06 October 2014

Georgia: A Beer Geek's View

As many of you know, I have now lived in Macon, Georgia for over a year.  If you're not familiar with Macon, maybe you're familiar with its exports - The Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding and Little Richard to name a few.  Perhaps you're also familiar with some of Georgia's prominent breweries - Terrapin and Sweetwater.  Surely you've eaten Vidalia onions.  But what you're probably not familiar with, is the huge difference between brewery laws in Georgia and Indiana.  I'm here to change that.

In Indiana, we frequently like to lament the lack of cold beer in the grocery store and the "Closed" sign hanging in our liquor store windows on Sundays.  Those things suck, no one is going to argue that.  They quickly become expectations after a short period of time in a state that allows them.  While focusing on the restrictions and the negative, it is easy to forget how good many things are, especially if you like locally brewed beer.

Check out this website, I'll wait.  http://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/by-state/

While you were perusing that data, I hope that you decided to compare Indiana and Georgia.  I'll point out a few interesting points in case you didn't.  Indiana is 14th in the country in number of brewers - that's impressive!  Georgia, with less than half the number, is 28th.  Doesn't sound too bad until you consider the per capita number.  Indiana ranks 20th* while Georgia ranks 47th.  How can that be?  Atlanta is one of the top 10 largest metro areas in the country!
*Fun Fact: California is 19th

While the answer is complicated, the biggest factor are the laws.  In Georgia, a brewery cannot sell beer to anyone but a distributor.  In fact, they can't even tell you where to buy their beer.  That doesn't mean they don't have brewery tours and tasting rooms, but they operate much differently.  Breweries are allowed to give away up to 32oz of beer per person as samples.  They try to reclaim some of this cost by selling specialty glassware for $10-16 that you can use to consume your samples.  In an attempt to help make sure you don't exceed your sample allotment, they distribute tickets or tokens when you enter.  No alcohol sales means no alcohol sales - you can't buy a six pack to go or fill a growler.  You especially can't sell specialty bombers.  And don't think about asking where you can buy their beer either.

I think you can see how this makes it difficult to start up a new brewery.  Brewpubs have it a little better, as they can serve their beer on premises, but they have a separate set of regulations and still need a distributor to take their beer off-site.  On the consumer end, things are a little more friendly.

Many laws are controlled on a city/county level.  You may have heard that you can drink on the streets of the Savannah riverfront.  A few years back, cities started passing laws for carry-out draft beer in sealed containers (growlers).  Retail establishments started popping up across the state, typically offering 40+ taps, all to-go.  Some cities allowed these growler shops to also sell bottled beer, some didn't.  Up until earlier this year, none of them allowed you to consume a pint of beer in the same place you could purchase beer to-go.  Macon and Warner Robins are now the only two cities in the state in which you can do that.

Of course many cities/counties have Sunday sales and cold beer in grocery stores and gas stations, almost every state besides Indiana does, but it also depends on local laws.  Typically grocery stores and gas stations are not able to apply for hard liquor permits.  Happy hour laws vary by city as well.  Atlanta doesn't allow happy hours, much like Indianapolis, but Macon does.

So what does all of this mean to you, the Hoosier?

Georgia is experiencing a recent surge in craft brewery growth similar to Indianapolis 3 or 4 years ago.  There are a lot of interesting new breweries popping up and some of the top bars in the country are located in the Atlanta area.  Here are my suggestions.

Visit a brewery, it's a good way to get a lot of beer for a reasonable price including a souvenir glass.  No one is measuring out 32oz with a measuring cup, so you'll typically consumer 3-4 pints for the price of the $12 glass.  With that knowledge, only visit one brewery per day, or get a designated driver.

Get growlers of hard to find beer.  Most growler shops will carry the popular offerings from Georgia breweries, but you may also find some rare, one-off type beers from national breweries.  Heck, you can get growlers of KBS, but be prepared to pay a premium.

Visit a well-stocked liquor store.  Package prices are cheap by Indiana standards.  I can already hear Matt's blood pressure rising.  Six packs are rarely over $10-12 and bombers tend to be sub-$10.  Naturally breweries like The Bruery are still expensive, but they're a few dollars cheaper than Indiana.

Most of all, be thankful for the self-distribution laws that allow pints in tasting rooms, reasonably priced growler fills and small breweries to get their beers into a few bars while they are starting out.  Those are the primary drivers in Indiana's craft beer growth, and states that don't have that type of support are struggling much more to gain momentum.

In a follow-up post, I'll share some recommendations on bars and breweries to visit in the peach state.

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