Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing is currently celebrating its 23rd anniversary, a milestone that’s both remarkable and challenging given the current, highly competitive state of the craft beer business.
Since opening in 1997, the company has steadily grown its distribution network, leaping from a local, to a regional, to a national presence, and it’s now poised among the top breweries in the U.S.
According to the not-for-profit craft brewers trade group, the Brewers Association, in 2019 SweetWater ranked 14 among the top 50 U.S. craft brewing companies, and 23 among the top 50 U.S. brewing companies overall.
As I’ve done many times over the years, I recently spoke with Freddy Bensch, the founder and “Big Kahuna” of SweetWater.
I wanted to ask him about some of the rumors I’d been hearing about the direction of the company. And naturally, I wanted to find out what was brewing for the 23rd anniversary.
As it turned out, Bensch was eager to set the record straight, and reveal the story behind some new products that are coming out soon.
Asked about the status of the Woodlands, an ambitious barrel-aging and sour beer facility that opened in 2016 in a sleek new two-story brick building at SweetWater, Bensch declared, “That whole project is intact.”
“Everything we try to do is to evolve as a brewery, and we try to think about how we can make it better, and more interesting, and unique,” he said. “We love what’s going on at the Woodlands, and the beers and the projects that are coming out of there. We’re not touching that.
“But in that vein, if we can take that Woodlands concept to explore different avenues and other things, and maybe apply it to spirits, that just continues how and why the Woodlands was created. We may stick a still in there. Does that mean the Woodlands are going away? Hell, no. Does that mean you might be able to have some brown liquor or vodka or gin? Yeah, for sure.”
Of course, SweetWater has become famous for its 420 Strain G13 IPA and later offshoots, which all use hop and hemp terpenes to conjure the dank aromas and flavors of the G13 variety of marijuana.
First released in 2018, G13 was named the No. 1 new craft brand in 2019. For the 23rd anniversary, two new iterations — Insane OG Mexican-Style Craft Lager, and Trainwreck Hazy Double IPA — are on offer.
And now SweetWater is about to join the growing ranks of breweries producing hard seltzer — but with a terpene twist.
The Hydroponics brand will soon be available in four flavors: Lime Haze, Black Cherry Bomb, Mother of Berries, and SoMango. “Hydro” (its “bar call” designation) is described as “a light and refreshing hard seltzer infused with plant-based, fruit-forward terpenes.” At just 5% alcohol and 100 calories, it seems all set to be a big seller.
“We’ve been looking at that part of the market for quite a while,” Bensch said. “Much like we’ve done with Strain, we challenged our guys to see what they could do with it. And as always with SweetWater, we ‘Don’t Float the Mainstream,’ so we gave it a little twist — pun intended. But our guys in the back came up with something that was quite impressive. And quite frankly, we felt that there was a place in the market for it.
“We wanted to make something that was unique so we weren’t just chasing the truck with a seltzer. Obviously, we took some of our learning from our Strain endeavors and applied it to the seltzer, which we think is very cool. We’re marrying terpenes with fruit flavors and creating the Hydro.”
Summing up SweetWater’s new directions, Bensch was both philosophical and enthusiastic.
“You know the old saying, ‘If you’re not evolving, you’re dying.’ So it’s an evolution,” he said. “To take what we’ve created at SweetWater — the goodwill, the quality, the energy, the overall platform — and to be able to leverage different kinds of beverages and create a bigger picture is kind of exciting.
“As far as our 23rd anniversary, I look at it like tomorrow is going to be just as fun as day one. I’m more in the moment. Let’s look at this great business, and this great group of people that created SweetWater, and let’s celebrate that. And let’s have a blast.”
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