.

The microbrewing industry, unlike the beer business as a whole, is growing and retailers and industry analysts say there is room for a new brewer on the block, especially in Atlanta, a city some consider under-served when it comes to local microbrewerers

Friends who've been attending the Monday night brewing sessions understand the partners' passion, a pursuit that has cost them what they call a "substantial" amount of their own money.

"It's a chance to do something you really want to do," Jonathan Tubbs, 34, of Tucker, said as he nursed a free glass of ale. "And have an opportunity to make some money at it."

Beer industry observers think Monday Night Brewing has a shot to make it.

"Is there a demand for it? Absolutely. In the beer world, we're all looking for the next big thing," said Kraig Torres, owner of Hop City Craft Beer and Wine in Atlanta, which carried 2,200 different beers last year. "I think they're going to do well. If you brew good beer consistently, people will buy it. And their beers are fantastic."

Torres said the three have an edge over others who dream of starting their own microbrewery.

"I see a lot of guys come through and say they're going to start a brewery. I hear that three times a week," Torres said. "But they're well grounded, smart and well educated. They take a pragmatic approach to things."

According to  the Brewers Association, there were 534 microbreweries in the U.S. as of last July. Craft brewing made up only 4.3 percent of total U.S. beer sales volume in 2009,  but its sales have been growing.

Brewers Association spokesperson Julia Hertz said there was shakeout in craft brewing after rapid growth in the 1990s because the beer produced wasn't always of good quality. Also, "It's a very competitive marketplace," she said

Still, she said, "There's plenty of room" for another microbrewer. "It's a huge pie to slice up. Saturation is a term that should not be applied to small brewers in the U.S. because there is so much demand."

The partners plan to first hit stores and bars with their Eye Patch Ale and with the Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale they sampled at the January brewing event. They chose them based on their personal preference for India Pale Ales and for the uniqueness of the latter. They're both fine products, samplers concurred, the result of a lot of work and, the partners admit, some trial and error that led to a bad brew now and then.

There was, for example, one beer they conceived as a Christmas seasonal brew.

"It tasted," Baker assessed, "like Pine-Sol."

Needless to say, they scrapped that idea and they've been taking their time getting to market.

"We're not the first microbrewer," Baker said. "We're in no rush. We want to get it right."

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