Beer Town: Orpheus Brewing celebrates seven years of changes

Orpheus founder and brewmaster Jason Pellett at the brewery’s remodeled taproom. (Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Orpheus founder and brewmaster Jason Pellett at the brewery’s remodeled taproom. (Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Atlanta’s Orpheus Brewing will celebrate its seventh anniversary on Labor Day weekend — though the company hosted a smaller anniversary gathering when it opened its renovated taproom earlier this year, on Memorial Day weekend.

Known for its barrel-aged, sour, and spontaneously fermented styles, Orpheus has long been a favorite of beer geeks who covet unusual and limited edition releases. And two of its core beers, Transmigration of Souls Double IPA, and Atalanta Tart Plum Saison, continue to sell well in distribution.

But as founder and brewmaster Jason Pellett told me during a recent visit to the brewery, over the past few years, sales have been going in the wrong direction, which finally prompted Pellett to take over as CEO.

“You’d think after seven years, things would be easier, but not yet,” Pellett said. “It was constant, hard-to-contain growth for a while. Peak volume was mid-2017 at about 7,000 or 8,000 barrels, and then it’s just been falling since then.”

Surprisingly, though, the pandemic didn’t have as big an effect on sales as expected.

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“We actually grew through COVID,” Pellett said. “Our stuff stayed pretty steady in grocery and package stores. And we actually grew draft during COVID, partly because we expanded into a few other states. We’re in Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana, and a little sliver of Ohio now.”

While Pellett allowed that the transition to CEO has been rough, he thinks the business side is finally headed in the right direction.

“We have a great new sales director, Abby Cheng, who has a lot of experience, so that’s exciting,” he said. “And we brought in Jen Blair, who did beer education at New Realm. So right now, I’m super busy, but in a different way than I was for the last 18 months.

“Right now, I’m busy trying to get new people going. And with all that, I’m still the brewmaster, and I’m the CEO, which is not something I want forever. If there was somebody who could step in as CEO right now, I’d let them do it.”

Reflecting on the bigger picture of craft brewing in Georgia, and the rapid expanse of new breweries, Pellett believes competition was a factor in the decline of sales at Orpheus, but internal problems may have been a bigger obstacle to growth.

“We squandered what we had in a lot of ways, and we were in bad shape,” he said. “Early on, when we opened seven years ago, it was easy to sell beer. At some point, you’re no longer new, and you actually have to get out and do it. But we built this brewery for volume, so if it’s not doing volume, it’s a problem. There’s only so much space in distribution now.”

One thing that’s been helping Orpheus replace lost distribution dollars is brewing house beers for Atlanta area restaurants, including Crespo Lager for El Tesoro, and an Italian Pilsner for Grana and the White Bull.

“Those will be on draft here at the taproom, and we’ll probably distribute them in some other states, just not here,” Pellett said. “I love lagers, and it gives me a good excuse to brew them.”

Right now, Pellett has his eyes on the future, but he’s still reflecting on the past.

“I’m looking way less on what the rest of the industry is doing and more just try to figure out what I’m doing,” he said. “Seven years in, we’re still trying to make things better here, and create a better culture. After all the changes, I’m trying to get us to be the brewery I wanted us to be eight years ago.”

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