Beer Town: ‘Big Kahuna’ Freddy Bensch on Sweetwater’s westward expansion

Freddy Bensch, the founder, “Big Kahuna” and chairman of the board of Atlanta’s Sweetwater Brewing Co., oversees one of the great success stories of the American craft beer business.

Currently the South’s biggest brewery, and the 18th biggest craft brewery in the U.S., Sweetwater recently announced that it had purchased the equipment to open a second brewery, and is busy scouting locations in several states west of the Mississippi, including California.

The big news is another sign of Sweetwater’s continued growth over the past 18 years. But it’s even bigger, in many ways, because the No. 3 and No. 4 biggest U.S. craft breweries, California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s New Belgium, responded to similar growth by moving east, ultimately building new breweries in Asheville, N.C.

Shortly after the Sweetwater announcement, Bensch, who now splits his time between Atlanta and his family’s home in Telluride, Colorado, sat down at the brewery’s Midtown offices on Ottley Drive, where we shared a couple of pints and talked about his connection to the company.

My first question may have taken Bensch by surprise. But I’d often wondered what he thought about being a prophet without honor among a certain segment of Atlanta craft beer lovers, who somehow see Sweetwater’s growth and success as “selling out.”

“First and foremost, I don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Bensch said. “Second, I do feel like anybody that gets to a certain size isn’t cool from a beer geek standpoint, just because it’s not that tiny little thing anymore. But to turn it around, I’m still the same guy, doing the same stuff, with most of same people I was doing it with 18 years ago, when we first started.

“Yes, we were successful, and we’ve gotten bigger. But when we sit down and talk about where we’re going, the first thing I lead with is, let’s not forget about what got us here. We got into this game because it was supposed to be fun, and we’re still having a great time. And, quite frankly, we’re making better beer than we were 18 years ago.”

Bensch is a California native, who got into brewing during his college days in Boulder, Colorado. Sweetwater’s familiar rainbow trout and “Don’t float the mainstream” logo reflects a laid-back image and attitude that still pervades the business. But recent top corporate hires of a CEO, CFO and marketing director point to a more serious direction.

Given those changes, I asked Bensch if he’d ever envisioned Sweetwater getting this big, let alone operating two major breweries strategically situated across the country from each other.

“I operate in the moment,” he said. “And I’m always trying to do what’s best for the beer and the business. We’ve always grown cautiously and conservatively and geographically. For the first eight years, we didn’t distribute outside of Georgia, except for Asheville.

“The defining moment for me was when I said, ‘Hey mom and dad, I’m going to start a brewery.’ That was the leap. Now I’m responsible for over 150 employees, and I’m deep in it, trying to make sure we’re improving in everything we do every day.”

When I asked Bensch to talk more about the vision for the new brewery out West, he said he wanted to backtrack a bit first.

“Let’s go back six years,” he said. “Capacity was always a nightmare, and from 2012 to 2014 we eliminated that problem, going through this big expansion here. The last two years have been about bringing on the right people to ensure what we’re doing is perfect. All that goes to the ability to look at bigger opportunities.

“We’ve been very conscience of creating a brand that has no borders and no limits. I’m from the West, and we’re going to flip it around, coming back from the East. So I’m pretty much starting over at this point. Hopefully, by this time next year, we will have identified a spot and we will be beginning to build a new brewery.”