Riverwatch Brewery can claim a lot of superlatives. They are the first brewery to open in Augusta since the Prohibition era and have the only mother-daughter beer brewing team in the United States.
Since they sold their first batch of beer to local growler shops and bars in mid-April, they’ve received nothing but praise for the four styles they brew: The Scenic Overlook blonde ale, the Route 104 pale ale, the Nearest Point of Relief wheat beer and the Cautionary Tale IPA. And even in the summer heat of Augusta, mom Brey, daughter Anne and son James Sloan have been packing people in to their location in the State Farmer’s Market off Laney Walker Boulevard for the tours and tastings they offer each Friday and Saturday.
Sound like smooth sailing for the Sloans? Well, not quite.
“We got one set of tours in on Memorial Day weekend and then the state attorney general shut us down,” Brey laughed. “So we had one really good weekend and then we had to tell people they could only come if they’d already signed up.”
The problem, it seems, was that the lawyer for the Department of Agriculture, under which the family’s operation falls, became overly cautious about liability since the brewery was on state property.
“It was in the third week of that particular problem that I lost my temper because they were just messing around with us at that point,” Brey said. “It moved very quickly once I lost my temper. I kind of went Army on them.”
Now back open for tours, that “particular problem,” as Brey put it, was the latest in many obstacles the brewery has had to overcome between deciding to base their operations and make their home in Augusta in 2013 and being cleared by state and federal agencies to begin brewing in March of 2016. During that time, they’ve had difficulty finding a place to put the brewery because of zoning restrictions and space requirements and have experienced delays in federal and state licensing and brand registration.
While admitting that it’s been a frustrating process, largely due to Georgia’s draconian laws regarding craft beer production, Brey says that she doesn’t mind navigating the maze of rules and regulations if it will allow her to continue doing what she loves.
And she does love brewing beer, and has since she discovered it while in the Army.
“A long, long time ago the Army sent me off to Fort Leavenworth for a school and one of the first things they had all of us do was teach a process,” she said. “Most people chose Army processes, but one guy stood up and gave us a presentation on how to make beer. He brought all his stuff and we made a beer. It was a horrible beer, but I was hooked and so, when I came back from the school, this is when we were up at Fort Jackson, as a matter of fact, I taught my husband how to do it and we started home brewing ever since.”
The Army sent Brey and her husband all over the world, but it was when she was a defense attaché at the American embassy in Burma that she and her husband really became known for their beer. Burma, when the Sloans were there, was a military dictatorship and under international sanctions, which meant there was no beer from other countries coming in.
“The only beer you could get was the locally brewed beer, which was actually a good beer. It was every bit as good as Budweiser,” she said. “I couldn’t import beer but I could import ingredients, so we did a lot of home brewing. I did a lot of entertaining over there, and we made a lot of different kinds of beer and become well known as having the best beer in Rangoon.”
By the time the Sloans were to leave Burma for Tokyo, the country was becoming a democracy, sanctions were being lifted and businesses were coming in from other countries. A group of businessmen approached the couple and asked them if they would stay and open a microbrewery.
“The Army wouldn’t let me retire at the time, so off we went to Tokyo,” Brey said. “But that’s what gave us the idea of doing it commercially.”
The idea blossomed, so as Brey’s Army career wound down, she began to prepare for a new career by studying in Chicago, at a German brewery near Mount Fuji in Japan and in Munich, Germany.
It was then that the newly formed business idea met its first and most tragic setback.
“Part of the story is that my husband and I had planned for this entire endeavor and were going to be doing it together,” Brey said. “Unfortunately, while I was in Munich finishing up my education, he passed away. So after a couple of months of trying to get back on our feet, we sat down and decided to go ahead with this enterprise, but Anne said she would step in to do what her father was going to be doing.”
It was a pretty big jump for Anne, who admits that, up until about four years ago, she didn’t even like beer. Now, she’s a Certified Cicerone, which is to beer what a sommelier is to wine. At the brewery, her official title is director of sales and marketing, but she describes herself another way.
“I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” she laughed. “I am supposed to be the director of sales and marketing, and I do do that, but I’ve also taken up assistant brewing, so I help with all the brewing. I usually do all the keg filling and cleaning too. I don’t have much time to drink our creations. I’m either making it or sleeping these days.”
You’ll oftentimes find both mother and daughter at the weekend brewery tours, sometimes behind the bar and sometimes leading the facilities tour. Son James also helps out, although he’s set to move out of state soon. The brewery also has two part-time bartenders and an intern who will stay on as an employee once his internship ends.
And what can visitors expect from a tour? It’s pretty laid back. Once you come in and pay, you’ll receive a glass and six tickets, each ticket being good for six ounces of whatever beer you choose. There’s no set time for the facility tours although they are given fairly regularly.
“We show them the equipment and explain the process in fairly decent detail so they get a good idea of how beer is made and all the steps that go into it,” Brey said. “Then we answer their questions and bring them back in the tasting room and they can stay as long as they want to.”
The tasting room always has the brewery’s four core styles, although Brey said the Nearest Point of Relief is a summertime beer that will be replaced with something more seasonal in the fall and winter. To keep locals coming back, however, they will offer a brew that customers can’t get at growler shops or bars.
“We also do smaller batches,” Brey said, explaining that the most recent weekend featured the Keep Your Powder Dry brown ale that was very popular the previous time they featured it. “We had two kegs of it two weekends ago and I expected to have one on Friday and one on Saturday and it was all gone on Friday. Like, within two hours it was gone.”
Currently brewing is Queen Maeve Irish red ale, which they hope will be ready for the coming weekend.
“There will always be something available here that you can’t get downtown,” she said, “which hopefully will keep people coming over here to try something different.”
Riverwatch Brewery Tours
Fridays, 5-8:30 p.m
Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m.
$15, including take-home tulip glass; $13, military or first responders with ID
Private parties available Tuesdays-Thursdays by advanced reservations