Food Issue - Two Atlanta beer pioneers talk local beer history

John "JR"

Thursday October 16, 2014 04:00 am EDT

John "JR" Roberts (Atlanta Brewing Company, Max Lager's) and Crawford Moran (Dogwood Brewing Company, 5 Seasons Westside, Slice & Pint) have been commercially brewing in Atlanta longer than anyone. It's no wonder, then, that their Tuesday evening conversation at Roberts' Downtown brewpub, Max Lager's, about ATL beer history is rapid fire and convivial. If they seem like friends gabbing about old times, downing fresh Georgia beers (an Atomic Frog Double India Pale Lager followed by a Hopsplosion!!! India Pale Ale followed by a Demon d'Or Belgian Tripel followed by a headache in the morning), bickering about parking spaces, and excitedly looking forward to the future, well, that's because they are.

You guys both started professionally brewing in 1996, before almost anyone else in the state. What was it like to help pioneer Georgia craft beer?

Crawford Moran: Well, I knew that nobody knew what the hell I was doing. I was putting together Dogwood, and I had a business plan and I was shopping it to investors as "Atlanta's first brewery," because nothing was open at the time. I started to raise a little bit of money, then Red Brick and Marthasville came up, and I had to change my business plan, which cost like $300. There wasn't anything going on, and no one in the Southeast really knew beer or had any background with it. That was a challenge, for sure.

John "JR" Roberts: I knew we'd be kind of pioneering down here, because there was nobody really doing it. There were lots of people jumping into it, especially with pubs. The first wave was brewpubs. But to be honest, when I came down from Boston, I didn't feel like it was unusual. I'd been around the craft beer scene in Massachusetts for a while, so it felt like this was how it was supposed to be.

CM: For me, born and raised in Atlanta, it was unusual. I grew up with no choice, no selection, nothing. We had Bud and Bud Light. laughs It was highly unusual to make a pale ale that was dry-hopped or a stout that was dark. It was very shiny. I remember having so many conversations that were like, "No, no, no, beer doesn't have to be made in Germany." Literally having those conversations with educated people.

Georgia's seen a surge in brewery and brewpub openings, especially in the last five years. How do you expect that growth to look in the years to come?

JR: In Georgia, we have a lot of room. The Georgia Craft Brewers Guild did some math about the amount of beer that's sold in Georgia compared to amount of beer that's made in Georgia, and we found out that Georgia could support nine breweries the size of SweetWater and still have room left over for sales. That's a lot of room! I think you're going to continue to see more people open. I think there's going to be a surge toward brewpubs again.

CM: The problem with not being able to sell direct from a brewery or brewpub — if they would allow that one single thing, what it does for packaging brewers is it lowers your break-even point dramatically. That takes a lot of risk out of the equation. It also takes down the amount of money you need, so the mistakes you make your first year aren't as gargantuan. It goes from raising $1.5 million to throwing in a hundred grand or something. It's a friends and family deal versus a giant investment package. It really changes the equation of how to succeed in Georgia. If they would do that, I think we could grow exponentially. But right now, Georgia is a net exporter of jobs in craft brewing. We consume way more craft beer than we make in this state, which is ridiculous. We're way behind South Carolina and Alabama, for god's sake. That should sting everybody in government here.

What are you guys doing to help change that law, and what can Creative Loafing readers do to help change it?

CM: Well nodding to Roberts, this man helped run the Brewers Guild over the past four years. He and John Pinkerton really molded that thing, finally. It took a generation to get it going.

JR: We've been trying a long time, haven't we?

CM: We had the first meeting in '97 at Dogwood. So, those two guys should get a lot of credit. And I'm involved on the Government Affairs Committee of the GCBG. We're working really hard to get our voices heard under the Gold Dome. It's not industry-oriented, selling direct, it's a consumer thing. I am a beer consumer too, and I look at it as the millions of people around Georgia should be able to buy beer directly from a brewery. And tourists should, too!

JR: As Crawford said, I've been involved in the Guild since its inception, and the Guild has done something significant. When you go down to the capital and you mention the GCBG, people either go, "Ugh, those guys!" or they go, "Oh yeah, I like those guys." They know who we are. We've got their attention now. Nothing moves fast in this state, but at least we have their attention. We're gonna keep pushing them, and we're gonna get what we want.

CM: And the small entity that it is, GCBG can only get something done in conjunction with the citizens and beer drinkers of Georgia. It has to work in tandem. The people of Georgia have to be a part of that, and the only way to do it is to literally call or write your state representatives. It sounds hokey, and my daughters are studying it in school, but then you get older and it seems like people forget about it.

Other than the laws, what does Atlanta need to be considered a beer hub like Asheville, Portland, Denver, San Diego?

JR: Nothing. When I visit Asheville, it's good. There are a few places that are great! But I drink more great beer here, in this area, from local breweries that blow me away on a daily basis, than any place in the South. Asheville is beautiful, you go to the mountains. It's a great place. But they can do anything they want. It makes it easier for them to be viable. They're not restricted.

CM: That's it. What else could there be?

JR: We've got more education to do, but that's true in most places. People don't realize how big Atlanta is. We've got more people in the greater Atlanta area than Colorado's got in its whole state. So, the culture's gotta grow, but the culture's being held back by the laws. That's the problem.

Several Georgia breweries have closed over the years, trends come and go, but you guys are both still here. What's the secret to sticking around in Georgia's craft beer scene?

JR: It's a secret, man. laughs

CM: It's like anything, running any business. You've gotta make a great product, you gotta be able to get that product to market, and you have to do so in sound economic terms. I don't think there's any mystery to the beer thing. I look back and see how the market's changed and the beer culture's changed over the last 20 years. I started doing barrel-aged casks in 1997. There was no term "barrel-aged." When I started doing it, I'd take them to bars and restaurants and no one knew what the hell it was. The Brick Store turned me down originally. Think about that. There were a couple people who said yes: Andy Klubock, who was then at Taco Mac and now Summits Wayside Tavern, jumped all over it. Ethan Wurtzel at Twain's, he said, if I remember correctly, "I don't know what the hell it is, but that sounds pretty cool and I'd like to do it." And Hippie Don %22Hippie%22 Hinamon down at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club.

This is a great story, and I think it shows the change in the culture. I did a stout that was dry-hopped, and we had it ... in a French oak cask at the Yacht Club. We tapped that cask Saturday afternoon, and Hippie and I were drinking all day. Not one person would drink that beer. "Dude, why would I drink a beer out of a wood thing? It's disgusting!" This is progressive Little Five Points, and they had no interest in a barrel-aged cask ale. Like, none. Ridicule. We pounded the beer all day and night, so much fun. But at the end of it, I apologized, and Hippie said, "No, man, will you do it again next week?" laughs It took people like that. And now, if you do a barrel-aged so-and-so in a cask you'll have a line out the door.

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