When visitors walk through the doors of the River Watch Brewery in Augusta to sample the beers on tap, owner Brey Sloan said many guests are confused when they are offered a tour of the brewery instead of a pint.
“It is embarrassing and they look at you like you have horns on your head,” Sloan said, laughing.
“Under the current Georgia law, we are selling guests an educational tour package with a souvenir glass, so it is kind of a confusing system the way it is right now.”
Customers who purchase a tour of the brewery are provided “free” samples of the locally brewed beer. The cost is $15 per tour for each person or $13 for those with a military ID. The tours run once an hour at the brewery, Sloan said.
Georgia lawmakers adopted the current tour system for breweries back in 2015.
“It is kind of an odd thing to explain to people,” Sloan said. “Especially if they don’t live here in Georgia.”
But, come September, all of the confusion will come to an end thanks to the Georgia Legislature’s approval of Senate Bill 85 during this year’s session.
Republican Sen. Rick Jeffares of McDonough, who also happens to be the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, introduced the bill this year which will allow Georgia breweries to sell up to 3,000 barrels of the beer they manufacture to consumers visiting the breweries each year.
Once the bill goes into effect on Sept. 1, consumers will finally be able to enjoy beer by the glass and take up to one case to go each day without purchasing the “tour package” that is currently required.
For many breweries around the state, this new law will be a game changer, Sloan said.
“The biggest benefit is that it’s immediately going to increase the amount of revenue that I see as a small business owner,” Sloan said. “That means, more equipment that I’ll be able to buy which translates into perhaps making one of my part-time employees a full-time employee.”
The new law will also provide beer lovers more options when visiting breweries across the state, she said.
“We will be able to just have customers come in and if they want to get a beer flight to sample the beers, they can finally do that,” Sloan said. “Or if they want to buy a specific pint of beer, they can buy that. So, it will definitely be an improvement in that regard. And it is going to make it a little easier for me as well because, if I don’t have to do tours all the time, then I can have staff running things and I don’t have to be there all the time.”
For the past several months, Nancy Palmer, the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, has been traveling across the state, speaking to everyone from Georgia lawmakers to Beer Guys Radio, trying to promote the bill and educate consumers about its importance.
“A brewery being able to sell beer to consumers when they walk in the door, it is kind of big deal,” Palmer said.
“What it is going to allow for is a total annual sales in the brewery of up to 3,000 barrels a year, which is equivalent to about 6,000 regular size kegs. And a brewery is going to be able to do onsite sales without any per person, per a day cap. And they will be able to sell up to a case of beer per person per day to go. All of that beer onsite and offsite gets lumped into that 3,000-barrel cap per year.”
This new law will provide breweries across the state much more freedom to provide customers options, she said.
“There won’t be a requirement for an educational tour or the kind of roundabout transactions that currently exists,” Palmer said. “Also, breweries will fall under regular food laws, so a brewery could have a food service component if they wanted one.”
Ultimately, this new law will benefit smaller breweries trying to get off the ground and bring in new business, Palmer said.
“One of the challenges that Georgia has is that we rank 48th in breweries per capita, but something like 17th in total craft beer production,” Palmer recently told Beer Guys Radio. “So we are making a lot of craft beers but we are doing it with relatively few breweries and there is a big segment of the market that we are missing, which are small breweries.”
This new law allows the “little guy” to retain more of a profit, she said.
“This legislation will make it a lot easier to open. It will lower the barriers of entry and it will make breweries that are smaller, profitable faster,” Palmer said. “And I think it will be a real boom, particularly for small towns in Georgia to be able to attract breweries. This is going to have a real positive effect on smaller breweries in the state and I think we will see a lot of smaller breweries open.”
“The business leaders of the GBWA (Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association) have been crucial in this process,” Palmer said.
This new law has officially ended a decades-old stand-off between beer brewers and the beer wholesalers, she said.
“I applaud the industries for coming together and agreeing to an innovative solution,” Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said during this session. “The shared interest of supporting our emerging small business and creating more opportunities for Georgians is clearly reflected in this legislation.”
According to the most recent data from the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, while Georgia ranks 48th in breweries per capita, it also ranks 41st in economic impact per capita.
However, the industry is steadily growing, Palmer said.
In 2016, Georgia added 11 new breweries and brewpubs, continuing a consistent trend of growth.
In Augusta alone, two new breweries have opened their doors over the past year: River Watch Brewery located at 1176 4th St. and Savannah River Brewing Company at 813 5th St.
For Sloan, opening the River Watch Brewery was a huge first step for the Garden City.
River Watch Brewery is the city’s first locally owned and operated packaging brewery since the demise of the Augusta Brewing Company.
In fact, one of the messages promoted at River Watch Brewery is “About Damn Time.”
“The last brewery in Augusta, Georgia went down during prohibition and never came back,” River Watch Brewery’s website states. “That’s a mighty long time for the citizens of The Garden City to not have their own brew. Well, the wait is over. River Watch is here.”
But opening a new brewery in Augusta didn’t come without risk, Sloan admitted.
“I was asked by some folks who were not in this state what on earth I was thinking of when I wanted to start a brewery in Georgia because the business climate was not good for breweries here,” Sloan said, chuckling.
“The laws regarding breweries were so confusing here in Georgia that I think I’m not the only one who would have been deterred by the business impediment that we had when we opened, or we still kind of have until Sept. 1 when the new law goes into effect. I think there are a lot of people who want to get into this industry and this new law will really help them.”
After all, there is a great deal of upfront costs incurred by new breweries before the first keg is even produced, Sloan said.
