Food - Red Brick Brewing Company Turns 21
Georgia's oldest craft brewery should have closed many times. But it survived and is now making the best beers in its history.
"It is a miracle!" Bob Budd says, laughing hard.
He's referring to the fact that Red Brick Brewing Co., formerly Atlanta Brewing Company, is getting ready to celebrate its 21st birthday; that the local brewery has somehow persisted while others have shuttered. By all accounts, Red Brick should have shut down approximately 21 times in its 21 years. Budd, 67, is Red Brick's president. He's a warm and amiable man, the type people might say they'd like to have a beer with. He seems surprised to be having this conversation, cackling for a moment before composing himself.
"I've run four businesses in my life," he says. "I've been in high-growth businesses all my life. I've been in manufacturing all my life. And one thing I've learned is: never do a turnaround. Never do a turnaround. Because for the first several years, you live on somebody else's reputation, and that's tough."
Eight years ago, Atlanta Brewing Company did a turnaround.
In 1992, a 36-year-old Guinness executive was growing tired of the corporate life. He enjoyed his work as a sales VP and senior brand manager at the company responsible for the iconic Irish dry stout, but saw a new opportunity developing.
"I really liked the craft brewing movement I was seeing across the U.S.," Greg Kelly says of those days. "I felt Atlanta would be a great craft market at some point, but realized it would take a while to develop."
With his $150,000 life savings, and with the support of 38 local investors who contributed an additional $1.2 million, Kelly went all in on Georgia's first craft brewery, Atlanta Brewing Company. Twenty-one years later, there are now 40 breweries and brewpubs in the Peach State, with at least 10 more on the way. Kelly hired the late Karl Strauss to consult on recipes. The legendary German-American beer maker worked with Pabst Brewing Company for 44 years before opening San Diego's first craft brewery, Karl Strauss Brewing Company. In late 1993, Kelly set up shop in a dilapidated factory space on Williams Street in downtown Atlanta, and named his first beer after the warehouse walls. When the New York Times visited about six months later, it described the beer in hilariously purple prose bested only by Kelly's hyperbole:
"Against a curdled gray Georgian sky, Gregory Kelly hoisted a pint-glass of coppery liquid topped with a dense layer of creamy foam, rotated the glass and carefully sipped the mixture," the story began. "'The best beer in the world,' he declared, 'Red Brick Ale.'"
The atmosphere in those early days was a mix of raucous party and young and foolish startup. Atlanta Brewing Company was setting the craft beer precedent in Georgia. Kelly had an abandoned malt mill, found in an English meadow, shipped over from the U.K. and refurbished to process ABC's grain. ABC would ship one of its beers, a Belgian brew called Malone's, from Belgium in a cold storage tank blanketed in nitrogen (a Guinness technique not widely used at the time), 5,000 gallons at a time. Once stateside, ABC bottled and kegged the beer at the brewery. Somehow, only one of the three batches they shipped arrived undrinkable.
The brewery would also bring in 5,000-gallon truckloads of North Georgia mountain water — the same used by Chateau Elan, according to Kelly — that Kelly hoped would "raise the bar as high as possible to give us the credibility needed to become a respected craft brewery."
Because ABC was Georgia's first brewery, it was also the first Georgia brewery to hold tours. Tours are now heavily regulated by the state, but back then, it was anything goes: $5 per person, all you could drink, no regulations.
"We revolutionized the brewery tour and made it a really fun and entertaining activity," Kelly says. "Although this was legal, the regulators were not real happy about the popularity of the tours. We'd have up to 500 visitors, twice a week!"
Vortex co-owner Hank Benoit was one of the first to taste Red Brick Ale.
"He put it on draft in the original Midtown location when he only had five taps," Kelly says. "These were the most cherished tap handles in the city. If you were on draft at the original Vortex, your beer must be good."
That early Vortex handle led to a collaboration between the brewery and the bar on the Bohemian Pilsner Laughing Skull, named for the iconic, towering facade of the Vortex's Little Five Points location. Laughing Skull is still brewed, at least in name. It was retired in 2004 and reborn as an amber ale in 2009. It was the brewery's No. 1 seller until its Hoplanta India Pale Ale was released in November 2011. Laughing Skull is also the only craft beer on tap currently available at the Laughing Skull Lounge, a comedy club located in the back of the Vortex's Midtown location.
