Food - The Atlanta Craft Beer Crawl
1 man, 7 bars, a little MARTA, and lots of drinking
Like all great ideas, this one came in the middle of the night. I was celebrating a finished story by also finishing a few beers and some Chinese delivery. Maybe it was the sesame chicken talking, but I began wondering how many of Atlanta's best craft beer bars I could hit in one day using only MARTA. No cabs, no long-suffering designated drivers, no 15-passenger vans, just buses and feet. Could it be done? Would someone let me write about it?
To my surprise, my editor was into it. I recruited a crawl companion, Shane, who would bring his MARTA expertise to the mission. He regularly blows my mind by showing up to various places in the city without a car. And the thing is, it shouldn't blow my mind. You always hear people — and I'm including myself here — complain about MARTA, but how many of them have really given it a chance? Not that using public transportation to safely/legally drink beer all day is some sort of noble act of civic reform. But at worst it could offer me a new perspective on the city I love, and, at best, make me a true believer in MARTA's bus system.
We decided on seven bars to visit over the course of a Saturday: Twain's Billiards and Tap, Brick Store Pub, Manuel's Tavern, Book House Pub, the Porter Beer Bar, Wrecking Bar Brewpub, and Midway Pub. Shane came up with two routes. The first started at 2:40 p.m. and allowed for around 50 minutes at each location. The other started at 12:30 p.m. and allowed for around 90 minutes at each bar. For efficiency's sake, we went with the 50-minute-per-pub route, although I'd recommend the less rushed 90-minute plan for beer lovers who'd like to attempt the crawl. Both routes end around 9 p.m.
For obvious health and logistical reasons, the list of bars we came up with is not exhaustive. There are craft-beer gems sprinkled around the Westside, Buckhead, the suburbs, and beyond. Our list of seven favors some of the city's best-stocked and beloved watering holes that are near public transportation and could be visited in a single day. That is, as long as we — or MARTA — didn't mess it up.
Moments before our scheduled start time, Shane texts me: "Slight delay after I dropped and broke my razor and blood started shooting out of my nose." We're doing great so far.
We start off in Decatur at Twain's Billiards & Tap, an elder statesman of the local craft-beer scene in business since 1996. A massive space that features shuffleboard, arcade games, occasional live music, sports-filled televisions, and, of course, tons of pool tables, Twain's has been brewing beer in-house since 2006. Brewer David Stein revamped the establishment's beer lineup in late 2011. Following his departure in 2012 to focus on opening the highly anticipated Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, Chase Medlin took over, creating a session IPA series, experimenting with new styles such as this summer's Berry Tart sour ale, and collaborating with both local (Steady Hand Pour House, Three Taverns Brewery) and national (Michigan's New Holland Brewing) companies.
Easing into what's going to be a long day, I order the Four Count Pale Ale, a crisp and delicious beer with low ABV (5.4 percent) and a citrus-hopped body ideal for casual day drinking. At the bar, 38-year-old real estate analyst "slash dude that plays in a band" Alex Brenner regales me with his most memorable Twain's experience.
"We lit Roman candles at our friend in front of the cops outside," Brenner says of one explosive July Fourth. "We were in the parking lot and we were all hammered. The cops were like, 'Hurry up,' because they had to sit there and watch us do it because it's illegal. We lit him on fire."
You know that tiny, post-beer moment where you step out into the shocking light of broad day? That's what carries us on a cloud to Brick Store Pub a couple blocks away. I order a Night in Brussels Belgian IPA from Three Taverns Brewery, which is located right up the street, and meet Wayne Johnson, a 66-year-old retiree. He first visited the Decatur craft-beer institution on its second day of business, June 28, 1997.
"Well, her and I had three sons," he says, gesturing to the woman sitting to his left at the downstairs bar. "We're divorced now, but the boys had just gotten to the age where we could leave 'em by theirselves. We were out looking for a place, and we drove by, said, 'This place looks cool,' came in, and it was cool. Everybody was real friendly. We've been coming here ever since."
