Beer Town: “Atlanta Beer” a heady history of local brewing

Did you know that in 1885, Atlanta had 118 saloons in the city doing $2 million of business annually?

In their book, “Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South” (American Palate, $19.99), Ron Smith and Mary O. Boyle delve into a colorful past that begins in frontier times and extends to the stories of early taverns and saloons, religious zeal, prohibition and the roots of the current craft beer boom.

There are tales of places such as Whitehall Tavern, which existed before the city of Atlanta, and people such as Mayor Moses W. Formwalt, a member of the Free and Rowdy political party, who opened the first recorded Atlanta saloon.

Early pre-Prohibition breweries include the Fulton Brewery, which produced lager and ale for the Fulton Brewery Saloon; the Atlanta Steam Brewery, which may have been named for both the method of cooling and the style of beer it produced; and the Georgia Spring Brewery, famous for its saloon, not to mention shooting gallery, Ferris wheel and small lake with boats.

Covering more recent history, in 1958, Canada-based Carling opened a $15 million dollar brewery in Atlanta that remained until 1972, when it was sold to Coca-Cola.

After Carling closed, no locally produced beer could be found in Atlanta for more than two decades, until Marthasville Brewing Co. and Atlanta Brewing Co. opened the first microbreweries here in 1993. Of course, many more breweries, like Sweetwater, and brewpubs, like Five Seasons, followed.

I recently caught up with Smith and Boyle at Five Seasons Westside, where they were hosting a book release party attended by fellow beer lovers and brewer Crawford Moran, who wrote the foreword to “Atlanta Beer”

Moran rightly noted that most of us think that brewing in Atlanta “is just in its infancy.” But the book reminds us that “it does have a legacy.”

Smith, a biologist who works for an environmental consulting firm, and Boyle, who is an IT consultant and designs handcrafted jewelry, said the book grew out of the couple’s Beer Guru Atlanta website.

He writes the posts with a focus on the backstory of Atlanta’s beer-drinking history. She’s the webmaster and helps with research and editing.

“The history is what captures my imagination,” Smith said. “I’m mostly interested in the story behind the beer.”

Asked if there were any major revelations during their research, Smith said he was surprised by the number of breweries that were operating in pre-prohibition Atlanta.

“The other thing was the saloons,” he said. “There were hundreds and this wasn’t a very big town at that point.”

Considering all the new breweries in the planning stages or set to open in Atlanta soon, I wondered if they found it difficult to wrap up the book and meet their deadline.

“Ultimately, we just had to get it submitted,” Boyle said. “But this was never meant to be an encyclopedia. We were trying to get the flavor of what had happened and what is happening now.”

Smith and Boyle said they plan to share more stories, interviews and photographs on their blog: