Generation craft beer

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Generation Craft Beer: The symbiotic relationship between Millennials and the alcohol industry’s fastest-growing segment in Georgia

By Dylan S. Goldman |

The numbers don’t lie: Until recently, Georgia’s craft beer industry has undoubtedly been a late bloomer.

Since 2010, Georgia’s microbreweries have more than tripled in number, going from five in 2010 to 23 in just five year’s time.

Prior to the new millennium,  only three microbreweries called the Peach state home.

What could have caused this sudden boom in Georgia? What exactly has changed?

In a report entitled, “The Demographics of Craft beer Lovers,” Brewers Association’s Chief Economist, Bart Watson concludes that “all trends point toward increasing diversity”, and attributes that to Millennials.

Georgia’s millennial population has also grown significantly over the last 15 years. A report published the by Atlanta Regional Commission claims that Georgia’s millennial-aged population saw an 18% increase between bicentennial Census surveys, growing from 1,254, 397 in 2000 to 1,485,953 in 2010.

Earlier this year, Curbed Magazine deemed Atlanta the second best U.S. city for Millennials, who currently make up an estimated 26.2 percent of the population.

Bottom of the Barrel

States similar to Georgia, in that they are home to major cities that are considered to be hubs for their respective regions, have considerably more microbreweries than their Southern counterpart. According to Brewers Association, there are 106 microbreweries in New York, 193 in Washington, and 79 in Illinois.

Of Georgia’s 70 breweries, only 23 are microbreweries- 19 of which are in the Metro Atlanta area. Defined by their annual production in barrels, there are three types of breweries: Micro, Regional and Large. Microbreweries produce less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year; Regional, between 15,000 and 6 million, and Large, more than 6 million barrels per year.

With a light production load, microbreweries have more time to invest in crafting each style of beer they produce – thus, craft beer was born. main producers of craft beer, which is known exclusively for its high hops content.

Overall, Georgia currently ranks 48th in the nation for overall production.

However, with an upward trending market and a whopping 12 breweries in planning for 2015 alone, it’s safe to say that Georgia’s craft beer industry is exponentially making up for lost time.

“Georgia is way behind in breweries,” said Atlanta industry expert Eric Thornton. “Part of it is because of taxes, part of it is because of all the hoops they’ve gotta jump through just to open.”

Until May of this year, when Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill-63 –  a.k.a. Georgia’s “Beer Jobs Bill” – into law, Georgia’s craft beer industry was very tightly wrapped up in red tape, a contributing factor to its slow rise.

Thornton, who is better known for his online persona The Beer Geek ATL, has been an integral part of the local craft beer industry since 1997. He discovered his taste – and passion – for craft beer while working as a Beer Consultant and Buyer at Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits.

“We had Sam Adams, we had Pete’s Wicked Ale, we had Sierra Nevada…and nobody knew what it tasted like,” Thornton said. “So, I just started to take it home.”

Thornton, who has also worked in “big beer” as a Merchandiser for Budweiser, is not a stranger to both sides of Georgia’s food and beverage industry.

“My parents drank Coors Light, my grandfather drank Genesee. In high school, we drank MGD and Coors Extra Gold,” Thornton explained. “When I learned there were flavors outside of ‘meh’, my eyes opened.”

Georgia’s craft beer production has also been up this year, specifically for Atlanta-based Sweetwater Brewery, which is listed 17th on the BA’S Top 50 Craft Breweries in the United States by volume, up nine places from last year’s ranking of 26th.

The handful of breweries that Georgia does have are mostly located in Atlanta, and more recently, the trendy city of Decatur, one of Metro Atlanta’s suburban offshoot cities. The following video will take you on a virtual tour of Metro Atlanta’s breweries:

A Millennial Market

Craft beer appeals to 49% of Millennials reports

According to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta’s current craft beer boom began in 2013; subsequently, USA Today listed Atlanta as one of the top states for Millennial generation (1981 – 1997)  population growth

In addition to loving craft beer, the millennial generation has been known for their different approach to work. Initially deemed “lazy” and “entitled” by Baby Boomers, Millennials, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, have proven successful working smarter, not harder.

Atlanta is currently home to two established breweries with founders under the age of 35: Pontoon Brewing, co-founded by Eric Lemus and Eddie Sarrine; and Second Self Beer Company, co-founded by Jason Santamaria and Chris Doyle.

Following in the footsteps of now-established breweries before them, including Monday Night Brewing and O’Dempsey’s, Pontoon contract brews with Thomas Creek Brewery out of Greenville, SC, until they can open their own facility.

“Hopefully in the next year, we will be opening our own brewery space, ” said Co-Founder, Eric Lemus.

