Something brewing at Oakland

Cemetery has ‘malts and vaults’ tour


EVENT PREVIEW

“Malts & Vaults of Oakland: Where Beer Meets History”

7 p.m. June 6 and 5 p.m. June 7. Tickets: $10 each, plus a $1.54 fee. Oakland Cemetery, 248 Oakland Ave. S.E., Atlanta. Visit maltsandvaults.eventbrite.com or log on to www.oaklandcemetery.com and click on the eventbrite link.

It was the new thing. Folks took jugs to the store, where an affable barkeep filled them with the brew of their choice. The beer, fans said, was fresh — cheap, too.

And thus did take-home beer — the growler — come to Atlanta in 1866. That’s not a typo, dear reader. Growlers, which these days have some Atlantans in a froth, have been around for a long time.

About 150 years ago, entrepreneur Michael Kries opened Fulton Brewery, offering customer-friendly, take-home beer. He also sold brews on premises: A glass of beer was 5 cents and lunch was free. No fool, Mr. Kries: The food he gave customers was loaded with salt. And what better way to slake a salty thirst than with a second, third or sixth beer?

Kries, rest his soul, is buried at Oakland Cemetery. He’s also one of the luminaries of Oakland’s latest tour, “Malts & Vaults of Oakland: Where Beer Meets History.” The tours take place June 6-7.

Each tour, which lasts about an hour, visits grave sites of long-ago businessmen committed to keeping Atlanta wet, even when the law discouraged such activities. It’s also the latest tour to keep folks visiting Atlanta’s oldest park, final resting place of more than 70,000 people.

This tour is based on “Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South,” a compendium of Atlanta’s brewing history from the mid-1800s to the present. It’s written by Atlantans Ron Smith and Mary O. Boyle, who’ll be selling copies of their book during the strolls.

And, no, beer will not be available during the tours. But, Oakland officials are quick to add, several establishments nearby will have the taps open.

Gordon Middleton, a tour guide who’s dabbled in home-brewing, recently took a walk among the stones, showing where Atlanta’s early brewers are at rest.

Atlanta was just an infant when it started drinking, Middleton said. And booze proved as divisive then as it is now. Consider the 1847 race for mayor.

Campaigning for sobriety was Jonathan Norcross, champion of the Moral Party. His opponent, standard-bearer of the Free and Rowdy Party: Atlanta tavern owner Moses Formwalt. History shows us that Formwalt got the job.

Within a handful of years after that election, nearly 100 taverns operated in and around Atlanta. Along came the Civil War, which accomplished what the Moral Party could not. It closed nearly every drinking joint in town.

But Atlanta rose again, luring entrepreneurs who knew the city thirsted for better times. They were folks like Michael Kenny, a recent arrival to the United States from Ireland, who owned the Chicago Ale Depot on Pryor Street downtown. He was, in effect, a beer distributor, one of the first to bring beer to the city from other states.

If his last name sounds familiar, it should: Kenny’s Alley, at Underground, is named in his honor. Mr. Kenny met his demise on horseback, when he —

— but that’s giving too much away. A live oak shades his stone.

Not far away is a far more magnificent monument erected to the memory of Christian Kontz. With the help of German immigrant Dionis Fechter, he owned and operated the City Brewery, which operated at the corner of Marietta and Pine downtown. (He’s reputed to have sold beer to the Yankees during the war, but time heals all wounds — repairs a lot of reputations, too.) By 1868, the tavern had a state-of-the-art brewing process, including something no other watering hole possessed: cellars under the floor, guaranteed to keep beer fresh and cool.

The story of beer in Atlanta is not without its bumps and spills. In 1855, Middleton said, rural Fulton County voters decided to send a message to those decadent city dwellers: The county went dry. That lasted but three years: County officials, when they discovered the tax value of taverns, scheduled another referendum. In 1858, the taps reopened.

The battle wasn’t over. The drys won again, in 1906, with a statewide ban on alcohol sales. That led to the creation of “blind tigers,” establishments that charged customers to see animal oddities. While ogling the odd animal — a blind tiger, say — people sipped drinks of their choice. Rarely, said Middleton, did they ask for Coca-Cola.

It all came to an end when Georgia voted “bone dry” in 1916, three years before the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 ended alcohol sales. Georgia stayed in this sober state until 1935 — two years after the 21st Amendment lifted the national alcohol ban.

These days, of course, beer is back: Atlanta is home to at least 16 breweries, with more on the way. “This is, if you like beer, a great time to live in Atlanta,” Middleton said.

A great time, too, to lift a glass to those long-ago brewers.