Equipment was always broken or breaking at the brewery. John "JR" Roberts, who worked as a brewer from 1996 to 1998 before opening downtown Atlanta craft staple Max Lager's, jokes that one of the main things he learned during his time at Atlanta Brewing Company was how to fix things. He fondly recounts training his successor, a cocky former Naval officer who bragged about his engineering prowess — that "they'd put him in a dark room with a leaky pipe and he'd have to fix it in the dark." One day, that new guy asked for help from Roberts and ABC packaging manager, Ted Cole. He took them to a leaking fermentation tank and proceeded to try a number of solutions, each one making the leak worse. "Now, the new guy was getting panicked as beer was spraying," Roberts says. "'What do I do?' Without missing a beat, Ted said, 'You're the submarine commander; want me to turn the lights off?' Ted then picked up a glass, filled it from the leak, and walked off. Once I stopped laughing, I told him to transfer it to the freshly cleaned tank right next to the one that was leaking."
Roberts is one of ABC's many notable alumni. A young Brian "Spike" Buckowski was ABC's cellarman during Roberts' tenure, eventually working his way up to brewer. John Cochran was brought in to take Buckowski's place after the promotion. The two would go on to much more notable roles after leaving ABC in 1999.
"The experience Spike and I had at Atlanta Brewing led to our desire to start our own brewery," says Cochran, Terrapin Beer Company co-founder/president and newly minted Georgia Craft Brewers Guild president. "If it were not for Atlanta Brewing, we would not be where we are today."
Other former employees have gone on to start their own breweries as well. Mark Broe left in 2010 to open the since-shuttered Eagle and Lion brewpub in Griffin, Ga. He now contract brews his English-style Yes Face ales at JailHouse Brewing Company in Hampton, Ga. Andrew Cattell moved down to Jacksonville, Fla. to brew for Intuition Ale Works. And Nick Fowler recently left for his just-launched Omaha Brewing Company in Columbus, Ga.
"We couldn't brew all the beer we could sell," Kelly says of ABC's early days. "It was a great time for the company."
In 1999, when Buckowski and Cochran left to form Terrapin, Griff Braddock, who had been training under them, stepped up.
"We had a very lean crew in those days, and everyone wore many hats," Braddock says. "I know how to do everything in that brewery start to finish, and could still run that bottling line, if needed."
During his brief stint at ABC, Braddock hired Dave McClure, who brewed for ABC for more than 10 years.
"I don't think he had previous brewery experience," Braddock says. "But like many in the industry at the time, he was a passionate homebrewer who worked hard and wanted to learn the business.
When an opportunity to take over as the third generation of a family business came up, Braddock quit and handed the reins to McClure.
"I'm extremely grateful to Greg Kelly for the opportunity," Braddock says. "I owe a lot of my current business success to Greg Kelly and Atlanta Brewing. I felt guilty about leaving the brewery in a tough spot. I was able to work long hours training with Dave to bring him up to speed, but it probably wasn't enough. We were a bit short-handed while I was there and were even more so after I left."
McClure moved to Atlanta from Boston to start a family. He was a baker before joining ABC, and first worked as an assistant brewer in 2002.
"He was a homebrewer," current Red Brick Sales Manager Jason Topping says. "And a really good one. His Double Chocolate Oatmeal Porter is still the porter we brew to this day. It's a classic. It's one of Dave's first recipes."
If his raw talent was unquestionable, his ability to play nice with others was debatable.
McClure butted heads with many of his ABC co-workers. Some have had a hard time letting go. Others emerged from the fray with warmer memories.
"Getting in a scuffle with McClure and having a beer named after it was pretty cool," Fowler says of the Black-Eye Rye, an India Black Ale brewed with rye that was Red Brick's one-off Brick Mason Series beer from 2013. "It says a lot about the attitude of the brewers that we can go through something like that, shrug it off, and make a badass beer based on a difficult situation."
Fowler's Hannahatchee Creek IPA out of his Omaha Brewing Company now earns raves at local festivals. He has 17 taps in the Columbus area, and plans to enter Atlanta's market in late 2015.
