Surge in Georgia craft beer confuses me, pressures King Bud

Choosing a beer has become a very complicated undertaking, just another example of how picky we’ve gotten about the little gourmet brands we ingest.

This strikes me as more than just a taste thing. It factors into the recent announcement of one of the biggest business combos ever: Anheuser-Busch InBev (maker of Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, Michelob, Hoegaardin, etc.) and its $104 billion play to takeover SABMiller (Miller Lite, Peroni, Milwaukee’s Best, Foster’s, etc.). As big as the parent of the King of Beers is, it’s been losing market share in the U.S. while small brewers of craft beers are booming.

I used to feel like a dolt trying to select wines. Now I feel the same way when I’m ordering suds.

I’m supposed to remember the differences between IPAs, lagers and ales. I don’t.

I don’t recall which is the bitter one or whether I like heaps of hops. I’m neither a connoisseur nor a guzzler these days. So, when one of my brothers-in-law recently told me about something called IBUs (International Bittering Units), I thought he was joking.

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Guys like Brian Borngesser, a 35-year-old from Roswell, are at least partly to blame.

A while back Borngesser — a seemingly sensible guy with a sensible job as a commercial insurance broker — got a home brewing kit. Big mistake.

Now, he and buddies Garrett Nail and Pat Rains — one a lawyer, the other a specialist in lumber logistics — are in the midst of building a permanent spot for their operation, Gate City Brewing Company, in a former downtown Roswell auto repair shop.

It’s a $250,000 gamble on what has been so far an unprofitable side job. But it might actually pan out: the beer world has gotten kind of wacky like that.

They’ve been in business less than a year, renting out space at another brewery where they start new batches every other Saturday. Their kegs of an IPA (huh?) and an amber (colors are more my speed) end up in restaurants and shops no farther out than Marietta and Alpharetta.

Barrels of beer

If all goes as planned, Borngesser tells me they’ll produce about 500 barrels worth of beer this year, at 31 gallons per barrel.

That isn’t even a single bubble of froth compared to the beer output of AB InBev.

But Borngesser isn’t alone.

There are now 40 commercial brewers based in Georgia, perhaps triple what there were just a few years ago. The biggest is SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta. Nationally, there are more than 4,000, according to the Brewers Association. That’s about double – DOUBLE — the count from 2011.

The little guys are chewing on the giants. Craft beers are booming, now accounting for about 11 percent of the U.S. beer sales, even as the overall U.S. beer market is flat or shrinking.

“All of my breweries are growing, “ said Nancy Palmer, the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. Sales are up, but they need more money to boost brewing capacity.

“Right now, in Georgia, the market is very thirsty,” she told me.

AB InBev fought back by creating or buying into brands with a microbrewery feel (check out our list showing who owns what). The company’s deal to take over SABMiller would grow its global reach even more. The deal needs to pass muster with regulators as well shareholders.

People in the craft brewing industry I spoke with worry that the combined company could overpower small rivals on everything from the supply of hops (whatever the heck they are) to retail shelf space in some states.

But size and advertising might isn’t what it used to be in the beer business. In fact, it’s not what it used to be for a whole range of big food companies. Increasingly we’re turning to smaller companies pitching what’s supposed to be more organic, more tasty or more local.

Sucked in

I’ve been sucked in myself. I’m now prone to order a tiny local label, even when it’s a struggle to understand what I’m buying. I’m looking for something more flavorful and, well, just different.

I’m fickle, just like lots of American consumers whose search for new tastes stretches from coffee to olive oil, frozen yogurt and overpriced cupcakes.

But fickleness giveth and taketh away. Who hasn’t seen cupcake shops and frozen yogurt stores open and then quickly close?

While craft brewers like grabbing more of what they call “mouth share” from Budweiser, they also compete with other boutique brands.

Borngesser tells me he’s convinced there’s still room for his little brand and other beer newcomers. Still, he’s aiming small.

“It would be great to turn this into the next Miller or Coors, but no one really has that vision of grandeur to think that is going to happen,” he told me.

Instead, he said he hopes Gate City becomes a local institution serving the Roswell area.

“Nowadays with the attention span in the marketplace there seems to be a real drive and need for folks to find that one off-brand out there that they haven’t tried before. Or that different ingredient. That curiously is a huge part of the craft beer movement.”

Which makes me realize that like a lot of Americans, I’ve made myself into a beverage and food explorer, though I have no idea what I’m doing. How fun is that?

Matt Kempner’s email: mkempner@ajc.com Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist )

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