Story by STELL SIMONTON/Photos by JASON GETZ
On a typical afternoon, Pontoon Brewing co-owner Sean O’Keefe can easily dress in shorts, a polo shirt and baseball cap while working at the bar. His two pug dogs, one black and one white, roam nearby across the concrete floor.
Soon, the doors will open for business. Locals will saunter in for a seat and order a Fluffy Otter oatmeal stout, Hazy River lager or the latest creative brew crafted on the premises.
The laid-back atmosphere allows for kids to play board games as parents drink and talk, some with their own pooch beside them.
Although there’s no waterway in sight, the Sandy Springs brewery has the vibe of a pontoon boat on the lake.
O’Keefe calls it the pontoon lifestyle.
“We’re from Florida. My grandfather had a pontoon boat when I was growing up,” he says. “No one gets on a pontoon boat to go fast or show off. It’s a moving party platform.”
Pontoon Brewing isn’t hip or edgy — just relaxed, as beer is made, served and provided to outside distributors.
Not so long ago, O’Keefe and his three fraternity brothers from the University of Florida decided to make their own beer.
Early on, it was a whim and something they started doing for fun. They each went their separate ways following college. Two buddies, Eddie Sarrine and Eric Lemus, went to work at financial services companies in Atlanta. Marcus Powers went to law school and later landed at Atlanta firm Barnes & Thornburg. O’Keefe earned an MBA, then moved on to manage the Ford Ice Center, where the National Hockey League team the Nashville Predators plays.
The four reunited, however. Using their home brew recipes, they became nomadic brewers contracting with Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville, S.C., to bring out limited amounts of various beers.
In December 2015, they launched the Pontoon Cinnamon Spiced Porter, described as a smooth porter with a hint of cinnamon. In July of that year, they produced a beer that O’Keefe imagines the Founding Fathers would’ve made a toast with after signing the Declaration of Independence, called Freedom Bird American Strong Ale.
O’Keefe says their beer recipes are mostly inspired by favorite foods, particularly pastries. “We are big foodies,” he says. “Cole [Pontoon’s brewmaster] and I will deconstruct a fun food recipe and apply it to a beer.”
The recently introduced beer, Floatation Device, was created from a love for pineapple upside down cake. Its ingredients include cherries and pineapple puree.
“It has a bready malt taste,” O’Keefe adds.
Other beers might have berry pie or vanilla or marshmallow. A new offering, Pecan Pie Paradise, was created with fresh pecans, cinnamon and vanilla.
It’s a fun way to attract non-beer drinkers, says O’Keefe, who boasts that Pontoon creations have converted many into beer fans.
In order to open Pontoon in December 2017, the City of Sandy Springs wrote a new ordinance allowing the business operation of microbreweries.
In May 2017, the Georgia Legislature approved direct sales by brewers, and was one of the last states to do so.
Microbreweries produce less than 15,000 barrels per year, according to the Brewers Association, whereas brewpubs are restaurant-breweries that sell 25 percent or more of its beer within the establishment.
Unlike brewpubs, such as nearby 5 Seasons Brewing, Pontoon microbrewery does not serve food. However, outside vendors like Hoyle Kitchen and Bar set up outside Pontoon on Wednesday evenings, while Doc-Popcorn serves bags full inside.
The brewery has seen a generous amount of returning customers, in addition to newcomers. Ryan Alexander, who lives in the neighborhood, recently returned with family members, including his father, Gary, a beer connoisseur.
Gary Alexander has sampled local beers around the globe during his travels working for a mining company. In singing Pontoon’s praises, he says, “The beer in the United States is pushing the envelope now.”
O’Keefe is confident of Pontoon’s place in the world’s beer pantheon. “We try to cater to craft beer drinkers,” he says,“but also to the people who like Bud Lite.”
At times during the beer-making process, Pontoon’s brewmasters will place their product in wine barrels instead of a fermentation tank, allowing the beer to soak up wine elements that have seeped into the wood.
Craft breweries are popular wedding venues, and Pontoon Brewing had its first wedding in June.
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