"If it weren't for Red Brick and the knowledge I gained working there, a lot of things would be different in my life," he says. "I wouldn't have met Omaha owner/CFO Robert Lee, I wouldn't have studied brewing in Chicago and Munich, and I certainly wouldn't be the one in charge of Omaha today."
Amid distributor woes, low morale, and McClure's repeated co-worker conflicts, ABC's sales slowly and steadily plummeted in the late '90s and early aughts.
"He went at odds with the ownership. He knew what he wanted to brew, ownership thought they knew what they wanted to, and sales was saying, 'Well, the market is dictating this,'" Topping says. "There was no cohesion within the group. That was the hardest part for all of us. If you don't have cohesion, you can't be that perfect business that continues to grow. Until you figure out what you are, you can't get anywhere."
McClure left Red Brick in 2012 and joined Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"I don't wanna get into the details of that," Budd says. "We realized we were just gonna keep frustrating Dave, because we wanted everybody to collaborate. And Dave didn't feel comfortable with that. It became pretty obvious to everyone, including Dave, that this wasn't going to work."
McClure left Foothills Brewing and is now working with new Winston-Salem operation Hoots Roller Bar & Beer Company.
"Thanks for thinking of me, but the only on-the-record comment I have about Red Brick is that I worked there from 2002 to 2012," Dave McClure stated in an email. "The rest of the story is up to the Red Brick spin masters."
Breweries measure production numbers in units called barrels (BBL). Each barrel is equivalent to roughly 31 gallons of beer, and breweries reference their equipment with those numbers. A 30-BBL brew house, for example, can make 30 barrels, or roughly 930 gallons, of beer at a time. SweetWater, Georgia's biggest craft brewery — and the 19th biggest by production in the United States — made 144,000 barrels in 2013. Terrapin, Georgia's second largest, made 33,000 in 2013.
From 1993 to 1997, ABC's annual production grew more than tenfold, from 500 BBL to 5,500 BBL. Soon after the 1994 New York Times piece, bigger companies started taking notice.
"I got calls from Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Brown-Forman, which is Jack Daniels," Kelly says. "All of them were starting to look at breweries to buy." Kelly wanted to go with Brown-Forman, but his investors wanted to go with Anheuser-Busch.
The investors got their wish, but Kelly says Anheuser-Busch "ended up screwing us over in the end." Anheuser-Busch's plan, Kelly says, was to buy "regional powerhouse breweries" like Widmer Brothers Brewing and Redhook Brewery, breweries it eventually partnered with. But Anheuser-Busch was also talking to companies such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Samuel Adams, Old Dominion Brewing Company, and ABC — breweries, as it turned out, that would never make it into the company's portfolio.
"We signed an agreement to take a loan from them in exchange for 10 percent of the company," Kelly says of the negotiations that took place circa 1996. "They could turn that into capital at a future time, and they also had an option to purchase another 10 percent."
Anheuser-Busch said ABC could keep using its distributor, United. "We felt they were the best distributor in Georgia," Kelly says. "And maybe the best distributor in the country."
But any new ABC beers would go with Anheuser-Busch's Georgia distributor, Atlanta Beverage Company. During the final negotiations, Anheuser-Busch backtracked, requiring that ABC switch completely to Atlanta Beverage. Kelly pushed back, but his investors — a minority stake of 38 percent — wanted the Anheuser-Busch deal. Feeling pressure to keep his investors happy, Kelly eventually acquiesced.
When Anheuser-Busch couldn't close the deals with Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams, its craft-acquisition philosophy quickly changed. The beer behemoth started pushing Bud Light as hard as possible. ABC was forced to switch distributors again, this time to the much smaller and now-defunct Thunderhead Distribution.
"It killed us," Kelly says of all the shuffling. "When we switched from United to the Anheuser-Busch distributors, we went through a big change. Sales dropped by probably 30 percent. But a year later, we were probably 40 to 50 percent up from the prior year. We were doing fantastic, but when A-B went exclusive, we went to Thunderhead, who wasn't in the Krogers and Publixes, so we lost all that distribution. We also lost a lot of draft accounts."