Sloan, a retired Army Colonel who studied brewing technology at the World Brewing Academy at Siebel Institute in Chicago and Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany, said it took a tremendous amount of work and financial investment to transform an old warehouse on the farmers market into a small production brewery.
From installing a heavy duty floor in the brew house and cellar to purchasing an array of equipment such as a boiler and steam lines to heat the brew house and installing a chiller and glycol lines to keep the fermenters at the proper temperature, it was an expensive endeavor, Sloan said.
“So, once this bill is signed and passed and comes into effect, it is going to be a lot more appealing to people to come to Georgia and start this sort of a business,” Sloan said. “It is an extremely popular business that is going to help the state’s tourism, improve economic development and create more jobs. So, this new law has a whole bunch of positive impacts, not just for me as an individual business owner, but for the entire industry in this state.”
When Savannah River Brewing Company’s President and Co-Founder Steve Ellison recently opened the second brewery in Augusta with a starting lineup that includes five different styles of beer, it was also a major investment.
He purchased seven brand new, shiny steel fermenters and companion equipment that were carefully delivered from British Columbia, California and North Carolina to the Savannah River Brewing Company, which is located at the former General Wholesale Company along Fifth Street.
“We love this location. We looked all around Augusta and there were a couple of facilities that were a little newer, but they weren’t in this area,” Ellison told the Metro Spirit last year.
“In the end, we liked the idea of taking this warehouse that was pretty rundown and revitalizing it so it would be a showpiece for Augusta.”
From the very beginning, Ellison said the company’s plan was to distribute both kegs and bottles through the area’s largest distributor of craft beers, A.B. Beverage Company.
“I have to say, I was shocked that Augusta didn’t have a brewery already,” Ellison said. “We had been to Augusta off and on for different reasons before and my daughter is in medical school here now. Her husband has lived here for a long time and we would come and visit. Well, when I go to a different town, I always ask, ‘What is your local beer?’ And people here in Augusta would say, ‘Well, we don’t have a local brewery.’”
Ellison said he was floored by that response.
“I was like, ‘What? Augusta is a pretty big town. How can it not have a brewery?’” he said. “I live over near the Atlanta area and breweries are popping up all over. We go to Charleston a lot and there are breweries everywhere. So I was like, ‘We need to put brewery in Augusta.’ That’s how we got started.”
Other native Augustans are also getting attention for their involvement in breweries across the state.
Just last year, Atlanta Magazine did a feature story on Taylor Lamm, an Augusta native who is the owner and head brewer at the Oconee Brewing Company, a craft beer operation in downtown Greensboro, Ga.
His vision was to create a craft beer oasis in an old mill building in Greensboro near the shores of Lake Oconee, located between Athens and Macon and about 75 miles from Atlanta.
The brewery, which is almost four years in the making, is already turning heads across the state.
“Nationwide, there’s been this craft beer movement in the last five or ten years,” Lamm recently told the Lake Oconee News. “But the southeast has lagged behind the nation. There are some southern states like North Carolina that have really boomed with craft breweries but it’s almost like the state of Georgia is playing catch-up.”
For example, North Carolina, which loosened its laws regarding breweries over the past 10 years, has become a craft beer powerhouse, according to Atlanta Magazine.
In fact, Asheville, N.C. proudly promotes itself as “Beer City, U.S.A.”
Three of the country’s major craft brewers—Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium—have opened breweries in North Carolina, home to 10,000 craft beer jobs.
Lamm said he believed it’s finally time for smaller breweries to thrive in Georgia.
“We’re an hour from Atlanta, we’re an hour from Augusta, within 30 to 40 minutes of Athens, Macon and Milledgeville. Greensboro gets a lot of traffic anyway with Lake Oconee and this revitalization effort of downtown Greensboro and everything that’s happening up on Main Street, we saw it as a great opportunity to be part of this growth in the downtown area,” Lamm told the Lake Oconee News.
When some brewers suggested to Lamm that he consider moving his operations to a more beer-friendly state, he just laughed. As a graduate of the University of Georgia and native Augustan, Lamm told Atlanta Magazine he wasn’t leaving.
“We know what we we’re getting into,” Lamm told Atlanta Magazine. “I’ve been asked, ‘Are you thinking about moving to another state?’ That’s not the case. Georgia is home.”
“You know, we are a little hard to find being out in an industrial area and just being brand new, so it is kind of hard to get known. But that is changing,” Sloan said. “We finally kind of found a marketing strategy that seems to be working and so our numbers are really picking up.”
Also, with the addition of Savannah River Brewing Company, Sloan said Augusta is beginning to build a solid reputation among beer lovers.
“I think we are going to be seeing more people coming from farther away because it makes more sense to make a long trip to come to two breweries than it is for just one,” Sloan said.
“So, as far as our tourism perspective goes, we are seeing people who go to Savannah River Brewing Company first and then come over to see us and I’m sure they are seeing the same thing as well. It’s really good for all of us.”
As far as more breweries moving into the Augusta area, Sloan believes the more the merrier.
“Now with this new law going into effect in September, it will open the door to more breweries,” Sloan said. “It’s about time. Georgia is the last state to change its law. Mississippi’s new law is going to go into effect on the first of July, so they beat us by two months, but we are actually all really excited about this change.”
It will mean an entirely new experience for guests visiting the brewery, Sloan said.
“Of course, now we are going to have to make some changes to the way we are operating as well. So that will be something that will keep us busy over the summer,” Sloan said, laughing. “But we look forward to making that change.”