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The state of beer in Georgia

A look at how far local brewing has come and where it’s going

Is Georgia the worst state in the U.S. for craft brewing? I asked that question in a blog post in September 2016.

At that time, Georgia, which had been in a two-way tie for last with Mississippi, was about to become the only state where a brewery could not sell beer to the general public.

But the following year all that changed, thanks in large part to the public relations and lobbying efforts of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild.

new law went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017, that not only allowed breweries to sell beer directly to consumers in taprooms, it did away with mandatory tours and made it legal to sell beer to-go and food on-site.

It was another milestone in a long legislative fight that dates back to the first and biggest victory in 2004, when Georgia’s alcohol by volume limit for beer was raised from 6 percent to 14 percent.

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That year, pent up demand brought a huge number of new beers to the state, including loads of imported high gravity Belgian ales, and all kinds of exotica from U.S. craft breweries like Dogfish Head.

Last June, Brick Store Pub in Decatur celebrated its 20th anniversary. The beloved neighborhood fixture, widely celebrated as one of the best beer bars in the world, led the way after the 2004 law passed.

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The owners’ savvy response was to build out what became known as the Belgian Bar, featuring only Belgian and Belgian-style beers. And at the main bar, they added more taps and more local and regional beers to the list.

In light of that history, where we’re at in 2018 is a complicated question. Compared to the recent past, the beer business is booming in Georgia, with breweries opening and expanding at a record pace.

Since the law went into effect, “we’ve opened 13 breweries and hired over 250 people and done more than $30 million in direct investment, with breweries expanding and opening second locations,” said Nancy Palmer, executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild.

But Palmer also noted a few facts that might surprise even the biggest beer geeks.

Nancy Palmer, executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. Contributed by Brewers Association. (For the AJC)

“Georgia is the fourth largest manufacturer of beer in the country, and that’s because we have the MillerCoors facility in Albany and the Anheuser-Busch in Cartersville,” she said. “It’s a big business here. But we’re the 17th largest craft beer producer in the country, which way outpaces our rank as 48th when it comes to breweries per capita.

“That means that Georgia’s breweries on average are much larger than breweries in other states. That’s just a product of forced distribution, rather than having that taproom model available. That number will start winding down as we have more smaller breweries open based on direct sales.”

Given that, around metro Atlanta and elsewhere it’s a good bet you’ll soon see a number of new small, taproom-driven breweries following the example of Variant in Roswell and Pontoon in Sandy Springs. And there will be more taproom spin-offs from bigger production breweries, like Monday Night Garage, a small-scale, wild and barrel aging facility on a section of the Beltline in West End that also features a large event space.

Certainly the biggest news of 2018 was the January opening of New Realm from former Stone Brewing brewmaster and IPA expert Mitch Steele and his partners Carey Falcone and Bob Powers.

The biggest news of 2018 was the January opening of New Realm from former Stone Brewing brewmaster Mitch Steele and his partners Carey Falcone and Bob Powers. Contributed by Mia Yakel (For the AJC)

Situated in Poncey-Highland, steps from the Atlanta Beltline, it’s a new-to-Georgia hybrid craft beer and dining destination featuring a restaurant with a rooftop bar and beer garden, state-of-the-art pilot and packaging breweries, and a growler bar with merchandise and beer to go.

A strong, even resurgent segment of the metro Atlanta beer scene can be seen in several newer brewpubs with gastronomic aspirations — including Torched Hop in MidtownHopstix in Chamblee, and From the Earth in Roswell.

In the larger craft beer world, there are signs of stagnation in sales and troubling tales of brewing companies, like San Diego’s Green Flash, that got too big, too fast, and went bust.

But that is not the case in Georgia. On the heels of its recent fourth anniversary, Athens’ Creature Comforts (of Tropicalia IPA fame) celebrated the grand opening of its new brewery earlier this month. The $11 million project is housed in a 40,000-square-foot historic building filled with sophisticated equipment, including a fully automated dual 85-barrel German-made brewhouse.

And since opening on Atlanta’s Westside in August 2016, Scofflaw has become a rapidly expanding renegade — chalking up unprecedented growth behind brands like its Basement IPA, entering into a unique production arrangement with international craft company, BrewDog, and building a new 50-barrel brewhouse that’s expected to be in operation later this summer.

On the retail side, change has been a constant, too. Hop City, with locations on Atlanta’s Westside and in Krog Street Market, has blurred the lines between sales, tastings and a full-on bar program.

Adam Tolsma, the longtime Atlanta-based beer buyer for Green’s Beverages, helped open the Tap on Ponce in 2016. The Green’s offshoot in the bustling food hall at Ponce City Market falls somewhere between a bar and a bottle shop, with a rotating selection of 44 beers on tap, all available in growlers and crowlers of various sizes.

Tolsma told me that “rotation nation” is the term that best captures what’s happening in craft beer on draft now. Driven by aspirational millennial males in search of the new, so called “legacy” brands like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale can have a tough time finding a tap handle at many beer bars.

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“I call them pioneering brands,” Tolsma said. “And we keep a chunk of cooler space dedicated to beers from Sierra, Bell’s, New Belgium and SweetWater, because they’re still very popular. Honestly, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s going to sell with the newer brands, and it makes it much harder to manage.

“There is more craft beer than there is people to drink it at this point, I think. That means you have to really pick and choose and be careful, or it can be costly, because the bottom line is beer doesn’t have huge margins for error.”

It’s clear from talking with Palmer, Tolsma and other insiders, that with more breweries and more beer available in more places, this is the best of times for Georgia craft beer lovers in search of the new and the novel. But the questions that linger seem to come down to how much growth the market will bear, and who will create the next Tropicalia or Basement IPA.

Get a taste of the new fusion revolution with the 2018 AJC Spring Dining Guide: Global Mashup 

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