One of the newest beers in Atlanta, the Serpent Bite, its taste rendered schematically by Orpheus Brewing
Nowhere does the locavore imperative carry more weight than in Asheville, North Carolina. The so-called Appalachian Shangri-La or “Paris of the South” flourishes not merely via conventional tourist attractions like the Biltmore Estate and the Blue Ridge Parkway, but, crucially, by flaunting its dizzying array of art galleries, independent bookstores, unique local culture (who but Asheville would embrace the taunt of a NC state representative and tout itself as “the sweet cesspool of sin?”), abundant farm-to-table culinary culture, and, perhaps most notably, its world-class reputation for craft beer.
Repeatedly acclaimed as “Beer City USA” (a title Portland thought it owned), the beer industry in Asheville is a case study in the notion that the rich get richer. Not content to nurture several excellent homegrown breweries, the small Western NC town has recently fortified its unassailable prominence in the industry with the arrival of such nationally renowned craft producers as Oskar Blues, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. If that were not enough, new and delightful brewpubs like Wicked Weed spring forth.
For a visitor from Atlanta, it’s easy to imagine that Asheville’s overflowing cup is incomparable.
However, for all Asheville’s unique charms and strategic advantages in the world of craft beer, the story that is unfolding in the mountains is part of a larger revolution. Americans have been switching by the millions to craft beer for several years.
The craft beer industry reported that 2013 witnessed record sales and expansion. Sales of craft beers (made by breweries “small” in size, “independent” in ownership, and “traditional” in ingredients and production methods) surged by 20% over the 2012 levels, comprising almost 8% of all beers sold in America (despite the massiveness of the bland behemoths). Where there had been only 537 breweries in the nation in 1994, by 2013 the number had reached 2,822, with much of that growth being of very recent vintage. If most Americans are still mainly cracking open watery lagers mass-produced as carelessly as the obscene commercials that promote them, the economic and cultural clout wielded by connoisseurs has become profound and shows no signs of slackening.
Up from Nowhere
So, if Asheville has merely channeled and perfected a movement that is national in scope, the question is, can another city achieve a similar ascent? The ATL is trying. Local consumers’ quest for quality and authenticity has triggered an industry boom in Atlanta, Georgia, once dismissed as a beer “wasteland.” According to Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South, the city had a plethora of taverns and saloons in the generations before Prohibition. The damage wrought by that federal experiment proved lasting. From the early 1970s to the 1990s, there were no Atlanta breweries. The ascendance of Sweetwater and the arrival of brewpubs like Five Seasons was not immediately followed by many new producers.
Times have changed. Even if you never consult the First Draft blog on Creative Loafing, to spend any time at the city’s brewpubs, beer bars, restaurants and growler shops is to encounter a burgeoning menu increasingly well-stocked with local brews. In Georgia at the start of 2013, we could already read,
“More than a dozen new breweries and brewpubs are currently in the works. Their additions will nearly double the number of craft-beer producers statewide, doing in one year what it previously took 20 to accomplish. The presence of new breweries reveals Atlanta’s ascendance as a Southern beer destination (Watch your back, Asheville!), and Georgia’s path to becoming a craft kingpin.”
Oh snap! Talk of “market domination” is indeed a departure for ATL beer aficionados.
The ATL is hailed for “the emergence of a crowded local beer scene,” one that could perhaps have the potential to “rival Asheville and San Diego as great beer towns.” Brewers such as Monday Night Brewing, Red Brick, and Sweetwater (the heavyweight champion) are now joined by Wild Heaven, Red Hare, Three Taverns, and brand-new arrivals Orpheus and Eventide.
Austin L. Ray, author of First Draft, has emphasized the lofty rankings achieved by the best of Atlanta’s establishments. For years, Brick Store Pub and The Porter Beer Bar have appeared on national lists for “best beer bars,” and the relative newcomer Wrecking Bar has ranked highly on national lists for brewpubs. He notes that “on RateBeer’s The Best Beers in the World 2013, The Porter earned the No. 1 beer-bar designation in the United States, with the Brick Store pulling a more-than-respectable third place.”
Ray emphasizes the range and depth of the craft beer scene in his recent listing of ”12 Georgia Beers You Should Drink this Summer.” Including beers by Eventide, Three Taverns, Wild Heaven, Wrecking Bar, Red Brick, Orpheus, and a collaboration by Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards’ collaboration with the growler shop Ale Yeah, Ray’s is an ATL-heavy list.
A telling indicator of how far the local industry has come – and the nature of the political and legal challenges it still faces – came in April in Decatur, with the gathering of the first annual Southeastern Craft Brewers Symposium. According to the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild website, the event “was a smashing success” (a double entendre?). Besides the inevitable sharing of brewing techniques and field trips to such Decatur standouts as Twain’s, Brickstore Pub and, farther afield, Three Taverns Brewery, it seems the participants devoted significant time to the political and legal landscape. They discussed the “state of the industry” and took copious notes on “various legal issues such as incorporation, employment law, and the state’s regulatory requirements” (widely condemned as an onerous burden on the brewing industry). Only the finest beer can get you over something like that.
