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The Athens Beer Trail Aims to Bring Tourists to Local Breweries

Spike Buckowski in a still from Beer: the Athens Way.

It’s hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago most Athens beer drinkers would have preferred a PBR over an IPA—if they even knew what an IPA was.

That was the situation back in 2002, when Terrapin co-founder Brian “Spike” Buckowski had first started the brewery with John Cochran. They were attempting to market their flagship beer Terrapin Rye pale ale in cans that read “RyePA,” a play on IPA. People asked if they were from Rye, Pennsylvania, according to Buckowski.

At the time, Georgia law prohibited beers over 6% alcohol, and breweries were not allowed to sell directly to consumers, explaining why Terrapin was one of just three craft breweries in the state. Then the laws changed, and craft brewing exploded. Athens alone boasts half a dozen: Terrapin (now owned by international conglomerate Molson Coors), Creature Comforts, Southern Brewing Co., Akademia and, most recently, Athentic and Normaltown Brewing Co. 

As a result, local breweries are teaming up with the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau on a marketing campaign that Terrapin President Dustin Watts said will help Athens take its rightful place among notable beer towns like Boulder, CO and Burlington, VT. The Athens Beer Trail, launched last week, will “put beers in hands at breweries and put heads in beds” at hotels, CVB Executive Director Katie Williams said at the Oct. 8 launch event. 

Williams and brewers said that beer dovetails perfectly with the music, arts and football that put Athens on the map. Visitors can tour various breweries before a concert or after a game, or come just to check out the breweries and discover what else Athens has to offer. “Beer tourism is huge, it’s a huge part of our culture here and what brings people to Athens,” Williams said.

A map for the self-guided tour is available at, along with an event calendar, suggestions for other activities, hotel booking and a short documentary, Beer: the Athens Way, produced by BED Productions and directed by Bryan Redding.

“It’s an interesting and quite clever way to get people to visit all the breweries,” said Athentic co-founder Mark Johnson. Each brewery has a different style, so they don’t view each other as competitors, he added.

At the premier and announcement last week at Ciné, a panel of brewers recounted the history of the beer scene and how tastes have changed over the years. Owen Ogletree, who has organized Classic City Brew Fest for the past 25 years, recalled trying to put on a craft beer festival at the Globe in the mid-1990s. “You had to drag people and make them do it, and once you did, they were like, ‘Oh, beer comes in more flavors than yellow and fizzy,’” Ogletree said.

When the state started allowing high-gravity beers in 2004, more types of beer became available, and curious imbibers became homebrewers. The scene was centered around Sachin Patel’s Five Points Bottle Shop, which also sold growlers of draft beer to go and homebrewing supplies. 

Prior to 2016, breweries weren’t allowed to sell beer directly to the public, instead having to go through a middleman—a rule they got around by offering free samples with tours and selling glasses. The legislature loosened up the post-Prohibition three-tier system, and that’s when craft brewing really exploded in Georgia.

Despite the growth, the craft beer explosion isn’t over, Patel predicted. In Asheville, NC, which has more than 30 breweries, almost all the beer that’s sold is local, and that’s not the case yet in Athens. “The opportunity here is just unbelievable for additional breweries,” Patel said.