Southern Beer Pioneers
In the early 1990s, southern beer culture began to move. An economic boom in the region provided disposable income for people to travel and sample new beers from Europe and other regions of the United States. Many larger cities in the South experienced construction and business growth that brought new jobs and an influx from other areas of the country. People encountered exciting new flavors in wine, coffee and cuisine—a natural progression toward an interest in craft beers.
Glen Sprouse, brewer for 5 Seasons brewpub in Atlanta, has his theory about southern beer drinkers. “I see a combination of three beer subcultures in the South: rigid individuals who stick to the old southern drinking traditions of very light beers, another diverse group who wants to broaden horizons and move on to craft products, and people from outside the South who live here now and have brought beer preferences with them from other areas. The latter two groups have really driven the beer revolution in the South.”
Southern “beer geeks” emerged to lead the charge to change laws that limited the sorts of beers available. Homebrewing was legalized in several states in the 1990s, and the hobby nurtured many of the region’s current commercial brewers.
Grassroots efforts of beer devotees also led to the legalization of brewpubs and microbreweries in every state from Louisiana to North Carolina. Restrictive alcohol limits on beer, usually at 6% ABV (alcohol by volume), have been lifted in all but Alabama and Mississippi. The effort took seven years in Georgia, where beer connoisseurs got the law changed in 2004. North Carolina’s Pop The Cap pushed the change through in 2005. A similar campaign succeeded in South Carolina in 2007, while the Free the Hops movement is still struggling to make headway in Alabama.
Southern beer culture benefited from the efforts of many brewing pioneers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Uli Bennewitz emigrated to Manteo, NC in 1980. He missed the rich German lagers of his homeland and decided to try his hand at opening a German-style brewery and restaurant. He discovered brewpubs were illegal in the state of North Carolina—worse still, Manteo was in a dry county. Bennewitz immediately began lobbying efforts to change the laws in the state. His campaign succeeded in 1985, and he opened the Weeping Radish brewpub in Manteo in 1986.
Bennewitz is extremely proud of bringing German beer traditions to the region: “In 21 years we’ve never served any other beers but our own, and this has worked well for us. We can’t emulate the big boys—we must stick to a local marking and keep our company’s personality.” In keeping with this line of thinking, Weeping Radish has recently opened a new farm brewery on 24 acres of land in Currituck County about 30 miles from Manteo. Unfiltered beers for both locations will be produced here, along with homegrown veggies. The farm also boasts a 5,000 square-foot butcher shop and smokehouse where a master butcher from Germany crafts artisan sausages and meats.
Abita Brewing Co. just celebrated 20 years of beer production at their microbrewery in Louisiana. In the ‘90s, the company even added a separate brewpub restaurant just down in road. Abita president David Blossman says, “Anybody who thinks the South doesn’t appreciate craft beer needs to come and take a tour of the Abita Brewery. We’re running at full capacity and starting a five million dollar construction project to expand the brewery. As the number one craft brewer in the Southeast, we feel very appreciated.”
In the nineties, Nashville saw the opening of two of the country’s most respected brewpubs. Chuck Skypeck’s Boscos and Dave Miller’s Blackstone Restaurant & Brewery have been extraordinarily innovative in terms of their house beers and menu items. Cask-conditioned ales and special beer tastings are a staple at each brewpub, and Skypeck even produces Flaming Stone Beer, one of the only American beers in the German steinbier tradition, made with hot rocks from Boscos’ pizza oven.
Atlanta’s first post-Prohibition microbrewery was known as “Marthasville” (also the original name for the city). Marthasville lasted for only a few years, but was successful in showing the metropolitan area that a small company could produce flavorful and distinctive beers. Atlanta Brewing Co. started producing Red Brick Ale in 1993 and quickly filled the niche vacated by Marthasville. Atlanta’s director of marketing, Grey Martin, says, “Atlanta Brewing made a conscious decision to eschew the hippie aesthetic, so popular on labels out west, and give our packaging kind of an old school breweriana look. You don’t need to belong to a particular demographic to drink and enjoy our beer.”
Highland Brewing Co. is noteworthy as the first commercial brewery in Asheville, NC, now the state’s most sophisticated beer town. The company is named in honor of the Scottish and Irish immigrants who initially settled this area of the state, and its ales have helped foster a taste for UK-style beers in the region. “Highland has nurtured the local market with as much community presence as possible. Our Gaelic Ale, Kashmir IPA, Oatmeal Porter and other brews have made believers of a previously skeptical public,” says owner Oscar Wong.
Northern Florida had its craft beer indoctrination in 1987 when McGuire’s Irish Pub of Pensacola installed a brewhouse and began cranking out its line of five regular ales and a rotating seasonal. Despite being told that dark or hoppy beers would not be appreciated in Florida, the brewers pushed on with true English and Irish-style beers that have ended up being a hit. “We are rocking at McGuire’s—packed all the time and selling all the beer we can make. We have a good clientele of regulars and beer tourists who seek us out, so we are proof that brewing good beer in the Southeast works,” says Gary Essex, brewer at the Destin location.