While I was in California recently checking out Bay Area bars and breweries, Sara went to Atlanta. She stopped for a tour at one of the South’s best breweries, SweetWater Brewing Company. Here’s her report:
My first taste of SweetWater’s IPA last year was a revelation. Already an IPA fan, I was floored by its crisp, grapefruity flavor. It immediately became my favorite beer, and the benchmark against which all other beers are now judged.
Now here’s the tragic part… you can’t get SweetWater in Memphis. Mike brought some back after a business trip to Nashville last year (which is how I got to taste it in the first place), and my parents were kind enough to bring me a few sixers when they came to visit in February, but other than that, nothing.
So when I decided to visit my parents in Atlanta over the Easter weekend, I knew that I would be bringing back a ton of my new fave. But it didn’t occur to me until a few weeks before I left that I might actually be about to TOUR the brewery, which is located near downtown Atlanta. After a quick trip to their website to find that YES, they do offer tours, and a hastily penned e-mail to my folks making sure they wouldn’t mind going (I assumed they wouldn’t, since we’ve toured Coors and New Belgium in the past), our plans were set!
I rolled up to the brewery with my parents and Aunt Cathy at 2 p.m. on Saturday, 30 minutes before the tour was scheduled to start, to find a mass of people already assembled outside the front gate. There was a band playing on the brewery’s stage, right over a hedge from where we were standing, creating a party-like atmosphere before we even got in the front door. I was annoyed to find that the tour cost $8, considering 1) every other brewery tour I have ever been on was free and 2) it said nothing about a fee on the website. But for that $8 you get a pint glass and 6 generous 5.5 oz. samples (which were honestly closer to 8-9 oz.), so I got over it pretty quickly.
Once inside, we got in line for our first samples. There were 2 sets of taps at the bar in the lobby, as well as one set outside in the courtyard, where the band was playing. They had 5 beers on tap that day: 4 of their year-round beers (IPA, 420, Georgia Brown and Sch’wheat), as well as their current “Catch and Release” beer (Road Trip). The only year-round brew that was missing was Blue, which is a light-bodied ale with a hint of blueberry. I was SUPER bummed about that, not for myself, but for my mom. She’s not a big beer drinker, but she loved the Magic Hat #9 clone that the FuzzyBrew boys made last year, with its Apricot flavor. I’d been telling her for days how much she was going to like Blue, so we were both pretty disappointed.
I went with the Road Trip first, since that and the Sch’wheat were the only ones I hadn’t tasted before. It was good. Pilsners aren’t my favorite, but it was crisp and refreshing, and definitely hit the spot on that hot day. I was half-way into my second sample, the 420 Extra Pale Ale (which is the company’s most popular beer, accounting for 60% of its sales) when the tour started.
The tour took about 20 minutes, and largely consisted of a review of the basic brewing process. Our tour guide, Zack, also spoke briefly about the company’s history. SweetWater was started by two college roommates who originally began cooking up the idea in their University of Colorado at Boulder dorm room in the early 90′s. So apparently, even good Southern beer has its roots in Colorado! The first brewery opened in 1997 in a sketchy part of town, and they moved to their current location in 2004. The name comes from SweetWater Creek State Park outside of Atlanta.
In addition to the year-round beers, and the “Catch and Release” beers, which are seasonal and repeated every year, they also offer a “Dank Tank” series, which are one-off small batch runs of more unique styles. Their current Dank Tank offering is the Mean Joe Bean Imperial Porter, which is made with coffee beans. They didn’t have any available for sampling, but I was able to snag one to bring home for the FuzzyBrew boys.
After the tour concluded, we wandered back to the lobby for a few more samples. Knowing that my parent’s patience would probably wear out before I could drink 4 more 8 oz. samples, I skipped right to the IPA for my third and fourth (and last) glasses. DELICIOUS. Possibly even better coming right from the source than from the bottle, if that’s even possible. I picked up a few things at the merch table. I probably bought more than I would have had I made my way there BEFORE all of the samples. But, oh well, I like my t-shirt. And koozies. And stickers.
During the tour, Zack had mentioned that, in addition to sending the used grain to local feed lots, they also use some to make bread, which is then sold at Whole Foods. Apparently having not quite expended all of my family’s good will quite yet, they agreed to take me to check it out. We ended up at Harry’s, which is owned by Whole Foods, and scored the LAST loaf of Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale Bread. I also snagged a case of the IPA (Georgia law forbids breweries to sell on site, so I couldn’t pick up anything there to take home), one bottle of the Mean Joe Bean Imperial Porter, and several other non-Sweetwater, but unavailable in Memphis, beers. Mom also picked up a bottle of Blue and a few bottles of the Magic Hat #9, but I haven’t checked back in to see how she liked them.
I would definitely recommend checking out the SweetWater Brewery the next time you’re in Atlanta. I do wish the tour was a bit more thorough. Maybe in the winter months the crowds are smaller, which would allow more opportunity for questions. But overall, it was a great way to spend $8 and a few hours. On a nice day, you could easily spend an entire afternoon there with friends, drinking generous samples, and listening to the band out in the courtyard. In fact, that’s exactly what I intend to do the next time I go!