For being in a state where microbrewery hasn’t yet been established and where brewpubs (allowing on premises sales only) are downright illegal, this city is more into beer than any other place I’ve ever seen. The selections at the downtown bars and at liquor stores around the city border on the incredible: You will have to go to New York, New England, Colorado, California, the Pacific Northwest, or Washington, D.C. to find a greater variety. Other states may allow brews of higher alcoholic content or have laxer packaging requirements, but Georgia has become a serious market for unusual beers and ales, and the industry is well aware of it. I have tried to list things that seem “permanently” buyable in Athens, but selections and availabilities come and go: Bear this in mind as you set out on your own, which I hope you’ll do.
Next I’ll attempt to define just what a microbrewery is: The old definition was “anyone making 10,000 barrels a year or less,” but now it can be, if colloquially, “anyone the size of Anchor Brewing of San Francisco or smaller, excepting The Straub Brewery of St. Marys, PA.” Straub (Est. 1872) brews 33,000 barrels of extremely dry lager a year for consumption in six counties of The Keystone State; as you can imagine, it is not available here, although it enjoys “cult beer” status where it is sold: mostly north of Pittsburgh and east a ways.
Anchor Brewing is the beginning point of the microbrewery movement as we know it in America: It was faltering when Fritz Maytag bought it in 1965; gradually he learned the process and now is a master brewer. Bottled Anchor Stream Brand Beer and Anchor Porter are widely available in Athens: You really ought to try each at least once; both are superb products. Anchor Stream is the world’s lone survivor of a brewing genre that used no ice but fermented in shallow pans: It’s still done that way, and hops are added four times in the brewing cycle. The porter is as dark, chocolatey and rich as you would expect: Nearly as dessert beer, Anchor’s Liberty Ale occasionally shows up here, but none of their other products are sold in Georgia: what a shame.
Now for our three-and-a-half closest microbreweries:
Birmingham Brewing Co. – Birmingham, AL
They make Red Mountain Red Ale, Golden Ale, Golden Lager and Wheat Beer. While the latter is available mostly during the warm months of the year, the rest are distributed widely and you need to sample each in turn. The lager is far better than St. Pauli Girl or Beck’s, the Golden Ale reminds me of Walter’s Beer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the Red Ale beats Killian’s or Michael Shea’s to a pulp. The Wheat Beer is a perfect summertime quencher. The four products are all available in bottles, and the Red Ale has appeared on draft in recent weeks. Yumsville! If you’re in Birmingham, call ‘em up… if someone is available, maybe you can see the place.
Bohannon Brewing Co. – Nashville, TN
They make Market Street Golden Ale, which is available in bottles and on draft. This is a fine enough product, but my personal favorite is Market Street Pilsener Lager Beer, which is not currently sold here, although it used to be: I hope they bring it back soon. They make a seasonal line of brews, such as Market Street Wheat Beer for Summertime, a wondrous Oktoberfest, a superb Maibock, and their Christmas Special is worth a trip to Music City just to have a couple, buy a case, and return. Try a Market Street Golden Ale draft with a squeeze of lime: Superb! The Wheat Beer has just become available in Athens in bottles.
Smoky Mountain Brewery – Waynesville, NC
At 147 miles, they are our closest micro, and a “mini-micro” at that. Their utterly handmade Smoky Mountain Ale and Lion Heart Stout are not available here yet, but we’re working on it. Worth mention in case you get up toward Asheville and want to try something wonderfully primitive, full of character and a bit-off-the-wall. You should want to.
Big River Brewing Co. – Chattanooga, TN
Right down the street from the big aquarium that folks are flocking to see, this is our closest brewpub at about 135 miles. They have a lager, a stout, a couple of other things that vary, and an India Pale Ale that will curl your toenails. I don’t know if they bottle for off-premises consumption because I haven’t been there yet, but pilgrimage approaches.
A few “contract brews”: These products are generally prepared for sale in areas where microbreweries do not (or cannot) exist. The best of them are as good as any microbrewery beer, because that’s basically what they are; the worst are the same old stuff you can buy on any corner, but packaged with a nice fancy label that you pay a lot more for than you should.
Helenboch Beer: A decent product, and relatively easy to find. Helenboch Oktoberfest is especially good. Made by August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, MN, a small regional that’s being kept in business by contract products like this. The first attempt at a “microbrewery” in Georgia and worthy of support.
Stone Mountain Southern Lager: Not dreadful, but I’ve had plenty better: Wholly pedestrian; a domestic at an import price: To cost this much, it oughta be a lot better product. Worth trying once, but after that, you’re on your own.
Wild Boar Special Amber: Their office is in Roswell, but they use the facilities of the old Dubuque Star Brewery in Iowa to make their slightly sour, deep amber product. Can be found fairly cheap around town: It’s well worth trying. The Dubuque brewery was established by the Rhomberg family in 1894, but is now classed as a micro because of its relatively small output. Utterly the best of the batch.
