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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Six brews to check off your Atlanta beer bucket list


When my editor asked me to complement Creative Loafing's 100 Dishes feature with some Atlanta beers everyone should "drink before they die," I'll admit I was a bit stumped. For one thing, our craft-beer scene is only just getting started. Sure, we've got a few established big guys, some exciting newer operations, a whole slew of great bars, and a ton of promising breweries on the way. And that's the thing: We have so much to look forward to in the next couple years, I could make a list comprising solely unreleased beers.

This is a good problem to have, of course. As SweetWater CEO Freddy Bensch told me recently, for as long as he can remember, Georgia's been a "craft-brewing wasteland." As a co-founder of the state's most successful brewery, he's been hoping for - and making - better Georgia beers during the last 16 years and change. We're finally catching up with the rest of the country, too. "You see a completely different picture [today], with the Southeast as a top emerging and thriving craft-beer market," he said, finishing his thought optimistically.

All this without mentioning the unpredictable releases of exemplary beers from brewpubs and breweries. From seasonal releases to infrequent one-offs, craft beer is a world where something delicious shows up and then disappears in a week. It can be as hard to keep track of it all as it is to stand up if you have one too many. (Pro-tip: Do not drink the entire list below in one sitting.)

It's with all of the above in mind, then, that I thought it better to put together a short list of ATL beers that includes both respectful nods to our fledgling past and confident strides toward a rosier future. Long gone are the days when Georgia beer lovers had to settle for a light lager at the grocery, or scour out-of-town bottle shops to bring back exciting brews. Now we've got them right in our backyard. And there are so many more on the way. Below, then, is a bit of a hodgepodge intended to show the diversity of our expanding scene, a mix of classics that have been around for years, a few beers that might be a little tough to track down, and a few you'll just have to patiently look forward to in the coming months. Sorry, but we've been waiting for years to have local beer so stylistically varied, prolific, and delicious. What's a few more months?

SweetWater Brewing Company's 420 Extra Pale Ale
Availability: If your preferred grocer and/or gas station doesn't carry it, your favorite beer store does. Or your favorite bar. Or your favorite restaurant. Or your favorite friend. I just found a bottle in my pocket while writing this silly paragraph. It's not tough to track down, is what I'm saying.
Why You Should Drink It: First brewed on April 20, 1997, SweetWater's flagship beer is an easy-drinking, relatively-low-alcohol (5.4%) West Coast style pale that pairs well with everything, from backyard barbecue to a relaxing night in front of Netflix. A gateway beer for Atlanta's ever-increasing craft world, it's the most universally appealing selection on this list.

Twain's Berry Tart
Availability: It's scheduled to be on tap at Twain's this week.
Why You Should Drink It: Twain's brewer Chase Medlin is dabbling in a realm few Georgia brewers have yet to touch: the nebulous world of sours. Berry Tart lives up to its name, a refreshing ale that will be a must-drink as the temperatures rise this summer. When asked to elaborate on Berry Tart's brewing process, Medlin had this to say: "A base of finished light ale is infused with boysenberry and raspberry purées and lactic acid. The purées give a pleasant-but-not-overpowering fruit flavor and aroma, and the lactic adds a tart finish."

5 Seasons Brewing Company Westside's "Don't Even Look At It" Peated Scotch Ale
Availability: Still pouring at 5 Westside...for now.
Why You Should Drink It: Your humble correspondent sipped on this delicious monster of a beer while interviewing 5 Seasons owner and brewmaster, Crawford Moran, about House Bill 314. Dubbed "the ultimate bottle-conditioned beer for the beer and whiskey connoisseur," this smokey Scotch ale was aged in a Pappy Van Winkle 20-year bourbon barrel. "This beer is big and complex," 5 Seasons says, and they're not joking.

Wrecking Bar Brewpub's Neal's Hop Noggin Imperial India Pale Ale
Availability: Wrecking Bar tapped it today. They'll also be distributing a limited amount to local bars soon.
Why You Should Drink It: A brand-new detour from Wrecking Bar's excellent Denamelizer Double IPA, Neal's Hop Noggin Imperial India Pale Ale takes its name from assistant brewmaster Neal Engleman, who concocted the recipe. Wrecking Bar owner and brewer, Bob Sandage, says the new brew sports an "insane amount of hops" (Columbus, Summit, Citra and Simcoe) to wreck even the most IPA-inclined of palates, and is a little lighter in body than Denamelizer. "The hopheads will definitely appreciate this one," he says. "Depending on customer feedback and hop contracts for 2013-14, we'll determine whether to do just one of [Denamelizer or Hop Noggin], both, or a hybrid thereof."

Burnt Hickory Old Wooden Head Imperial India Pale Ale
Availability: Mid-May, hopefully, at "beer joints with soul," as Burnt Hickory owner and brewer, Scott Hedeen, likes to call them. "Most likely Porter or Brick Store. Taco Mac Prado or Johnnie MacCracken's in Marietta," he says.
Why You Should Drink It: Proof that this Kennesaw brewery has a way with hops, Old Wooden Head is a bitter, potent brew that will be a welcome addition to the few places in which it pops up. (It likely won't last long at those places, either.) Even better news? Burnt Hickory plans to expand in 2013, which means more of their beers in more bars and bottle shops. I'll drink to that.

MAZURT
Availability: Your next chance is Hotoberfest on Oct. 5.
Why You Should Drink It: Currently, MAZURT is a two-man operation (co-founders/brewers Dan Rosen and Hamp Covington) that's been building a name for itself in the Atlanta beer-festival community via its Russian Imperial Stout series. MAZURT is a revered word in Atlanta's craft-beer-obsessed circles, winning myriad awards during the last three years, and the next opportunity to try it will be at this fall's Hotoberfest in Historic Fourth Ward Park. Rosen says the brewery's "locations and plans are still being worked out," but that they're getting very close. In the meantime, interested parties can keep up with them on Facebook. "We brew aggressive, tasty beers that challenge the senses," Rosen says. "We love doing things that have not been done before."

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