Summer Guide - How to drink at six breweries in four days
You can do it, but I'm not quite sure that you should
Think about beer. Go ahead, just think about it. Think about your favorite beer being poured into a glass vessel at the right, chilly temperature. You may notice the aroma first or, perhaps, the way sunlight reflects through the liquid's golden color. Think about the first sip, the touch of frothy head and rush of effervescence, the flavor balanced between sweet and bitter notes. Now, look up. You're in the brewery where this beer was brewed. Bags of grain are piled in the corner and bottles are stacked in another. In front of you, a stainless steel tank holds thousands of gallons of this precious liquid. You can hear the light gurgle of liquid fermentation. This is a transcendent experience, one that you will measure all other experiences of drinking beer against. You have tasted the fruit off the vine.
That's the fantasy I had about visiting a brewery. Until recently, I had never visited one, which should be an embarrassing thing for any Atlantan to admit. To say that you live in Atlanta and have not visited one of the many fine establishments brewing beer in Atlanta is like saying you haven't been to a game at Turner Field. It is fun and cheap and simply something that you, as a local drinking citizen, should do and have done. (Sober people, consider yourselves exempt from my judgment.) The number of breweries in the metro area keeps rising, too. By the end of the year, you won't be able to throw a rock at a warehouse in Metro Atlanta without hitting a bottle of Belgian-style doppelbock. In an effort to correct my embarrassing lapse in experience, I suggested to my editor that I research a survey of local brewery tours over the course of a long weekend. That's a nice way of saying I convinced my employer to pay for me to get shit-housed four days in a row. If you have a similarly generous employer, I suggest you do the same this summer.
You must know that you can't just walk into a brewery in Georgia at any given time and pay for your pint like any old pub. Owing to a bizarrely specific set of regulations set by the Georgia Department of Revenue, attending a brewery tour in Georgia is like performing a complicated mating ritual specific only to the indigenous beer drinkers and brewers of our region. Most importantly, the brewery is not actually allowed to sell beer. It can (and does) sell soap made from beer, dog treats made from beer, beer branded cozies, specially shaped bottle openers, T-shirts with Grateful Dead references, Frisbees with foil-stamped beer logos, and commemorative pint glasses into which a brewer may pour many free samples of beer. Remember, the beer is the part they're not allowed to sell, so you can ask for a free plastic cup into which your free sample of beer will be poured. You may bear in mind that the regulations do not prevent anyone from being called an asshole.
The rules don't end there. The brewery may not give away free beer for a period of longer than two hours in a single day. During those two hours, the total amount of free beer poured into a commemorative pint glass may not exceed 32 ounces, though the brewery may subdivide that total into however many samples they like. All of this must happen under the contrived pretext of a free brewery tour, despite the fact that the people attending don't seem to really do much actual touring of the brewery. It is simply the rule: no free tour, no free beer. Look up Chapter 560-2-7-.01 if you want the full accounting.
In practice, this whole experience doesn't much resemble that fantasy of a carefully considered sip of beer as much as happy hour in an industrial warehouse with a hundred of your thirstiest friends. I took notes on my journey.
6 p.m. Thurs., April 24
I arrived a half-hour late at Monday Night Brewing, mostly due to getting stuck in traffic after work. Judging by the well-dressed crowd already sipping beers on the back patio of the brewery, most of them came straight from the office, too. The brewery is at the dead end of an industrial road that backs up to a lush green patch of the Atlanta Waterworks reservoir. Inside, they've done a fine job of decorating, including a wall of ties that has been captioned via a neon sign with the punny slogan, "TIE ONE ON," but everyone wanted to be outside in the sunny greenspace of the back patio. It didn't hurt that the Good Food Truck was outside, too, serving hot dogs in French toast buns, a specialty it calls the "Poodle."
The assembled crowd impressed me in part because Monday Night Brewing may have the most socially confusing name in beer right now. Just imagine what it is like for people to call their friends and invite them to the brewery:
"Hey, do you want to go to Monday Night on Thursday?"
"Monday Night, the brewery."
"You want to go to a brewery on Monday night?"
"No, I want to go on Thursday."
This could go on infinitely, especially between drunk people. I don't know if the brewers are fans of Abbot and Costello, but I do know that they're fans of the Bible. On the brewery tour, which I attended with roughly 1 percent of the crowd, a man with a very long beard explained that the founding brewers started brewing beer for their Monday night Bible study group, thus the confusing name.
