Beer Town: Pontoon Brewing celebrates third anniversary with expansion

Pontoon Brewing partner Sean O’Keefe is proud of his company's innovative flavor tie-ins. Courtesy of Pontoon Brewing

Credit: Pontoon Brewing

Credit: Pontoon Brewing

Pontoon Brewing partner Sean O’Keefe is proud of his company's innovative flavor tie-ins. Courtesy of Pontoon Brewing

I will admit that when Pontoon Brewing first opened in Sandy Springs in 2017, I was a tad dubious.

At that point, the company had been brewing under contract at Thomas Creek in Greenville, South Carolina, and Coastal Empire in Savannah. And among its flagship beers, No Pants Pilsner hinted at frat boy shenanigans, more than serious business.

But three years on, and set to celebrate its third anniversary beginning on Jan. 30, Pontoon is growing its distribution and sales, and expanding to a second location in Tucker this fall — in spite of the pandemic.

The creative engine of Pontoon, partner Sean O’Keefe, said the sales numbers were up by some 48% in 2020.

“The goal was to be a small neighborhood brewery to service our community, and to be innovative, while remaining true to some traditional styles,” O’Keefe said during a recent chat.

“Now, because we like to push the boundaries, and get weird with some of our beers, we’ve grown quite a big following within Georgia, and outside of Georgia. We’ve always been pretty aggressive when it comes to going to festivals, and doing collaborations with other breweries. And we go to network at the Great American Beer Festival and the Craft Brewers Conference.”

With all that, Pontoon beers are now available in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and Massachusetts, plus some international destinations, and Nashville is on the horizon.

Pontoon’s rare Barrel Aged Brownie Batter Sweet Stout was the No. 1 rated beer of 2020 evaluated by Beer Connoisseur magazine. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bob Townsend

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Credit: Bob Townsend

“Right now, we have distributors in 20 states that have reached out to us,” O’Keefe said. “That aspect of the business has really changed. We really want to grow the brand and go into more states. So we are closing a loan to open a large production facility in Tucker. It’s 33,000 square feet with 28-foot ceilings. We’re getting a 30-barrel, five-vessel system in there, with big 90-120 barrel tanks.”

Since April, Pontoon has been contract brewing, again, in order to keep up with demand, though O’Keefe wouldn’t say where, due to a nondisclosure agreement.

“We saw the pandemic and said, ‘OK, this is going to happen. We’re going to have to close our doors. What can we do to get our name out there?’” O’Keefe said. “Fortunately we had a beer called Rainbow Smiggles that was released in February that blew up the internet. It was on Yahoo, and Forbes, and local and national media. We sold that beer out in less than a minute. And ever since then, we’ve been selling out beer quickly.”

Rainbow Smiggles was a Berliner Weisse, based on Pontoon’s more traditional sour beer recipe, but with Skittles, Trix cereal, strawberries, pineapple, vanilla and lactose added. That it was such a hit speaks to the current state of beer sales. And that’s something O’Keefe is well aware of, and embraces.

Recently, Pontoon’s rare blended Barrel Aged Brownie Batter Sweet Stout was named the No. 1 rated beer of 2020 by Beer Connoisseur magazine.

“It’s cool to see that beer evolve over time,” O’Keefe said. “And we’ve gotten a lot of excitement from other breweries. We’re going to be brewing with WeldWerks in Colorado, doing a Brownie Batter Media Noche blend.”

Looking ahead, O’Keefe said, “The name of the game is the new normal.” And that’s OK, he allowed.

“With change comes innovation. I think you’ve seen that from a lot of breweries, doing new and fun and exciting things to be relevant, and give people something to look forward to,” he said. “When we open up the new facility, we’re going to turn the current facility into a barrel-aging and experimental facility.

“Of course, Pontoon gets all sorts of flak for adding lactose, and putting crazy things in our beers. Yes, we do that. And I don’t feel bad about doing it. I want to be able to push the envelope.”

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