Some interesting imported beers that were available at time of writing: Not always my choices, but not not. Rather than be subjective, these are good examples of their genre or outstanding in one way or another.
Xingu Black Beer: Brewed I the wilds of Brazil, this reminds me of Yuengling Porter, which you’ll have to go to Roanoke, Virginia to find (if there). Leaves a peculiar but gentle aftertaste, and three or four days later you’ll find yourself wanting another one. Comes in and out of availability. In HUGE bottles.
Brand Pilsener: From the oldest brewery in The Netherlands (since 1340), this is a whole lot better than Heineken. Used to come in both a white ceramic-looking and a weird little can. Didn’t need any odd packaging to be worthwhile. Nice and bitter.
Mamba Malt Liquor: From the anarchic culture of Abidijan, Ivory Coast comes this product that will rock you and roll you and leave you gasping for breath. A guy I know once drank eight of these in one evening and walked home, but I’m sure I don’t know how. The large Mamba bottle can be recapped and used by homebrewers, as they can the Xingu bottle.
Fischer Bottle: From Schiltigheim, so German-named a French city that it must be a suburb of Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine (it is), comes this attempt on equaling an English ale. It results in a whole new style of product that is most refreshing. Some folks prefer the Fischer Amber Malt liquor; you might as well try them both. The bottles, quite come “bung” tops and thus can be reused.
Troika and/or Russki: These come from Russia; Troika is the cheap swill there and Russki is the middling brew: These they export; the good lager (Stolinsk) and the Russian Imperial Stout they keep for themselves. Must have potatoes as an adjunct.
Belhaven Scottish Ale: Not form Belhaven, NC, although Little Eva is. Spiritual cousin to MacAndrew’s; similarly available and delightfully trip-saving.
Newcastle Brown Ale: A little to mild for my palate (I like my ale chewy, woody, and intensely bitter), but a wonderful friend to meet to get you started in knowledge of Real Ale: The next step from Bass (which see under draft) in such direction. From Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Available in bottles and on draught.
MacAndrew’s Scotch Ale: Save yourself the trip to Edinburgh: It’s available here in large and small bottles. Cheaper than airfare for your thirsty and discriminating palate.
Sheaf Stout: Available in big bottles only: what an opportunity to share! From Australia, and a whole lot better than anything we usually see from there in the big cans. Reasonably priced.
Cerveza Aguila: This comes from Barranquilla, Colombia. Even if what grows thereabouts is supposedly the best stuff to smoke, the beer doesn’t hold even a teeny candle. Worth trying once for the pretty-label, but that’s all.
Moretti Doppiomalto La Rossa: Please do not confuse this rich, dark, one-of-a-kind-in-the-world brew with the Moretti that has the little man on the label! This genre was popular in eastern Italy before World War I. Moretti is the primary brewery in the world that still manufactures this phenomenally fruity brew. My late friend Melissa loved this stuff; she used to drink it s-l-o-w-l-y and wrap her hands around the bottle so that it would warm her as she drank it: “Every sip has a different taste!” she marveled. It does. A must try: Nearly good enough to make you cry.
Old Peculier Yorkshire Ale: Seems a “peculier” was an officer of some lodge in the British Isles at a time way back in the mists; the ale is stranded similarly in a time all its own. One of the world’s finest ales; I used to make regular trips to Greenville, S.C. to buy it before it came into our midst. And am I glad! You will be, too.
Samuel Smith’s Various Ales: From Tadcaster, Yorkshire, a town the size of Winder that has TWO (!!) Smith Breweries, comes this world-class array of traditional ales and a forgettable lager that they must make just to make one. Cost a pretty penny, but every one of them is well worth trying. You’ll thank me.
Bitburger: An excellent bottled lager from Germany; a must try.
Some other products you ought to check out a few at a time: No matter how much of an “import beer snob” someone could profess to be, after sampling some of these they would have to grant that America can and does upon occasion make a truly decent beer and/or ale.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Porter, Stout, Bock and Celebration Ale: This is the bulk of the product line of a regional brewery from Chico, California: Neither their Summerfest nor Bigfoot Barleywine Ale (8.9% alcohol) are sold here. The Celebration Ale is especially nice, but is available only in the winter months… well worth waiting for. The Pale Ale is even sold on draft and well worth seeking out.
Samuel Adams: Anything with this name will be worth trying: I have never had a bad brew among the seven or eight I’ve tried. There are Samuel Adams Lager, Cream Stout, Boston Ale, Wheat Beer, Dark Wheat, Oktoberfest, Winterfest, and Double Bock; a “ligh” beer called lightship; and at Christmas a gift pack can often be found that contains a bottle of Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic. It’s the best of the lot, but you really have to scrounge for it: You’ll never find it in a bar outside of Boston.
Pete’s Wicked Ale: Pete (there really is such a person) also offers a Wicked Lager and used to sell a Pacific Dry and a Gold Coast Lager. A big bottle of this will be plenty for most folks to drink all evening. Pete uses regional brewers exclusively (the little guys) to brew his Wickedness; he helps keep a couple of them in business.