Given Atlanta Brewing Company's distributor, ownership, and brewmaster dramas, it's no wonder the brewery's annual production shrank from 5,500 BBL to 1,500 BBL from 1998-2005. In 2005, ABC investor Bob Budd, who had recently sold his gourmet food company but "just couldn't see retiring," came on as a consultant at the brewery. Six months later he tendered a report "which was not good," he says. Based on his thoughtful consulting, Budd was asked to be ABC's new president.
"The company had fallen on hard times," Budd says. "They had really lost their momentum, and were scrambling around, trying to stay alive. Most all of the wholesale business was gone. It was really just tours and tastings. But being an eternal optimist, I said yes."
At the beginning of 2006, Budd took over. The Department of Transportation asserted eminent domain over the brewery's Williams Street location during the Atlantic Station development, which called for a widening of Williams Street and the construction of the 15th Street Bridge.
"That shows my intelligence level," he says, laughing. "I bought a dying business in a condemned building."
But he negotiated with the DOT for a settlement that allowed ABC to buy out its lease as well as Kelly.
"Greg had been very frustrated and didn't feel like there was a way out," Budd says. "He had no say as to whether he could stay on as president, and eventually elected to be bought out. I'm sure it was frustrating. He started the company, it was a great idea, and the initial years of the company were wildly successful. But business requires a lot of discipline."
ABC relocated to the company's current Westside space on Defoor Hills Road in May 2007. If the new building lacked a little of the reckless and rotting character of the Williams Street brewery, at least its bright red walls were welcoming for events, its gleaming stainless steel tanks ready to make beer. With the new space came new challenges, one of which was convincing the distributor that Atlanta Brewing Company was ready to compete again.
"In the old brewery, General Wholesale didn't even place orders for the beer," Budd says. "They would just send the truck over once a week, and we would put on the truck anything we had available. They would take it, and when it went out of date, they would drive it back over and put it back on the dock. It was a real screwed up way of doing business. I mean, they obviously were willing to try and sell the product, but there was not lot of success there. The volume was incredibly low."
When General Wholesale saw the new and improved space, and that the money from the DOT and investors was being used properly to purchase new equipment, it was ready to recommit. But first, ABC needed to rebrand.
Though the turnaround started slowly with Budd's takeover in 2006, followed by the move in 2007, it didn't begin in earnest until 2010, when Atlanta Brewing Company became Red Brick Brewing Company. Over the next two years, the packaging had multiple face-lifts, and new personnel came on board — most importantly, a new brewer.
"We went through a couple different sales managers," Topping says. "The labels have changed greatly. The beers have changed, too."
Those changes seem to be working.
"I remember the first time I had an Atlanta Brewing Company beer," Ron Smith says. Smith and his co-author, Mary O. Boyle, documented Red Brick alongside many other breweries in their 2013 book, Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South. "It was the Red Brick Brown. I remember it being quite good. I had a six-pack of the same Red Brick Brown circa 2006, and was hit with a heavy cold beefsteak flavor, poured the whole pack out. Both Mary and I feel that they are doing better than ever now, though. In fact, some of their beers are stellar. The crew seems happy, and I hate the word 'synergy,' but it might work in this context."
Before McClure left, he brought in a relative unknown, Garett Lockhart, who had been volunteering at 5 Seasons under Crawford Moran (Dogwood, 5 Seasons, Slice & Pint) and Matt Williams (now at Colorado's Left Hand Brewing Co.). Lockhart started in December 2010.
"He's the heart and soul of the plant, hundred percent," Topping says. "There is no one besides Garett who has driven the new direction of our company more."
Lockhart started on the bottling line and worked his way up to being ABC's day-to-day brewer. Though talented, he was following McClure's recipes and direction, not innovating or executing any of his own ideas. When McClure left in 2012, it was Lockhart's time.
"We didn't have a lot of money to make a big move and bring in an all-star," Topping says. "Turns out, we had an ace up our sleeve the whole time and we didn't know it."
"Things were good and, I think, got better," Lockhart says, modestly, of taking over Red Brick's brewing operation. "There was a lot of stuff that I was thinking about that I wanted to do but didn't have the authority to do. So when the opportunity presented itself, I was stoked. I moved slowly to allow ownership to build confidence in me and my ability to do things. The most nerve-racking part was making my first production recipe, the 2012 Smoked Vanilla Gorilla. The labels were already printed and made, but the recipe wasn't there. I made it, and it won a silver medal at the U.S. Open Beer Championship."
