Surrounded by a scrum of jovial beer drinkers waiting to grab a bottle of a rare new ale debuting in the tasting room at Three Taverns Brewing in Decatur, Brian Purcell was beaming like a proud papa.
“This is historic,” Purcell said, ceremoniously measuring a pale, bubbly pour of the Belgian-style beer called Inceptus into a heavy chalice embossed with the Three Taverns logo. “This is what I always wanted for a day like this. You have your first taste of a new beer here at the brewery and then you can take a bottle home with you.”
For anyone who’s been to a winery anywhere in the world, or a brewery in most parts of the U.S., Purcell’s glee might seem like a head-scratcher. But until the passage of a new state law that went into effect July 1, Georgia breweries couldn’t offer beer to take home.
Surprisingly, unlike most other states, Georgia still doesn’t allow breweries to sell beer. But under the new provisions, which some call convoluted and others are rejoicing in, breweries are now permitted to charge for tours, which can include up to 36 ounces of beer (up from 32 ounces) to consume during tastings and up to 72 ounces (equal to a six-pack) of free beer to take home as a “souvenir.” In response to the new law, breweries across the state have expanded tasting room hours and added tour options.
Purcell opened Three Taverns with his partners in July 2013, raising $1.9 million in capital to transform a warehouse space in East Decatur Station into a small brewery operation. He thinks the changes are a step in the right direction for his business and the Georgia beer business in general. But he wonders when they will become the new normal.
“It’s going to take a while for people to become acclimated to what’s going on,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t even know you couldn’t take home beer and a lot of people are still confused by what we’re offering now.”
At Three Taverns, that includes six different tour, tasting and take-home options, ranging in price from $6 to $24, with choices between a six-pack, a 750-ml bottle or a 32-oz or 64-oz “growler” of draft beer in a glass jug.
But what made the Inceptus event so special, and caused a long line to form in the parking lot an hour before the doors opened, was that the ale on offer was specially fermented with wild yeast wrangled from the air outside the brewery, then aged in oak barrels for 18 months.
Collectors knew it was limited to an edition of 900 champagne-style corked-and-caged bottles that would become one-of-a kind souvenirs from the day of the brewery’s first ever release of this kind — fittingly christened Inceptus Sunday, because inceptus is, after all, Latin for “beginning.”
At Terrapin in Athens, the state’s third oldest and second largest craft brewery, the tasting room has always been a happening place, reflecting the college town’s reputation as a live music destination with a stage for bands and a weekend atmosphere even on weeknights.
But with all that energy, Terrapin president and co-founder John Cochran said the company has been slowly easing into changes around the new law.
“Different breweries are doing all kinds of different things,” Cochran said. “We’ve tried to keep it very simple. So, instead of a multitude of tour options, we basically have what we call the Stay and Play, which is 36 ounces of beer poured here to consume on premise. And we have the Homeward Bound, which is a souvenir package to take home. Or you can choose a combo of the two.
“But we haven’t changed the prices of the tours, as a lot of other breweries have done. What we’re finding so far is that only about 8 (percent) to maybe 15 percent of people visiting the brewery are taking the souvenir package to go, which is just about what we expected. And seems to be people a lot of people visiting from out of state.”
Cochran, who’s also the past president of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, thinks the new law will be of much greater benefit to breweries that are smaller than Terrapin or just getting started.
“It’s a great marketing opportunity for them,” he said.“It’s a good chance to get their beers out there to the public. The smaller breweries often have a harder time getting into the chain stores, so it’s also harder to find their beers.”
Still, Cochran doesn’t think the new law goes far enough. “It was a positive step and I’m very happy we got something done,” he said. “But we’re still one of only two or three states where brewers can’t sell beer at the brewery where they make it.”
Small beer at Eventide
“We are the smallest,” Mathew Sweezey said and laughed out loud when asked about the size of Eventide, the tiny Grant Park brewery where he has the title of marketing guru.
Located in what was once a small factory, the mostly DIY operation was founded by a tight-knit group of engineers and craftsmen, who built almost everything for the brewery, including the tap handles, for less than $400,000.
Eventide beers were first released to the Atlanta market in early 2014. The brewery finally opened its tasting room for the first time in June, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more that $35,000 to finish construction.
The space is surprisingly elegant and appears much bigger than the brewery itself. The bar is crafted with dark wood that matches the paneling and millwork around the room. And there’s a small stage area and sturdy tables and chairs where visitors can congregate with a beer and listen to music during tastings.
“We wanted to create a space that was consistent with the brand, that could be a place for the community and that we could afford,” Sweezey said. “And now we’re packing it out. Thursday is our slowest day. But we’re still seeing an average of 60-100 people. On Fridays and Saturdays it could be 150 to 200 people. In terms of the impact, when you’re this small, it really makes a big difference. It’s a lot of money for us.”
Right now, Eventide beers are only available on draft, which means to-go beers are only available in growlers. But if all goes according to plan, canned beer will be part of the mix in the near future, which will give the brewery another souvenir product to offer visitors.
But more than the revenue it generates to help the business get bigger, Sweezey said the tasting room is the main means of marketing the Eventide brand. And the new law definitely is helping with that.
“Handing someone a growler to take home extends the relationship,” Sweezey said. “That’s the greatest thing with the new law — the relationship can happen on levels it couldn’t happen on before, and that’s the main value to us.
“We don’t have the budget or the panache or the gold medal beers that some of the bigger breweries have to get us the press. So any time we have the ability to meet people, we have to strike the best relationship we can. Once they meet us and hear our story, they can get behind us, and the tasting room is the best place to do that.”
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