Everyone behind the bar knows his name. I begin to feel like it's Wayne's world and I'm just drinking in it.
Wayne says he loves the Brick Store staff, and appreciates that there's always good beer there, though he doesn't consider himself a connoisseur of the stuff. One of his sons worked in the BSP kitchen for a time. These days Wayne often rides his bike to the pub for lunch. Now that he's retired, he likes to come in early on Friday afternoons to hang with "all the old people." Thinking back over the years, memories of Halloween at the Brick Store stand out, one in particular where his sons dressed up as "Jesus and his gay lover."
"Mike Gallagher, Brick Store co-owner wouldn't give 'em first place!" Wayne says. "I guess he's a Catholic. He said, 'My mom would never forgive me.' My sons got pissed off and boycotted the place for like two months. They got over it, though."
I'm sitting on the No. 2 bus now, two beers in. Everything's going smoothly except for the fact that I'm thinking about assaulting a MARTA employee. In my defense, the automated lady on the speakers brought it up. Turns out, you can get up to 20 years in prison for that kind of behavior, which seems fair. I can't, for the life of me, imagine why one might assault a MARTA employee. The fact that the automated lady even has to say this out loud, which seems to signify that it's happened at least once, bums me out. I also feel a little uncomfortable getting my photo taken over and over for the story while people give me the side-eye. "Yes, ma'am, people do sometimes tell me I look like that guy in The Hangover. Yes, OK, you have a nice day as well."
Over some Bell's Two Hearted Ales at Manuel's Tavern, our third stop, Shane tells me how his dad used to bring him here as a kid 25 years ago. He says it taught him about beer. He says it also taught him something about being a man, about why bars even exist in the first place.
We sit silently for a few moments as the University of Georgia's football team faces off against the South Carolina Gamecocks on a television pointed in the direction of John F. Kennedy. His painted visage looks weary, but he's smirking a little, almost like he knows the Bulldogs are going to pull this one off. Right now, it's anybody's game, though, so he presides over the bar, waiting. It occurs to me that there aren't many places like this in Atlanta where people, even relatively young ones, have decades of memories.
There's another smiling liberal in the expansive room adjacent to the main bar. It's Charles McNair, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who held the release party for his second book, Pickett's Charge, here Sept. 25.
"This is my de facto office," says Charles, who originally heard about Manuel's decades ago while living in Birmingham, Ala. "I've lived in the neighborhood 22 years and I've been coming here 22 years. I've been here early and often."
He visits at least a couple times a week, catching sporting events on weekend afternoons and bringing his calendar to the bar late on weeknights to plan his literary affairs. Aside from its rich history as a gathering place for Atlanta liberals, Manuel's has always been a haven for writers and journalists.
"A writer lives in isolation and works with solitude all day long," Charles says. "One is not healthy, as a writer, if you don't get out and get into some social, human activity. You just get crazy if you don't."
We walk back to the No. 2 stop at Ponce de Leon and Highland avenues across from the Plaza Theatre, and take the bus to a relatively empty Book House Pub. I order a Rodenbach Grand Cru, a slightly tart, classic Flanders Red Ale, and survey Book House's Twin Peaks-inspired interior, its warm, book-lined wood pairing nicely with a refreshing sour ale. Book House's music seems stuck in an oddly specific time where "dance punk" was a thing that people said out loud without laughing at or hating themselves. I can't recall a time I've been there and not heard early aughts songs from bands like the Rapture and Franz Ferdinand. Not that I mind. Those songs bring back some warm memories for me.
This Saturday afternoon, though, they seem to conjure life into the bar. The place quickly fills with revelers looking to pre-game their evening's festivities. I approach a table of folks who've crafted entries for the Beltline Lantern Parade, which will start in a few hours. Lisa, a member of the Atlanta Outdoor Club who took MARTA to the bar from Buckhead, talks about how much she loves the convenience of the Beltline/Book House combination.
"We do all kinds of walking, bike rides, hiking, backpacking," Lisa says of the AOC. "This is right up our alley to park somewhere, take MARTA, and walk over to a bar."