He also explained that beer is made from barley, hops, yeast, and water. Did I mention that you don't learn much on these brewery tours? If you've been on one, you've been on them all. The guy in the baseball cap points at one big shiny tank and says, "That's the one we boil in." Then he points at another big shiny tank and says, "That's the one we ferment in." If you're lucky, there will be some funny origin story about the founders.
The other reason that people don't usually go on the tour portion of the brewery tour is that it really cuts into the drinking time. Thirty-two ounces of beer might not sound like much to drink over the course of a couple of hours, but, depending on the line, six or eight individually poured samples can easily run past that window. At Monday Night, you get six drink tickets along with your souvenir pint glass. How should you use them? I'd say stick with the Drafty Kilt, a smooth scotch ale with plenty of smoke and malt. After a few of those, I needed a Poodle from the Good Food Truck and a ride home.
5:10 p.m. Fri., April 25
Thinking that I would be clever, I arrived a little early at Terrapin Brewery in Athens and found that 200 people had done the exact same thing. The lines to get in stretch deep into the parking lot. I haven't ever been to a Dave Matthews Band or John Mayer concert, but I think standing in this line, surrounded on all sides by undergraduates in khaki shorts, polo shirts, Ray-Bans, and deck shoes, may have prepared me. They had lots of interesting conversations, some of which I couldn't help but write down, feeling like an anthropologist lost in the land of bro:
"So, does beer make you dehydrated or hydrated? I mean, it's a liquid right?"
"Dude, if you had to make out with a dude, what dude would it be?"
"Why are there so many dogs here?"
"When people talked about Terrapin, I always assumed that it was a bar downtown, but I guess it's like a Grateful Dead song, too?"
There was also a discussion about the comparative profit margins between beer and soda, mostly the monologue of an undergraduate wildly excited about the lucrative possibilities allowed by majoring in economics. After about 20 or 30 minutes of this line, I bought a pint glass in the gift shop. I stepped outside into Terrapin's fenced-in backyard, excited to finally drink beer, and found another line.
I don't mean to exaggerate the point here, but if you want to drink beer at Terrapin, you better like standing in line with college students. The vast majority of them seem to have the same drinking strategy: stand in line for beer sample, get beer sample poured, and return to the end of the line to wait for another beer sample while drinking the previous beer sample. Owing to some sort of construction, Terrapin was not physically touring the brewery on this day, but instead offering an "educational beer talk." An employee walked around in the Terrapin yard, offering to talk about beer. No one was interested. They were too busy standing in line.
However long you stand in line, Terrapin's beer is still quite good. I'm especially partial to their new Recreation Ale, a mild session ale perfectly suited to sitting around in the sun in the grass. While listening to an old hippie cover a James Taylor song on an acoustic guitar, I did exactly that. Then I looked at the line to get another sample and decided it was time to leave.
6:30 p.m. Fri., April 25
After leaving Terrapin, I arrived at the soft opening of Athens' newest brewery, Creature Comforts. Located in a former automotive warehouse in downtown, the brewery is a sight a to behold. High, arching beams run across the ceiling. Reclaimed barn wood is paneled behind the bar. Light splashes in from massive windows. If you told me this was the new Ford Fry restaurant, I would believe you. At least on this sunny Friday, the crowd was more professor and townie than undergraduate bro. There were places to sit and short lines for beer.
Getting a glass of Creature Comforts isn't easy, yet. The brewery hasn't started canning and its reach, keg-wise, doesn't yet extend much past Athens. The brewery, at least at this point, is one of the few places you can taste the beer, which you absolutely should do. The best beer I tasted over this entire weekend was the Athena, a slightly tart Berliner Weisse that possesses a perfectly balanced, oddly compelling flavor of dry fruit and light wheat. While drinking it, I happened to be sitting across the table from Blake Tyers, a brewer at Creature Comforts. Tyers gave more or less the same brewery tour as any other brewery, but sitting down and talking to him about beer, I probably learned more than I did at any other brewery combined. The more you ask questions of brewers, of course, the more they'll tell you.
It couldn't have felt more opposite from the experience at Terrapin. The next day, Athens reporter Andre Gallant tweeted at me, "Today, CC felt like a frat kegger. Wall to wall college kids getting wasted." Perhaps these things all depend on the day.
