Today, Atlanta is the definition of contemporary, and no kudzu was harmed in the process to get there. What is beer if not art? And in Atlanta, there isn’t a single neighborhood without real, homegrown, heartfelt art that stretches for miles across the city. Architects love it because it’s hip, business owners welcome it because it’s genuine, and sometimes, the city even commissions it because it sells. The new Atlanta is purposefully colored with historic memories of old.
Finding a way to appreciate old styles in a new way is the goal of the state’s main city, and more than anything, it’s clear in its take on beer.
Despite the growing number of craft-beer drinkers across the country, the plight of the Georgia brewer has been difficult, if not borderline comical. But still, like kudzu, breweries keep popping up no matter how hard lawmakers try to feverishly cut them down. A legislative breakthrough in 2015 finally allowed brewers to sell bottles directly to consumers, allowing many breweries to invest in their businesses and hire more people. Before they could even count the revenue, the law was reversed due to distributor lobbying. Now, as it stands, on-premise consumption is allowed, but only off-premise sales are permitted. Growlers are allowed only as “free souvenirs.”
In 2015, craft-beer tourism was a $22 billion market, and Atlanta has been ready to get a piece of that market for years. Today, despite that legislative mess, the Georgia craft-beer business is booming. While the state has just fewer than fifty breweries and ranks forty-eighth (out of fifty) in the country, that number has grown from about twenty in 2011, and according to the Craft Brewers’ Guild, the state ranks sixteenth in economic impact for its craft-beer production. Whatever they’re selling, and despite how hard it has been to sell it in the past, people are buying it (or trying to).
We visited Atlanta on the occasion of Georgia Beer Day 2017 to soak up everything the city has to offer. Coincidentally, civic, state, and Southern pride were at a fever pitch as the city was in full pep rally mode right before the Big Game. Georgia at its best is something to behold, so go ahead and call the Über now; it’s 68°F (20°C) on a Saturday in January, and we’re drinking our way from Buckhead to Decatur all through the city.
But first, a geography lesson for the non-locals—ITP and OTP are popular terms in Atlanta to describe where you live in relation to downtown. The entire city is surrounded by Highway 285, a circular highway with Atlanta right in the middle. When you meet someone new in or around Atlanta, usually the first question they ask is, “Are you ITP or OTP?” Meaning, do you live In the Perimeter or Outside the Perimeter? ITP has all the best restaurants and bars, and OTP is considered the suburbs. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get going (ITP and OTP dwellers all welcome)!
North Atlanta/Buckhead/Northern ITP
If we’re going to discuss breweries in Atlanta, we have to start the conversation with Sweetwater Brewing Company. It’s the biggest brewery by far in sheer size, and after officially hitting twenty-plus states in distribution this year (more than any other Georgia craft brewery), you can understand how they have the resources to do so. The 25,000-square-foot renovated industrial space is gorgeous and a popular five o’clock happy hour draw with locals. When we say “popular,” we mean “get ready to swim through a sea of thirsty office workers for their flagship beers, 420 Extra Pale Ale and Sweetwater IPA.”
The real beer geek draw at the brewery is their temperature-controlled barrel-aging facility next door called The Woodlands (above). It’s so separate from the rowdy happy-hour crowd, you’ll think you’ve left the brewery completely. Rows and rows of barrels (along with a few large foeders) fill the gorgeously appointed space. Nothing else like it exists anywhere near the city, and it’s no surprise that this barrel-aged sour-beer heaven is a hot ticket for private event rentals.
Next, stop by Grind House Killer Burgers, less than a mile away. The owner is a former real estate attorney and is responsible for turning some of Atlanta’s ugliest run-down buildings into tourist attractions. The vibe is unique, they keep a small-but-fantastic draft list, their veggie burger won best in the city by Creative Loafing Magazine, and their Hillbilly burger with pimento cheese and brisket chili is to die for.
Virginia Highlands/Little Five Points
Every neighborhood has its own identity in Atlanta, but that unique streak is particularly strong in Virginia Highlands and Little Five Points (above). The preppy, wealthy feel of Buckhead is only five miles away, but it feels like a hundred when you’re ensconced in these two small neighboring towns with the densest population of fantastic beer bars in the city. You might be tempted to use terms like hippie and hipster to describe it, but that wouldn’t do justice to the diverse population that includes everyone from young artists to creative entrepreneurs. It’s where Atlanta’s avant garde either lives, works, drinks after work, or all of the above.
Nearby Orpheus Brewing Company sits directly on iconic Piedmont Park, and in their short three years has established itself as one of the most successful and popular sour beer−focused breweries in the main city. Their flagship Atalanta, a tart plum saison, is a staple in most beer stores around town, and they’ve begun brewing beer with isolated wild-caught yeast to capture the true Southern terroir. Their emphasis on supporting the arts community is ever-present, as Head Brewer Jason Pellett (above) taps a new local artist to draw label art for every release. If you happen to go on a Sunday afternoon, you can watch artists paint on the patio. Warm weekend afternoons and art pair perfectly with Serpent Bite, their dry-hopped sour.