We hit a snag. Either we've missed a bus or a bus missed us. We've been standing on Ponce in front of Chipotle for more than a half-hour, watching lanterns float by on the Beltline above. The next No. 2 finally arrives to take us toward Little Five Points, and I start to let some bus-mishap irritation creep over me. We arrive at our stop and as we step out onto Moreland Avenue, a friend steps into the bus. She knows what we're up to and laughs, a moment that wouldn't have happened if all had gone according to plan. Immediately put in a better mood, we march toward the Porter Beer Bar, which is celebrating its fifth birthday.
The place is busy, but now, eight hours into the biggest day of its birthday celebration, it's subdued in a buzzed, exhausted way. Owners Molly Gunn and Nick Rutherford are sitting out front looking tired but satisfied. Gunn makes a recommendation of a beer not usually available in Georgia. I order it once inside, but five bars in, I don't have the presence of mind to write down the brewery's name amid the loud laughter, constant shuffling of patrons, and the sapped servers behind the bar. Wrecking Bar owner/brewer Bob Sandage is sitting at the bar. He and his crew from up the street have been taking shifts all day to enjoy the Porter party.
Outside away from the bustle, I sit down with Curt Dawsey, a 34-year-old beer rep for Goose Island. Years before he was a regular (and "regular" is a bit of an understatement here), he came to the Little Five Points establishment with his family, drank a couple beers while waiting for a dinner spot, but then had "a very real problem with the greeter" that resulted in them never getting a table. Dawsey wrote an honest and cutting Yelp review. Gunn reached out to him the next day to apologize and sent him a gift card. On his next visit, she showed up at his table to apologize again in person. Dawsey says that return visit was "a great experience, like I've had every time since." He started showing up around five times a week for a year or so after that, and now counts Gunn as one of his best friends.
We're about an hour behind schedule when we finally walk from the Porter to Wrecking Bar. The kitchen is in the middle of a frenetic dinner service, but the bar is relatively calm. I take a break to eat the brewpub's macaroni and cheese with crispy pig ears, which is a) completely delicious, b) completely necessary after six hours of walking, talking, and craft beering, and c) yet another reminder of what great things chef Terry Koval, formerly of Farm Burger, is doing with Wrecking Bar's menu these days.
I order the Hop Noggin Imperial IPA, a stunning, West Coast-style beer with big floral and citrus notes, and a delicious example of what a gem this two-year-old brewpub is. Wrecking Bar's importance to Atlanta's beer scene cannot be overstated. The Hop Noggin goes down a little too smoothly for a 10.5 percent ABV monster. Maybe that explains why Shane has two. He hasn't eaten in hours, and gets into a spirited, meandering conversation with Jason, our photographer. Topics covered include: Elon Musk, Hanson, Jewish temples, and what was apparently, at least according to my notes, "a passionate argument about the 'granddaddy of hashtags.'" I don't even know what that means. #pray4shane
We embark on a short walk from Wrecking Bar to the No. 107 bus, which will take us to our final destination, East Atlanta's Midway Pub. Once on the bus, relief washes over me. We did it — seven bars in one day, all using public transportation. Aside from our one hiccup after Book House (which Shane swears is the exception to the norm), our day's transportation has been easy, reliable, cool (the high today reached 90 degrees), and comfortable. Why have I avoided MARTA's buses for years? I see no reason to continue this behavior going forward.
My notes end around this point, not because I black out or get arrested, but because we're at Midway. Friends are waiting to greet us there, at a big table on the city's best patio, one covered with lush greenery and in a neighborhood I call home. Midway is a bar that caters to everyone — sports lovers, tattooed punks, middle-aged parents, bros with visors — and has plenty of great beer. I order a Westbrook Gose as we go over the weird adventure that was our day. Shane's gone mostly mute at this point. He abruptly departs into the night on a pizza mission.
Atlanta's craft beer culture is nascent, yes, but there's so much to look forward to. Amid my daydreaming of an even rosier future, a friend hands me her notebook in which she's written my story's modus operandi: "Austin drank beer ." She's teasing me, but it's true.