1 a.m. Sat., April 26
After drinking beer, what else is there to do but drink more beer? After Creature Comforts, I found myself at Trappeze, probably Athen's best brewpub, ordering more Creature Comforts beer with the brewers of Creature Comforts. After that, there were more beers at the World Famous, a pub that serves a sandwich made of fried chicken and waffles. After that, I bought a beer from a gas station, a cheeseburger from the Varsity, and walked back to my motel room to pass out.
1 p.m. Sat., April 26
Freshly sober from the motel room and a half-gallon of gas station coffee, I remembered that I had made plans to meet up with Atlanta's best beer writer, Austin Louis Ray, at Burnt Hickory Brewery. Burnt Hickory is an hour and a half away from Athens, where I was. That seemed like a long drive until I realized that Heirloom Market BBQ was on the way. I stopped there and had a half-pound of brisket and a pile of kimchi for breakfast on the way to Kennesaw, which is the right thing to do if you ever have to go to Cobb County for any reason.
When I arrived at Burnt Hickory, the anniversary party was well under way. Ray greeted me by saying, "Welcome to the epicenter of Weird Kennesaw." There was a woman wearing roller skates and a body suit that made her appear to be skinned. There was a dude dressed as a giant clown. There was a Misfits cover band. A lot of people were wearing Burnt Hickory T-shirts that look exactly like Black Sabbath or KISS logos. The lines were packed, but it seemed like a special occasion, a chance for every weirdo in the county to descend on one place for the love of beer.
Burnt Hickory's brews have names like metal songs: "Fighting Bishop," "Ezekiel's Wheel," "Old Wooden Head," "Cannon Dragger." The Fighting Bishop, a Belgian-style Trippel that's spiced with green peppercorns, is the one that moved me the most. Burnt Hickory's location isn't quite as picturesque as Monday Night's back patio or Creature Comfort's remodeled warehouse, but I saw more people having fun and enjoying a beer-fueled community at Burnt Hickory than at any other brewery.
4 p.m. Sat., April 26
On the way back into Atlanta, I stopped at Red Brick Brewing. When I moved to Atlanta five years ago, I drank a Red Brick Ale (back when the brewery was known as Atlanta Brewing Company), and decided that I didn't need to drink it again. Last year, a new brewing team took over the company and the difference is obvious. Not only has the name and branding changed, but brews like Hoplanta IPA and Hop Circle India Session Ale positively sing with flavor, while I remember the beer I drank a few years ago as more of a mumble.
Speaking of singing, on the Saturday afternoon that I dropped in, the small-ish crowd included a guy with an acoustic guitar playing familiar radio hits, a couple of dudes were furiously competing, and a cook was turning hot dogs and flipping hamburgers on a grill outside. People were in such a feel-good mood that when the acoustic guitar guy started playing the Counting Crows song "Mr. Jones," almost the entire crowd started singing along.
I'm not sure if it was brought on by the acoustic guitar dude, but it was around this time that my hangover started kicking in. It was time to call it a day.
2 p.m. Sun., April 26
Have you ever wanted to stop drinking beer? No? Me either.
Despite the multi-day hangover, patchy stubble, and obnoxiously smelly undershirt that I had developed over the weekend, I couldn't do this trip without dropping into the brewery that most people credit for starting Atlanta's craft brewing scene. Since being founded in 1997, SweetWater Brewing Company has grown into one of the 20 largest craft breweries in the country by volume. It's the exclusive craft beer of Turner Field. You can drink SweetWater 420 on some Delta flights. It's big business and, at the brewery, it shows. Compared to all the other breweries I visited, everything was simply bigger. Bigger semi-trucks, bigger bottling lines, bigger gift shop, bigger stainless steel tanks. In that way, the place is like any other craft brewery, except magnified.
As SweetWater has ascended to the top — scoring big contracts, sending out cease-and-desist letters to protect their brand — it has sometimes seemed that it's had a hard time getting along with other craft breweries. Maybe that's true in some cases, but of all the brewers I met over the trip, no one had a bad word to say about SweetWater. Most of them, in fact, mentioned that someone in their brewery had gotten their start at SweetWater or that SweetWater had helped them out with a favor once or twice in the past.
The crowd on Sunday was actually pretty light. I was a little disappointed to find out that the brewery only serves its cask and limited release beers on Wednesday, which is apparently when you should go. Instead, I drank the SweetWater that I typically drink, LowRYEder, and listened to another dude playing acoustic guitar. He was singing Neil Young.
"Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons. You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon."
Have you ever wanted to stop drinking beer? No? Me either.