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A tour of Atlanta's breweries leaves beer lovers buzzed and filled up

It's been a big few years for beer in Atlanta. The city's two bottling breweries, Atlanta Brewing Company and Sweetwater, continue to grow and thrive. Atlanta Brewing Company recently has moved to new digs, and Sweetwater continues to come up with new brews while maintaining a huge following of Atlanta drinkers. With the closing of Dogwood brewery in 2004, the city lost two of its most talented brewers, Crawford Moran and Jordan Fleetwood. But in the past year, both brewers returned to Atlanta brewpubs, Moran at 5 Seasons Brewery and Fleetwood at Twain's in Decatur.

click to enlarge MURDERER'S ROW: The taps at Sweetwater - JOEFF DAVIS

When imagining this year's Beer Issue, I wanted to give props to Atlanta's homegrown beers, but to do it in a way that honored the nature of beer lovers – which is to say I wanted to talk about drinking. Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to drink. But I knew I didn't want to write some boring story about the rise of brewing in Atlanta. I wanted to go out and taste the beers and hang out at the breweries and be a part of Atlanta's beer culture.

While beer has always been dear to my heart, I am not an obsessive beer drinker. My beer drinking has tended toward the routine rather than the outgoing and exploratory. Because I am obsessed with all things taste-related, I have taken the time to educate myself and have developed quite a taste for beer at both ends of the spectrum, tending mainly toward high-gravity Belgian beers on the one hand, and exceedingly bad American beer on the other (think Schlitz). I know what I like and I stick with it. So I knew I needed a partner in crime, someone who could force me to think hard about the beers I was drinking instead of just finding the brew I liked and sticking with it until I fell off the stool. I asked Jeff Holland, who is a beer lover and drinker, and who writes a beer column for CL's Beer Club, to accompany me to some of Atlanta's finest breweries and brewpubs. We didn't hit them all, but we made it to the best of them, and had some outstanding beers and some passionate discussions about beer along the way.

Jeff and I started at the new Atlanta Brewing Company facility in northwest Atlanta, Jeff with his little beer notebook and me ready to drink. The 20,000-square-foot space has allowed the brewery to make improvements in both its brewing equipment and tasting room. Three times a week, the brewery offers tours along with tastings of current beers. Very few who attend actually go on the tour, and for the most part it is an excuse to unwind and drink. The atmosphere is convivial, with a lot of clean-cut college kids taking advantage of the new, spacious, brightly lit digs.

Atlanta Brewing is good at balance in its brews, and most have a dry-hops finish, or so Jeff informed me as he took notes in his book. I was having fun drinking and forgot to take notes. But I did manage to find out that my favorite Atlanta Brewing Company beer, Numbers Ale, which has only been available at restaurants owned by Concentrics restaurant group, will soon be available in bottles. So maybe I'm a journalist after all – a slightly drunk journalist who forgot her pen, but this was a beer crawl, not the state Legislature (hic!).

After tasting our fill at Atlanta Brewing Company, we decided to head over to Sweetwater to check out its brewery tour, which is much the same deal as the one at Atlanta Brewing. How naive of us. As we neared the brewery on Ottley Drive in the industrial part of Midtown that borders Buckhead, we encountered a guy holding a sign saying "tour sold out."

"We're at capacity," he told us. "On a nice day like this, you need to get here right when the doors open. We sell out really quickly." We would have to wait for another day.

click to enlarge ALL UP IN IT: Twain's brewer Jordan Fleetwood does a suds check. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • ALL UP IN IT: Twain's brewer Jordan Fleetwood does a suds check.

But we weren't defeated yet. Jeff and I (and our designated driver, I should add here) set out for Twain's, which expanded from a popular pool hall and bar into a full-scale brewpub last year. This is where Jordan Fleetwood landed after leaving the state for Nashville after a short stint at Sweetwater when Dogwood closed in 2004. The bar there is still frequented by heavily tattooed guys sporting beards and brandishing PBRs, but the bartenders are enthusiastic about the beers being brewed on-site.

