Story and Photography by Ian Palmer
Athens is a city brimming with life and culture. It is a center for music and arts in the southeast, and an exciting culinary scene has emerged in the past decade. In rhythm with these offerings, Athens also has a growing identity in the world of craft beer. Not only are breweries popping up in town, but bars and restaurants are providing an increased selection of regional and national beers. Plus, local consumers are taking notice and buying into the growing trend. The industry is at an exciting early stage in Athens, and right now is no exception, as local craft brewers are beginning to showcase their unique seasonal beers and special releases for the fall period.
Fall is a season of flavors, which is evident in the seasonal beers currently showing up in Athens. Terrapin’s five-year-running Pumpkin Fest is out now, as well as its Moo Hoo milk chocolate stout. It’s also releasing Coo Coo Fest this fall, a southern inspired fest beer brewed with real grits from Helen.
Officially opened in April, Creature Comforts Brewing Company is the most recent addition to the group of brewers in Athens. They won’t be releasing any seasonal beers until the winter, but they have several special releases happening this fall, including the first canned batches of Athena and Tropicalia, two of their year-round offerings. At downtown brew-pub Copper Creek, head brewer Matt Buley is serving his Pumpkin Ale, which is so popular he makes three full batches every fall.
Seasonal brewing is no new thing. According to Blake Tyers, a brewer at Creature Comforts, beers have always been brewed seasonally to go along with special occasions and to coincide with changing roles throughout the year.
“A lot of beer styles, from a historical sense, come from certain seasons. Dopplebock (a German lager) were always brewed during Lent. Saisons were historically made by seasonal workers in the harvest season,” says Tyers.
Beers are also seasonally brewed because of when certain materials come in. For example, Matt Buley says, “The Belgians like to use a lot of candy sugar, which comes from beets. So when you have beets available is when you’ll start seasonally brewing some of the farmhouse beers.”
In addition to having historical significance and utilizing unique ingredients, Spike Buckowski, the brewmaster at Terrapin Beer Company, points out that seasonal brewing is an integral part of craft brewing because it generates good business.
“If you just did your four core beers all the time, it would kind of get boring. One of the reasons why we do our seasonal beers and our side projects is to come up with new beers that keep Terrapin fresh in people’s minds,” says Buckowski.
Not to mention, seasonal brewing simply goes along with the spirit of craft beer in general. The craft brewing industry is special because it allows for experimentation and creative, non-uniform brewing. Brewing seasonally lets brewers go even further in using unique ingredients and making one-of-a-kind recipes. Also, breweries can safely go a little crazy with their seasonal beers because they don’t have to worry about sustaining them for a whole calendar year.
“Seasonal brewing allows us to brew things that people don’t necessarily want to drink year round,” says Tyers.
While the new fall offerings are sure to create their share of buzz, on the national scale of craft beer, Athens is still a very small player. To provide some perspective, the state of Georgia has somewhere around 30 craft breweries. That’s less than the number of breweries in Asheville, N.C. alone. Only a handful of those 30 are located in Athens, with Terrapin and Creature Comforts being the only full production facilities in town. However, Athens has come a long way in the past couple of decades and all signs point towards continued growth.
“In 1995, selling a pale ale to somebody was difficult. That was a hard sell. Since then, what we’ve seen is a lot of restaurant and bar owners become very concerned about widening their tap selection. That wasn’t really the case outside of a few exceptions like 5 Points Bottle shop. People got more and more into that, and it’s developed,” says Buley.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the primary contributing factor of Athens growth in the craft beer scene, and it’s hard to predict what will continue to sustain it in the future. Restaurants and bars like Trappeze Pub and The Globe have certainly paved the way in offering wider beer selections, but there seems to be an agreement that the people of Athens play the most significant role. “If you look at Athens, there are a lot of people who care about all things artisanal. We have a great farmers market and an incredible restaurant scene. People care about good ingredients and having a great product made locally. We provide a hands-on craft product, and I think people appreciate that, whether it’s beer or food or anything,” says Tyers.
According to Buckowski, an increase in educated, beer-savvy consumers has been the best asset in spreading the appeal of craft beer in Athens. “As people start to venture out and drink craft beers, they get the fever, and it just grows by word of mouth,” says Buckowski.
It’s a good time to be a craft beer lover in Athens. Not only are exciting, fall beers showing up, but the craft beer scene in general is really starting to grow. Creature Comforts is starting to expand, a new brewery called The Southern Brewing Company is set to open in Athens in the coming months, and veteran mainstays like Terrapin and Copper Creek continue to churn out unique beers that are expanding craft beer interest daily.
Athens’ craft beer may still be relatively new on the scene, but luckily it’s fueled by a spirit of support and collaboration among its brewers. Creature Comforts is releasing a collaboration beer this season with Seventh Son Brewing Company in Columbus called Southerly Love, and similar collaborations between breweries are happening all the time.
There’s plenty of friendly competition, but for the most part the small community of brewers in Athens consider themselves fans of each other’s work. Buckowski’s belief is that help and support between breweries is mutually beneficial. “What we’re all trying to do is expose the craft brew drinker to great craft beer. So the more breweries that hit town, and the more breweries that open up here, it’s only going to open more people’s eyes and everybody’s sales are going to go up.”