Lockhart began tweaking old beers and creating new ones. The company needed to walk the tricky line of keeping its few remaining diehard fans while attracting new ones and winning back those who'd written off the brewery. Lockhart brought in Steve Anderson in October 2012 to take on day-to-day brewing duties and help Red Brick continue building on its newfound momentum. Anderson had been managing a Marietta homebrew store, Brewmasters Warehouse.
"Steve was an amazing resource when he worked at that store," says Scott Hedeen, Burnt Hickory Brewery's founder and brewmaster. "I can't tell you how many times he helped me create or even save a batch of beer I was making when I was ramping up to go pro.
"When I first moved here in 1997, I tried Red Brick's beers and was not impressed. Very pedestrian, very average, though solid. I met Garett Lockhart soon after he took the head role at the brewery, and I could tell he was eager to change the norm at Red Brick. When I heard he had hired Steve, I knew he was serious. Anderson is a special kind of brewer. Not only is he creative, but he's also a very hard and dedicated worker. I now look forward to and drink every Red Brick release I can get my hands on."
Anderson and Lockhart met at a Reformation Brewery gathering in Woodstock. Once Anderson joined Red Brick, they worked together on everything, bouncing ideas of each other, and trying new things. The result was a string of successful beers: The Lost Years Strong Ale, which scores a 91/100 on venerable beer website, RateBeer.com; the brewery's 20th Anniversary Imperial Stout (98/100); and other seasonals and new selections.
Lockhart kept tweaking the recipes of current beers as well.
"He said, 'Hoplanta: It's a decent IPA,'" Topping says. "I want to make it a good IPA first. Then we're gonna go from good to great, then we're gonna go from great to world-class.' Through that ownership, he got more and more comfortable."
Decatur's much-heralded Brick Store Pub had all but stopped serving Red Brick. In late 2013, not long after Tim "Timmy J." Ensor took over BSP's beer-buying duties, "Red Brick came in deep to the pub one day to meet with me," Ensor says. "Both brewers, the sales manager, one or two other people. It had to be very humbling for them to come to the Brick Store and sit down with me and have this meeting. They laid it all on the line, let me know that they had not had the best track record in the past, there was a lot of rebranding, that they didn't grow with the current trends. Then, they let me know about the new blood in the brewery and they followed up with some samples of tweaked versions of Hoplanta, and new beers like Hop Circle India Style Session Ale, 3 Bagger Rum Barrel-Aged Belgian Tripel, and Beard Envy Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine."
Impressed, Ensor gave Red Brick another shot. "Ever since, they've delivered in leaps and bounds," he says. "3 Bagger and Beard Envy were amazing beers the people kept coming for and asking about after we ran out of it. They produced some casks for the pub, like a Brett a wild yeast strain version of Hoplanta called Funklanta, which was awesome. They're on the up and up, and producing some really solid beers."
What many had considered a long-dead, irrelevant brand is experiencing a renaissance amid Georgia's greater craft beer boom. In March, the brewery hosted the inaugural Georgia Craft Beer Festival, which featured more than 30 Peach State beer makers, while raising awareness for Georgia's antiquated beer laws and raising money for the Georgia Craft Brewer's Guild. Red Brick's new team seems to be keeping tabs on the ever-evolving zeitgeist of craft beer, too, recently brewing new beers with exotic ingredients like hibiscus and yuzu tea. The brewery will soon transition all of its 12-ounce bottled beers into 12-ounce cans once a new canning line arrives and is installed later this year. Projected 2014 annual production is 10,000 BBL, up from 1,500 BBL in 2005. It will be the largest in Red Brick history.
"The late 2000s were the real tough years for Red Brick, because there were people out there that were not happy with the company, not happy with the service, not happy with one thing or another," Budd says. "It took years. I'd sit in meetings four years after I bought the company, and people would be bitching about what happened five, six, seven years ago. But I think we've pushed away all the ghosts, put them back in the closet, exorcised them. Now, we stand on our own reputation, and it's a good one."