Age of Reform
Although Atlanta and Athens enjoyed the quality beers of Sweetwater and Terrapin, during the early 2000s a serious obstacle prevented further craft beer growth in this state: the state government. Mired in a Prohibition-era mindset and addled by sweetheart deals that enrich distributors and drive up the cost of production (and consumption), the lawmakers under the golden dome in Atlanta preserved arbitrary limitations. Georgia had banned the sale of beers with a higher than 6% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) rate. When the limit was raised in 2004 to 14%, writes Ray, it “not only allowed establishments like Decatur’s Brick Store Pub to start serving some of the finest high-gravity beers in the world, widening palates and deepening consumer interest in the process, but also freed up local brewers to be more adventurous with their creations.”
With a permissive ABV limit, “a wave of bitter, aromatic India Pale Ales, monstrous, engine-oil-black Imperial Stouts, tart Belgian sours, and a myriad of other styles began flooding Atlanta’s new craft marketplace.” In the wake of this change in taste the city has welcomed Ale Yeah! and Hop City, where consumers can get expert advice and take home innovative beers. Meantime, back at the Brick Store, Ray notes (and a quick glance at the hefty beer menu confirms), “more than half” of the beers now available exceed 6% ABV. As for breweries, seven new ones emerged between 2009 and 20012, including Marietta-based Red Hare, which led the way in canning. When I buy a six-pack of cans of Red Hare’s Watership Brown Ale at my local Kroger in Decatur, there are a few minor miracles converging, and especially when I do this on Sunday (something illegal just a few years ago). This means that we have not only a vibrant local beer market, but one surprisingly integrated across space, no mean feat in sprawling Atlanta.
Reform remains an imperative for the industry, however. Take-home sales at brewpubs and breweries are among the breakthroughs the state still resists. Georgia hasn’t yet entirely shed its hidebound conservatism in this area, and until it does, projections for the continued growth in quality, quantity, and significance for craft beer remains frustratingly speculative. It does seem, though, that time is on the side of reform.
The boosters don’t hesitate to make bold predictions, nor do they see any potential problems with the expansive ambition the age of reform has unleashed. “A rising tide raises all ships,” according to Geoff Williams of Eventide Brewing, one of the newest arrivals on the scene. The Grant Park-based brewery has quickly established itself with beers on sale around town (including Decatur bars such as Mac McGee and The Square Pub, and Williams argues that for the craft beer movement, more is simply better. “Every single article that’s written, every billboard you see, every bottle that’s turned up, it’s a movement toward that craft direction.” This is the language of inevitable momentum.
Other enthusiasts anticipate “lots of new small-and-medium-sized breweries open, specialized breweries that only do weird beers, and neighborhood brewpubs that only serve their community with local flavor.” In its drive to match a peer city like San Diego (which has a phenomenal number of breweries), Atlanta expects to reap increased job creation, with local and state tax revenue increases to match. Who can entertain such visions and not raise a pint in celebration?
Atlanta is not the first city to try, consciously, to take a page from Asheville’s beer playbook. Many other towns around the country have been tempted to conclude, if little Asheville can do it, why can’t we? Nevertheless, the industry and its supporters/customers seem euphoric in their optimism. So what does this continued growth mean? Will we in Atlanta develop our own beer tourism? Will our hopped and fermented passions lead to an influx of new “beer-related businesses,” as has occurred in Asheville? Anne Fitten Glenn, in her comprehensive account of Asheville’s beer history, points out that on “any day in downtown Asheville, you can visit, by foot, at least six operating brew houses,” and “easily drive to several others,” and, most crucially, “you can walk into most any bar or restaurant and order at least a few of the up to one hundred different locally brewed beers.” Isn’t that setting the bar a bit high for Atlanta?
It seems hard to imagine the ATL reaping to the same degree as Asheville: the city is too vast and sprawling for the beer tourist or hop-addicted local to traverse any significant portion of its breweries and beer bars by foot (or, perhaps, even by MARTA – although the prospect provides yet another excellent argument for investing in mass transit). Though Atlanta attracts tourists and convention-goers, this city will never have the concentrated flow of both well-heeled and hip-alternative visitors Asheville takes for granted. Too, will the craft beer industry in Atlanta reproduce the disproportionate male dominance (a problem noted by Glenn) it retains even in hyper-progressive Asheville? One might also ask, will craft beer in Atlanta be a white thing?
So, the euphoria might need to be tempered just a bit. Even so, achieving even a quasi-San Diego-type reputation for excellence in beer-making and beer taste would add significant cachet to the ATL brand. The local beer movement is part of a larger craftsmanship renaissance in Atlanta in the culinary, visual and performing arts. Consider how similar the beer dynamic is to this recent description of the food truck scene:
Atlanta – despite its prohibitive laws and outdated regulations – boasts a number of great options. You can find these trucks parked at the Atlanta Food Truck Parkat various neighborhood gatherings, and at the upcoming Atlanta Street Food & Food Truck Festival in Piedmont Park on July 12.
Provided the turn to craftsmanship is not monopolized by a certain class, neighborhood or subset of snobs and instead remains inclusive, it seems a worthy cause for celebration.
A glimpse of the future? Decatur’s Three Taverns