While you’re near the Highlands, the beer bars on the downtown strip are a must. Most are open until about 3:00 a.m. and draw solid crowds of mid-twenty-somethings on the weekends. The go-to spot in VaHi for local beer is Hand in Hand, a pet-friendly corner bar with a huge patio and an Irish pub feel (if Irish pubs had DJs at night). Across the street is Atkins Park Restaurant and Bar, a smaller bar where you’ll find board games such as Sorry!, darts, a jukebox, and local beer gems no one else in the city has (Nitro Nerd Alert from Monday Night Brewing was worth the trip alone). Atkins stays open the latest of all the bars in the Highlands, though, so be ready for a bigger crowd the later it gets. If you prefer a tamer scene with the same game options, head a few blocks down 10th Street and you’ll arrive at The Highlander, which was recently featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives for their inventive menu.
Three miles away from the Highlands is Little Five Points, an old town with a history as colorful as the people who live there. Little Five Points is where locals bring out-of-towners who like handmade trinkets sold by street vendors, secondhand sequined pants from stores such as Junkman’s Daughter, and rare or hard-to-find vinyl records from shops such as Wax n’ Facts.
Anchoring the middle of the strip is The Porter Beer Bar, an old Jamaican restaurant-turned-pub that was bought by L5P locals Molly and Nick Gunn, that is now one of the most well-respected and highly rated beer bars in the city. It’s the place Atlanta’s brewers go to drink beer with each other and with friends. Their beer list is mind-blowing, with more than 400 hard-to-find and vintage bottles (from 2003 Brooklyn Monster barleywine to a dozen Tilquin lambics) as well as thirty expertly-selected drafts.
After just a five-minute walk down the street, you’ll find The Wrecking Bar Brewpub, where the bartenders of the city drink after their shifts. The old Victorian home turned Methodist church is now a basement bar owned by two homebrewers who have repeatedly won Creative Loafing Magazine’s Best Brewpub in the City award year after year.
Downtown Decatur/ Avondale
Just east of downtown, Decatur is technically a suburb but avoids the clichés with a forward-thinking, everyone-is-accepted attitude. Because of that progressive mentality, it’s one of the fastest-growing parts of the metro area and a popular hangout for all ages with some of the highest-rated restaurants in the city.
Three Taverns Brewery (above) is here, a local favorite for those who love Belgian-inspired beers. Brewmaster Joran Van Ginderachter is one of a few Belgian brewers in the United States following his uncle Peter Bouckaert’s career footsteps very closely (Bouckaert works for New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado). Grab a pint of Quasimodo, one of their most beloved Belgian quads, and play ping pong in the back.
Wild Heaven Beer is practically next door, founded by lifelong Georgia residents Eric Johnson (founder of the famous Trappeze Pub in nearby Athens) and Nick Purdy (founding publisher of Paste Magazine). The brewery design is a monument to creative reuse, with every element completely repurposed—the light fixtures are old copper fittings from another brewery, and even the bar tops and floors come from recycled materials. The beer’s not bad either.
Nearby in downtown Decatur, Brickstore Pub (pictured at top) has been a fixture for twenty years and their beer cellar is a beer nerd’s dream. The ten-page-long beer list is big on variety and small on type size with 900 vintages, ages two to twenty. The whiskey and gin lists are equally impressive, but with so many incredible vintage beers on offer, you’ll be hard pressed to find the time to even look. The bartenders are some of the most knowledgeable in the city and can point you in any direction you desire. Sit at the bar, have a Nøgne Ø barleywine, and try the homemade cast-iron pot pie.
Because it’s home to the University of Georgia, Athens has always been a fun destination for both Georgia residents and out-of-towners. It was an old trading post in the 1800s, so the town is filled with rich history and old Victorian buildings, but you’d never know that if you were on Clayton Street or Washington Street on a Friday night. The amazing food, modern pubs, and packed-out corner bars could rival any Atlanta neighborhood, especially during football season.
The hour and a half drive to Athens from Atlanta is a commitment, but Creature Comforts Brewing Company (above) makes the drive worth it. They’re one of the most family-friendly breweries you’ll find, with face painting and chalk for kids as well as some of the best beer the state has to offer (for adults only, of course). Their creative approach to brewing has won them repeat ratings as the top brewery in Georgia, and demand is so high that it’s almost impossible for any Georgia store owners to keep their beer on shelves. The brewery is housed in a building that was once a well-known tire shop and now—as CCBC’s growth continues with sold-out releases and beers such as Tropicalia and Athena gaining notoriety (and great reviews from Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®)—they’re expanding with a second building in historic Athens. No Georgia beercation would truly be complete without a vist.
If you can pull yourself away from Creature Comforts, take a short walk through downtown Athens to Trappeze Pub, the best restaurant and bar in town. Here you’ll find local favorites such as Terrapin’s Watermelon Gose and flights of The Bruery’s best beers. On your way out of Athens, stop by Five Points Bottle Shop, one of the best bottle shops in the state, and pick up some “proper” glassware from their extensive selection.
Since winter weather in Georgia is relatively mild, there’s never a bad time to visit, but the best time to take advantage of the lively and green brewery patios is in the spring. Enjoy warm Southern hospitality, excellent beer, and comfortable cuisine in this creative and cultural capital of the South.
PHOTO AT TOP: COURTESY BRICKSTORE PUB