Lemus, 31, and longtime friend Eddie Sarrine, 28, formally launched Pontoon Brewing in November of 2014, but the pair had been home brewing long before that.

“We love trying different techniques while still following historical brewing techniques,” Lemus explained. “For example, the ‘text book’ recipe for Pilsner [follows] very strict guidelines; yet, for a Czech-style Pilsner, ours is very unconventional. We use similar ingredients [as the traditional], but we ferment at higher temperatures and use more hops.”

Like so many other Millennials, Lemus has found success from his passions.

“When you find something you’re passionate about, and others believe in your dream, success is more likely,” he said. “Coming from a finance/investing banking background I realized early that life isn’t about the pursuit of wealth but the pursuit of success – I find success in building a beer empire where others can enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

Also in the business of following his passion is self-proclaimed “Beer Architect” Jason Santamaria, 32, who co-founded Second Self Beer Company with longtime friend, Chris Doyle, in 2010.

“I love creating a product.  A product that people love,” said Santamaria.

After spending several years working in corporate America after graduating college, Santamaria and Doyle had the idea of brewing beer for a living.

“[We] started calling this beer idea our Second Self—hence the name,” Santamaria explained. “It was what we really loved and who we really were.”

A survey conducted by Eventbrite earlier this year revealed that the greater majority of Millennials, who currently make up over 25% of the U.S. population, actively attend beer, wine and food festivals. Of the 5,000 surveyed, 80% attend three or more food and beverage events per year, and 44% attend five or more.

Millennials also frequent brewery/winery tours,  and 99% of them will recommend a brewery/winery to family and friends via social media after visiting.

Atlanta has also seen an increase in the number of craft beer festivals from 2013, including the Georgia Craft Beer Festival in 2014. The biannual event takes place every spring and fall, and just concluded their second fall edition earlier this month.

The 4th Georgia Craft Beer Festival

John Morgan, who used to conduct brewery tours at Red Brick Brewing, says that making craft beer allows more room for creative expression than domestic beer, because “…you can do whatever you want [to] make it your own.”

When he wasn’t giving brewery tours, Morgan, 26, also helped coordinate special events and festivals for Atlanta’s oldest microbrewery.

“[When my brother] started working at Red Brick, I [would hang] out while he worked and ask questions about the beer and the brewing process,” Morgan said about how he got into the craft beer industry. “He would ask if I could watch the bar if he had to change a keg or help a customer. So eventually he asked if I could come in and help him pour tastings during the tour.”

The History of Craft Beer in Post-Prohibition Georgia

Historically, the production of alcohol in Georgia – as with any other Southeastern state – has never been an easy one.

Before 2010, Georgia’s microbreweries had seen more failure than success. Thirteen of the then 18 breweries in the state’s past had failed, and by 2009, only five remained – Red Brick Brewing Co., SweetWater Brewing Co., Terrapin Beer Co., O’Dempsey’s and Jailhouse Brewing Co. – all of which are still in operation today.

“The south had a really strict Prohibition history,” said local beer industry expert Ron Smith, co-author of, “Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South.”

According to Smith, strict prohibition laws coupled with the fact that, “people don’t like change [and] neither does Corporate America”  have contributed to Georgia’s slow-growth in the craft beer industry.

“The tangle of crazy laws that were set in place during the temperance movement and Prohibition was the result of decade upon decade of restrictive beverage alcohol laws,” Smith said. “There were and are powerful political entities that don’t want to unravel these laws; mainly the ones that profit from it, either monetarily or morally…[historically] this was the southern evangelical church and the bootleggers; goday, it’s the southern evangelical church and the wholesalers.”

Also, Georgia’s history with craft beer production is meager. After Prohibition and until the launch of the Atlanta City Brewing Company (now Red Brick Brewery) in 1993, Georgia had just one local brewery in its past.

The Atlantic Brewery  was located on the corner of Courtland (then named Collins) and Harris streets in downtown Atlanta. It opened in 1933, and operated for 22 years until closing its doors in 1955. Soon after, the building was demolished. According to Smith, after the demise of Atlantic Brewery, the South had only large national brands until the mid-1990’s.

“People [got] used to the national style of beer (Coors, Budweiser, Miller, etc.) and became very brand loyal,” he said. “…When Marthasville, Red Brick (1993), Dogwood (1996), and SweetWater (1997) came along, they shook things up. This [was] pre-social media; It was hard to get the word out and hard to get people to try something different.”

Interesting, in 1993, the oldest Millennial 12 years old; in 1997, still only 16.

Of the aforementioned breweries, only SweetWater and Terrapin survived.

But with the millennial generation leading the way, people did try something different- and liked it. After all, the numbers don’t lie.

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