Food - Wrecking Bar Brewpub hosts Atlanta’s first Strong Beer Fest

Ready yourself for 43 brews averaging 9.8 percent ABV

For 10 years, Bob Sandage has been dreaming about this moment. In 2003, back before he opened Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Little Five Points, back before Georgia legally sold beer over 6 percent alcohol by volume, he made his first trip to Carlsbad, Calif., to attend Pizza Port Brewing Company’s Strong Ale Festival. He’d had high-ABV beers before, of course, through bottle shares and tastings with friends. But he’d never seen anything quite like this.

“It was mind-blowing walking into that festival for the first time,” Sandage says. “To see all of these rare, sought-after high-gravity beers all under one roof was simply unbelievable.”

Even though he’s been to seven of the last 10 Pizza Port Strong Ale Fests, Sandage won’t be attending next weekend’s 17th annual event. Instead, he’s holding his own at Wrecking Bar on December 7. The Georgia Craft Brewers Guild’s more than 20 breweries and brewpubs, including representation from Savannah (Southbound, Moon River), Kennesaw (Burnt Hickory), Fairburn (Strawn), and Hampton (Jailhouse), in addition to the usual Atlanta/Decatur/Athens suspects, are contributing a total of 43 strong beers, many of which are rare or one-offs and have an average ABV of 9.8 percent.

Woodstock’s recently licensed Reformation will make its ITP debut at the festival with Providence, a Belgian tripel the brewery’s website says pairs well with “reflecting on confusion.” Perhaps understandably, given the very literal connection to the brewery’s name, Chief Marketing Officer Brad Nix is excited at the prospect of participating.

“The focus on the uniqueness and value of strong beer is a big step along the path to reform the mindsets and expectations of the craft beer scene and the greater communities beyond,” he says. “To that end, it’s very purposeful for us to be part of the event.”

That “path of reform” is being led by the GCBG, to which all proceeds from Strong Beer Fest will go. The trade organization is leading the charge to change restrictive alcohol codes. It’s helping draft legislation such as House Bill 314 and its companion, Senate Bill 174, which would allow Georgia breweries and brewpubs to sell a limited amount (288 ounces, or one case, per day, per customer) of their own products on premise for off-premise consumption, something which more than 40 U.S. states already allow.

“Georgia’s citizens are ready to see Georgia’s craft brewers catch up with the rest of the free world,” GCBG president and Moon River owner/brewmaster John Pinkerton says. “These kind of events are a great opportunity to rally our supporters and further broadcast our message.”

John “JR” Roberts remembers a time in Atlanta’s history when “you’d be lucky to find any craft beer at most restaurants.” Roberts, who started his Atlanta beer career in 1996 at Atlanta Brewing Company (since rechristened as Red Brick Brewing Company), helped open Max Lager’s in 1998, where he’s served as brewmaster ever since. A lot has changed in that time.

“These days, I’m more apt to hear, ‘What dark beers do you have?’ or ‘What’s your hoppiest beer?’ The turning point was really when the alcohol limit was changed from 6 percent to 14 percent,” he says.

While Roberts is quick to point out that there are plenty of great beers under 6 percent ABV, he says the law change “really shined a light on craft beer and made Georgians aware of it.” He thinks the Strong Beer Festival, and legislation like HB 314, are what Georgia needs to become the beer capital it deserves to be.

“The fact that there is quite a bit of excitement about an all-Georgia beer festival is fantastic,” Roberts says. “The next turning point will be getting these three-tier regulations modified to be more supportive of the craft beer industry in Georgia.”

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