Beer Town: How Atlanta’s brewery taprooms are opening, again

Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing recently reopened its reconfigured taproom with full-service beer and food available both indoors and outdoors. Beer and food are available to go, as well. CONTRIBUTED BY SWEETWATER BREWING CO.

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Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing recently reopened its reconfigured taproom with full-service beer and food available both indoors and outdoors. Beer and food are available to go, as well. CONTRIBUTED BY SWEETWATER BREWING CO.

In mid-April, I asked: With dropping sales, how will Atlanta breweries survive?

The question was prompted by Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association, who had some alarming news to share under the headline: “Brewery Sales Dropping Sharply, Many Set to Close.”

But a little over a month later, many of Atlanta’s brewery taprooms are officially reopening, as Georgia eases restrictions, and local government officials try to make sense of the often confusing coronavirus data.

SweetWater Brewing, which recently celebrated its 23rd anniversary, and ranks among the top breweries in the U.S., reopened its taproom some two weeks ago, after reconfiguring the space to meet state-mandated guidelines for dine-in service.

“The first weekend was sort of a soft opening,” said SweetWater’s VP of Branding and Culture, Steve Farace. “We’re really trying to promote the patio. People like that outdoor space with the fresh air, and this past weekend was a really good one. But we’re following all the protocols, just as every other restaurant in the city is.”

The taproom is full-service, now, with both beer and food delivered to tables by a team of servers wearing masks and gloves. And there’s still beer and food to go, as well.

“We switched to a full-service model because it keeps people from moving around,” Farace said. “It keeps people away from the bar and those common touch points. I tell people, ‘The only reason you need to get up is if you need to go recycle a beer.’ The process here, I feel, is as good as it can be. I’ve been here every day and I’m happy to see how it’s gotten organized.”

At Scofflaw Brewing on the Westside, founder Matt Shirah decided to reopen by creating a new outdoor space with picnic tables spread out around the parking lot, and social distancing in the beer lines enforced by a cop.

“It took me awhile to figure out the table puzzle, but we got it set up, and we opened up,” Shirah said. “I got an APD officer on duty the entire time we’re open, so he can deal with anybody who’s acting up. We have hand sanitizer everywhere, we’re using disposable cups, and our staff is wearing masks and gloves. But, so far, most people are still just coming to get beer to go.”

Monday Night Brewing’s Garage in the West End reopened with a similar model. The public is welcome on its patio and deck, while indoor areas, except the service bar and restrooms, remain closed. But situated steps from the Beltline, there are plenty of places you can wander after grabbing a beer.

“We’ve been talking to restaurant owners and other brewery owners, and for us to dip our toe in the water, this feels like about the best-case scenario,” co-founder and CMO Jonathan Baker said. “We have this big roll-up door, people can come in and buy a pint in a disposable plastic cup, then they have 22 acres to walk around on. And we have a host to remind people of the rules.”

Burnt Hickory Brewery in Kennesaw has always been inspired by the DIY ethos of punk rock. So it’s no surprise that founder Scott Hedeen has taken a rather irreverent approach to reopening his tiny taproom.

>> RELATED: COVID-19 threatens booming beer business in Georgia

“We’re Burnt Hickory. We’ve been going out of business since we opened,” Hedeen said. “So COVID, is that all you got? Or how about social distancing has never been the problem at Burnt Hickory? But we’re following the rules. We just basically rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We’re doing plastic cups. There’s hand sanitizer. I told my staff, ‘Treat the taproom like it’s a hospital.’ It’s not party time with corn hole here.”

Atlanta's Fire Maker Brewing had only been operating in soft opening mode for a few weeks in early March before it was suddenly closed by the pandemic. Now it's slowly reopening using its patio and outdoor areas.

“We had on-premise and taproom sales going in March, and that just changed overnight,” owner Elliott Hall said. “But we got our canning line up and running in May. Now we can sell our six-packs in the taproom, and we’re gearing up with our distributor to have our four core brands in the market in early June.

“In the taproom, we have a host seating people on the patio and explaining the rules. I think building up consumer confidence, not only in breweries but in on premise in general, is going to be good for everyone. And I see that people appreciate that we are taking action, and sanitizing, and setting up social distancing, and limiting table space.”


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