Beer Town: A month of milestones for Georgia beer

September marks some major milestones for Georgia beer drinkers.

Senate Bill 85, which for the first time allows breweries to sell beer directly to consumers, took effect on Sept. 1.

In response, you’ll find new and improved taprooms with extended hours and a host of special offerings at most breweries around the state. But stay tuned, because it’s likely to take several months to fully figure out what all the changes will mean for the bigger beer scene.

In Atlanta, two very different breweries, Red Brick and Scofflaw, will celebrate important anniversaries this month. And in many ways, they each represent both the growing pains and bright promises of the craft beer business.

In recent times, some of the biggest and most iconic American craft breweries, including Dogfish Head, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, have struggled to keep pace with the huge sales numbers of the previous boom years.

In short, while the exponentially growing ranks of small and local craft breweries make it an exciting time for beer drinkers, there’s only so much room on retail shelves.

Beyond that, the buyouts of craft darlings like Wicked Weed have brought about a new wave of disharmony and efforts toward protectionism in the marketplace.

Right now, the conventional wisdom is that local will continue to grow, national breweries like Sierra will find a way forward, and many in the middle may be squeezed out or be forced to sell out to companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors.

Red Brick, once known as Atlanta Brewing, will mark its 24th anniversary on Sept. 30 with a big party at the brewery and the 2017 release of several variations of its popular seasonal Vanilla Gorilla Imperial Porter.

Though Red Brick can rightly claim to be Georgia’s oldest craft brewery, its history of survival reflects several epochs of boom and bust in the craft beer business.

Over the years, the brewery operation not only changed names but changed locations — from a piece of prime real estate adjacent to the I-75/I-85 connector in Midtown to a more modest warehouse on the Westside.

Also notable, as Red Brick changed owners, rebranded, moved, and lost and found any number of management and brewery teams, its sales moved up and down.

Still, since 1993, it has somehow remained, and will mark a quarter of a century of making beer in 2018.

“This one is a big one, leading up to a really big one with the 25th anniversary,” Red Brick President Garett Lockhart told me during a recent interview. “I came on at the end of 2010, so I’m a little over six and a half years in now.

“We’re sticking right around that 10,000 barrel mark — a little more or a little less, since my time here. I guess the encouraging thing about that is that we’ve kind of pulled out of the outer markets and put that focus back on our home market here in Atlanta. It seems to be paying off because the bulk of that 10,000 barrels is right here in Atlanta.”

Scofflaw, which opened farther out on Atlanta’s Westside, celebrates its first anniversary on Sept. 16, and offers a surprising compare and contrast in the realm of local brewery businesses.

Founded with a portfolio that explored stylistic variations on India Pale Ale, its debut beer, Basement IPA, quickly became a wildly popular but hard-to-find commodity, much like Creature Comforts Tropicalia.

In less than nine months, Scofflaw had birthed such a buzz that it needed to triple its output to meet the constant demand. And by the end of 2017, co-founder Matt Shirah projects that the brewery will have produced some 10,000 barrels. It’s a number that appears unprecedented for a new Atlanta brewery.

“We started out with about a 6,500-barrel capacity,” Shirah said in a recent interview. “The plan was to do about 2,500 or 3,000 this first year. We’ve added tanks twice, and we’re now on track to hit about 10,000 barrels by the end of the year.

“But we’re not doing what we can do, yet. And we’re not where we need to be, yet. We still have no intentions of leaving our market, which is Atlanta, because there’s a lot of potential here.”

With all the success Scofflaw has enjoyed in such a short time, there has been a bit of controversy, too.

One big moment surfaced last month, when Shirah decided he would respond with a middle finger to a customer who had a less than glowing assessment of the quality of the brewery’s canned beers.

Though somewhat chastened by social media, Shirah is sticking by his product, calling variations part of the process of making beers that sometimes lean to the cloudy side.

“Who am I flipping the bird at?” he asked, and answered, “Anyone who wants me to be who they want me to be. We’re going to make what we want to make. And we’re going to do what we want to do for the broad market here.”

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