It's impossible to underestimate the impact that raising the alcohol cap on beer has made to the Atlanta (and to some extent Georgia) beer scene. Every month a few new breweries add Georgia to their distribution lists, and the once-exotic Belgians are now a regular on restaurant menus and in liquor-store coolers. I hear ordinary folks discussing their favorite Belgian tripels and double IPAs, and servers are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about beer styles and food pairings.
If there has been a negative side to the changes, however, it would have to do more with what didn't change than what did. Georgia has yet to shake restricting distribution laws that have stifled the local brewing scene. The unintended consequence is that sophisticated beer drinkers are looking to the newest "import" from California, Pennsylvania or Colorado for their next great beer-drinking experience. Four years ago there were three breweries in the state producing for retail distribution. Today, there are still three. And while local brewpubs have maintained their presence and are even adding locations, no new local brands have emerged to give Atlantans fresh choices.
The sad state of local brewing was painfully obvious on a recent trip to Asheville, N.C., the hippie-dippy hot spot for all things green, sustainable and organic. No fewer than five breweries are located within a 10 mile radius of this town of about 75,000 people. Highland Brewing Company is the largest and most widely distributed of these, and produced only 13,000 barrels last year, compared with more than 45,000 barrels for Atlanta-based Sweetwater. French Broad Brewing Company, Pisgah Brewing Company, Green Man Ales and the newly opened Wedge Brewery are even smaller and produce mainly for the local market, with distribution primarily through kegs to local and regional bars. These four breweries maintain "tasting rooms" where they sell beer by the pint, as well as in kegs and "growlers" to go. French Broad and Pisgah also sell growlers, the 64-ounce screw-top jugs similar to those used for apple cider, at grocery stores and select bottle shops.
All of this would be illegal in Georgia. Breweries cannot sell their own beer directly; they must go through a distributor. But the costs of using a distributor, both financial and contractual, can be prohibitive for a small brewery that just wants to distribute locally. North Carolina law allows breweries to sell and distribute beer locally without going through a distributor, just as your neighborhood bakery or dairy would.
In other states, new breweries often develop from brewpubs. As they perfect their styles and develop a customer base, they can expand their market by selling growlers and kegs, both to retail accounts and to individual customers. Not so in Georgia, where brewpubs cannot sell or transport their beer off premises, even to beer festivals, unless they have a distributor.
A bottling or canning line is a necessity for any brewery expecting to distribute in Georgia, but packaging equipment is one of the most expensive components in the system. Without one, the only means of distribution available is in kegs via a distributor to bars and restaurants. That's a hard row to hoe as well, since the distributors offer these accounts to their larger clients first.
I pondered all this last week while sitting on the front porch of my friend's house with the mountain view, sipping pints of French Broad's German-style Alt Beer poured from the growler I purchased at Greenlife Grocery just hours earlier. I thought about how the moonshiners from these hills went underground to be able to supply their neighbors with the corn whiskey that they loved, and how far they had come here to allow these local craftsmen to sell their handiwork to the people who craved it. And I thought about how wonderful it would be to go by my local brewery and pick up a freshly brewed pale ale or porter and take it home to enjoy with my dinner.
But then I saw the faces of the lobbyists for the fat cat distributors sowing misinformation, and the angry moralists quoting Scripture out of context and leaving out the parts they don't like, and I saw the smirking governor and his nonsensical ramblings about how three breweries should be enough for any state, and I sighed in despair. Looks like I'll be spending a lot more of my time and money in Asheville.
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