Once again, it seems I must begin my annual year-end roundup by declaring the past year the biggest for craft beer in Georgia since I first started writing this column.
That’s certainly not a bad thing. But at the close of 2019, it begs the question: Is all this growth sustainable? And what else is going on?
Of course, there was a lot of pent-up demand that finally reached a tipping point as a result of the 2017 changes in Georgia law that created more ways for breweries to sell beer and serve food.
New “own-premise” breweries like Halfway Crooks and the Lost Druid hired chefs and built kitchens as part of new and evolving business models. SweetWater unveiled a restaurant as part of its extensive taproom renovation, hired a fine dining chef, then let him go. And new model brewpubs like Best End and Bold Monk are definitely chef-driven operations.
In 2019, the Lee + White development in West End, dubbed “Malt Disney,” became a major drinking and dining destination. Pioneered by Monday Night Garage, it’s now home to Boxcar and Hop City, ASW Distillery, a second Wild Heaven Beer location with a brewery, kitchen, and event space, and Best End, with a spacious dining room that resembles a German beer hall.
A few months ago, I wrote a column titled “The future of brewing in Atlanta isn’t what it used to be.” And I suggested that being small and local is likely good, being big and regional may still work, but somewhere in the middle can be difficult, given how many breweries and beers there are to choose from now.
I’m not sure if that’s exactly spot-on, but it does seem that some breweries are beginning to look for ways to diversify and build growth in new directions. Second Self Beer Co., which celebrated its fifth anniversary in October, is on its way to becoming a “beverage incubator,” with Cirrus, a CBD water venture, and plans to put cider, wine and spirits in the mix. And SweetWater seems to be getting into the hard seltzer business.
Trendwise, New England IPAs, kettle sours and wild beers have crossed into the mainstream. But as I’ve written, the irony is that while more experimental styles dominate taprooms and are coveted by hardcore fans, lager is making a major comeback, as bigger craft breweries offer updated takes on the classic crisp, clean style, and package it in cans, just like in the old days of “yellow beer.”
On the distribution side, smaller distributors like Liberator are making it possible for breweries like Best End and Sceptre Brewing Arts to get into the game from the start, with new beers quickly on tap at places like Argosy, Brick Store Pub and the Porter.
Monday Night, Reformation and Wild Heaven aren’t the only metro breweries with more than one location. Cumming’s Cherry Street opened its second brewpub in the Halcyon mixed-use development in south Forsyth County. And Jekyll Brewing, Alpharetta’s first production brewery, recently expanded with a second smaller brewery at Alpharetta City Center.
Coming in 2020, Decatur’s Three Taverns is set to open a second location dubbed the Imaginarium at the Atlanta Dairies development on Memorial Drive. Scofflaw Brewing will open a new seven-barrel research and development brewery and taproom at The Works, an adaptive mixed-use development off Chattahoochee Avenue.
As for what more might happen in 2020, I’m guessing there might be some brewery closings, and I doubt new breweries will open at the same pace as 2018 and 2019. But who knows?
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