Pike Place Ale: I don’t know just where to list this, since it’s a contract brew but it’s made by a microbrewery – Catamount Brewing Co. of White River Junction, VT. A positively yummy ale that will ticket the innards of your soul. May be too bitter for some people, but it suits me just fine. Comes in wonderful embossed bottles. Pike Places is in Seattle, by the way.
Shiner Beer and Shiner Bock: From Shiner, TX (pop. 2,300) come these two products previously indigenous only to Texas. They enjoy “cult” status out there and approach it here. A good change of pace, but even better with a chicken fried steak and real mashed potatoes and gravy in a run-down, tin-awninged café on a raised sidewalk in someplace like Rosebud, TX.
Hull’s Dingle Bay Brand Cream Ale: I had to throw that in to see if anyone knows it: They quit making that goodie (it had a strong, woody taste) back about 1974 and went out of business in 1977. The New Haven, CT. brewery (820, Congress Ave.) has now been replaced with a housing project.
Haffenreffer Private Stock Malt Liquor: Called “The Green Death” in New England (the same appellation is given to Mickey’s Malt Liquor in Wisconsin), this came to be made by Falstaff following Haffenreffer’s 1964 demise. Now in 16-ounce bottles, I once spotted it in a bait store in Tennille, GA. in both 12-oz. and 16-oz. cans.
Draft Beers: Import and Domestic
Some things you need to try on draft: Draft beer is usually unpasteurized, as opposed to the bottling process, which requires it. These drafts represent whole different flavors than do their bottled counterparts, plus freshness is more of an assurance with the kegged stuff.
Guinness Stout: This unique product is ubiquitous in Athens; I can remember how delighted I was to find it in Gainesville, FL 10 years ago; it was then worth the drive there. If you have never had a pint, you need to try it. One of the great malt beverages of the world.
Pilsner Urquell: Bohemia’s meadows and streams gave us Bedrich Smetana, who composed the song cycle Ma Vlast (My Homeland) is homage. The most familiar segment of this monumental work is known as The Moldau. Drinking Pilsner Urquell is like listening to Smetana: it is too good to be true; it will make you cry with joy to be alive, to be able to savor such as this. One of the world’s greatest traditional beers; you should rejoice in one soon.
Beamish Stout: Guinness is classed as a Bitter Stout; Beamish is its Cream Stout counterpart. A fine alternative to Guinness without being as sweet as Mackeson or Watney’s (Treacle Stouts), which can be cloying. No longer available in the U.S., but mentioned here because it used to be sold in Athens. I miss it already.
Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter): This is the quintessential English pub bitter; its brother product London Pride (available in bottles and maybe soon on draft again) is some folks’ favorite. Both are down-the-line traditional English ales; each is excellent. Choose your own favourite.
Double Diamond Ale: Close to an India Pale Ale but not quite so bitter. Exquisite in its own way. You’ll have to hunt it, but it’s out there.
Harp Lager: When Real ale started falling on disfavour in England, Guinness bowed to pressure (pun intended) and began brewing a lager. In its twenty-some years as a product, it has developed quite a following. One of the world’s better lagers, but nothing like Pilsner Urquell.
Warsteiner: This is one of the better German products available in these parts, and its tap knobs crop up in several spots. Bitburger on draft and in the bottle are tow you shouldn’t miss.
Woodpecker Cider: If you’ve never sampled draught cider, Athens is as good a place as any, unless you happen to be where someone brews it locally (like Oregon). This is British and quite good.
Bass Ale: I put this farther down my list because most of you have had it by now. Made in Burton-On-Trent, England. A city known for its extremely hard (1047 p.p.m. dissolved salts) water, which is why it became a brewing centre. Many think this is the best ale in the world; their triangle trademark is the oldest such in existence.
Whitbread Ale: Another excellent English ale. Available spottily and worth the low-grade scrounge it’ll take to find it.
If all this leaves you cold and disinterested because I haven’t mentioned Belgian Gueze beers or some kind of maize beer made by natives of one island in Sumatra that is aged in hollowed-out trees (while the tree’s still alive), well then!—perhaps you might do better to brew your own. There are plenty of supplies (and copious instruction) available: check out advertisers, among other places.
And, as you travel, remember: new microbreweries and brewpubs open constantly; since there’s one in Chattanooga now, can Georgia possibly be far behind Watch for odd brands, and if you luck upon anything especially wonderful out there, hunt me up and tell me: I may have never heard of it myself, you know.
My thanks to John Gayer for technical help in writing this article.
All this writing is making me thirsty. Time to book it in for the night, go home, prop up the size 12s, and pop open just one… then hit the hay. Now what’ll it be …. Prosit! And, by the way, don’t drink and drive: Cabs are plentiful in Athens, a hell of a lot cheaper than they are in Atlanta, and way less of a hassle than a D.U.I. would be. Think about the consequences.
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