We started with a Belgian Golden Ale straight from the cask. This is a funky ale that tasted vaguely of sweat to me. The Mysterious Stranger Brown Ale tasted pleasingly of burnt coffee, with a bitter finish. On the other end of the spectrum, the Mad Happy Pale Ale tasted brightly of hops.

Twain's has a fine selection of beer in the bottle, but it's more impressive to have a local brewer doing such interesting stuff in the heart of Decatur. Jeff complained that even in a brewpub such as this, many drinkers still come in and ask for the lightest beer possible. The Schlitz lover in me can relate to that, but I kept my mouth shut. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly that if you want a Milwaukee's Best perhaps you should just drink one rather than trying to find something similar at a serious local brewery. The wonderful thing about a place such as Twain's is that you're likely to come across something unexpectedly pleasing.

Our next stop was the new 5 Seasons out in Alpharetta, where Crawford Moran is brewing a selection of food-friendly, European-style beers. Both Jeff and I are fans of Glen Sprouse, the brewer at the original 5 Seasons location in Sandy Springs, but we decided to give the new guy a whirl.

We weren't disappointed. The BR-549 pale ale tasted of sweet malt, with a nice hops finish. The Crazy Ralph's Nut Brown Ale was mellow, with a hint of sweet soy. Jeff wasn't sure about the Mechanical Failure Scotch Ale when he first got it, but warmed to it as it got closer to room temperature, admiring its mellow maple and banana flavors. We both exclaimed that the Doctor Moran's Dunkelweizen tasted exactly like bananas Foster, and then read the description that confirmed the dessert had been one of the inspirations for the beer. By now I was taking extensive notes, and using words like "undertones" with abandon. It was time for me to go home.

A few days later, we set out early for Sweetwater, and it's a good thing we did. A half hour before the brewery opened its doors, a long line formed outside. Similarly to the scene at the Atlanta Brewing Company, the crowd was coed-heavy.

Sweetwater's large indoor space features windows on two sides and is complemented by a courtyard. A country-rock band performed outdoors, and the atmosphere had all the cookout vibe with none of the cookout.

Sweetwater's signature beer is the 420, which I have always liked but is so much better straight from the source than from the bottle. From the keg, the extra pale ale takes on some prodigious honey undertones (heh heh – I said undertones). The brewery is just releasing a new beer, the Road Trip pilsner, which has a perfect summer flavor, tasting a little of toasted corn. I could drink the stuff by the gallon.

I tried Sweetwater Blue again, their blueberry-flavored ale. Unfortunately I'm just not a fruity-beer kind of girl. The stuff tasted the way Strawberry Shortcake's good friend Blueberry Muffin smells.

Jeff liked the IPA, which is a floral, herbaceous beer with some grapefruit and rosemary personality poking through. I was a bigger fan of the Georgia Brown, which had the classic brown-sugar highs, was easy to drink and showed some nice malt. I pointed out that if I were to make a pie chart of my beer-drinking needs, about 20 percent of the pie would go to beer that was complex and intriguing, and the other 80 percent would be the beer I want when I get home from work – balanced, delicious and straightforward.

Jeff accused me of sounding like a Budweiser apologist. "That's all fine and good," he said, "but you can't abandon the malt! That's the mistake of so many American beer makers: They forget about the malt!" Jeff is a chill dude, and this was about as worked up as I have seen him.

We stumbled from Sweetwater buzzed and happy. Atlanta's beer scene, along with my trusty friend and beer geek Jeff, had taught me a few things about the intricacies of thinking about beer. Good things are to be found outside your comfort zone. Undertones is a cool word. Taking notes is a good idea if you want to remember anything about the beer. And it's very bad to abandon your malt. I wish all life lessons were this much fun to learn.

For information on Creative Loafing's Beer Fest Saturday, June 9, click here.

Beer Issue 2007

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