- By Bob Townsend For the AJC
Wild Heaven Craft Beers, which began contract brewing in 2010 and signed a lease on a building on Maple Street in Avondale Estates in 2011, finally unveiled its new brewery and tasting room last week during a series of preview events.
Wild Heaven president Nick Purdy and brewer Eric Johnson had been friends for many years before Purdy came up with a plan for starting a beer company in 2007.
“I decided I couldn’t just be a fan anymore,” Purdy said, recently, while sitting down with Johnson in the barely furnished Wild Heaven office to talk about their brewery — which given how busy the duo has been with other pursuits took some time to become a brick-and-mortar reality.
Purdy is the founder of Paste magazine and On the Square Media. Johnson is a longtime musician, horticulturist, host of the PBS show “Garden Smart,” and former owner of Trappeze Restaurant and Pub in Athens.
In the beginning, Johnson mostly took a consultant role, designing and testing recipes for signature beers such as Invocation strong golden ale and Ode to Mercy imperial brown ale on an elaborate homebrew rig/pilot brewery.
Purdy had those beers brewed and packaged under contract, first at Lazy Magnolia in Mississippi and later Thomas Creek in South Carolina, and grew the brand with another pair of Johnson’s creations, Eschaton oaked Belgian-style quad and Let There Be Light pale ale.
“I never really thought about brewing commercially,” Johnson said. “Even after we put contract beer into the market I was content to be at Trappeze and create recipes for Wild Heaven. But there was a point at which it grew beyond all that and the necessity of our own production brewery became more and more evident.”
Earlier this year, Wild Heaven acquired the 30-barrel brewing system that launched Sweetwater Brewing Co. in Atlanta before it was sold to Terrapin Beer Co. to open its brewery in Athens.
“I appreciate that it has a history and that it’s made a lot of good beer,” Purdy said. “Sweetwater built the customer base for craft beer in Georgia. I think the fact that their original brewhouse is here now is pretty great.”
For his part, Johnson christened the system by brewing a new beer, White Blackbird, a Belgian-style saison with pink peppercorns and Korean pears marinated in Chardonnay with French oak.
“It’s a dry, complex saison,” Johnson said. “Kind of a different spin on the style. The peppercorns add an herbal, earthy heat in the finish.”
And there’s already a second new beer, Civilization, a heady English-style barleywine with additions of dried Prussian lemons, tart cherries and cranberries.
“I’m not a big fan of American-style barleywine,” Johnson said. “Most of them are just higher alcohol double IPAs. You miss out on the barley component of the barleywine. Along with the fruit, we’re going to finish it with cocoa nibs soaked in Calvados. It’s unlike any barleywine you’ve ever had.”
From the start, the idea behind Wild Heaven was to intentionally stay away from the usual craft beer roster of IPAs, pale ales and amber ales.
“We won’t put out a beer that we don’t feel adds something new to the conversation,” Purdy said.
“I don’t want someone to drink something we made and say that reminds them exactly of something else,” Johnson agreed. “If that’s the case, what we contributing to the landscape of beer?
“For me, boring is almost worse than bad beer. It matters to us that what we make is also very culinary. The ingredients should make it something that’s balanced and particularly well suited for food.”
As for the future, Purdy and Johnson are humble, but also hopeful that Wild Heaven will one day join the ranks of the best.
“We have massive, deep respect for brewing tradition and for what so many breweries in the U.S. have done over the last 10 or 15 years,” Purdy said. “But our ambition is to join the pantheon of breweries you think about when you think about the great ones.”