The craft beer movement is on the rise in the South.
By Michelle Franzen Martin
“The South, unfortunately, was behind the beer times,” says SweetWater’s head brewer, James Nock. “The beer that was available [at that time] basically had a malt profile where you got sweet and caramel flavors and little aroma. … [Today] it’s booming. The door has been opened and people are experiencing a wide variety of different styles of locally made beers.”
The craft beer industry in the U.S.—which includes brewpubs, microbreweries, regional craft breweries and contract brewing companies—has grown 60 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. With the growing popularity of craft brewing nationally, it’s not surprising that the South is following the trend.
Craft brewers in Southern states produced 1.52 million barrels of beer in 2012, which was 11.5 percent of the national production total, says Bart Watson, staff economist for the Brewers Association.
“In 2012, there were 372 craft brewers in the region,” Watson says. “I don’t have a specific geographic comparison to 10 years ago, but it’s safe to say that number has increased sharply.”
Brock Wagner, who in 1994 founded Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston, sees the growth firsthand. Saint Arnold was Texas’ first craft brewery.
“Craft brewers wake up in the middle of the night thinking of a better way or a better ingredient,” Nock explains. “Their minds are always focused on the product. We are 100 percent about quality of the beer and superior ingredients.”
“Craft brewing is exploding,” Wagner adds. “In the past 24 hours, I found out about five new breweries opening in Texas that I hadn’t yet heard about. Every restaurant that opens it seems is putting in multiple craft brews and has a special beer menu.”
Sea Island is one place that has made a point to feature Southern craft brews on its restaurants’ menus. “It really isn’t important to feature them, rather it is an imperative,” says Ryanne Carrier, the resort’s beverage manager. “[It] falls into the philosophy of featuring products that have a sense of place. To feature both beers and spirits that are produced locally gives our resort guests the opportunity to taste products that are most likely unavailable to them [elsewhere].”
By definition, craft brewers produce 6 million or fewer barrels per year. Unlike mass-produced beers, most craft beers are made using traditional ingredients, which are typically more full-flavored than the standard light American lager.
Wagner has watched the popularity of craft beer continue to grow. “Today we find people visiting our brewery on their 21st birthday,” he muses. “That never would have happened a decade ago.” He adds that Southern states traditionally had laws that were less friendly to craft brewers than laws in the Northern states. That’s beginning to change as one law now allows Texas brewpubs to distribute beer outside of their establishment.
“Certainly, there is a preference for many of the lighter-style craft beers,” Wagner says. “At the same time, IPAs (India pale ales) are immensely popular here. Our Elissa IPA has been one of our fastest-growing brands over the past five years.”
Flavor profiles are distinct here, with beers drawing from classic local tastes such as pecans, cane syrup and bourbon barrel, Carrier notes. “Different breweries are utilizing these staples to create unique brews that are true to the culture from which they come,” she adds.
Given the nature of the craft beer movement, location also dictates a favorite.
“Southerners are recreational, and I believe they drink to the environment,” Nock comments. “If you’re on the coast, you might go lighter. If you are in the hills, you might go darker. A wheat ale for the beach, a porter for the Appalachian Trail, IPA for the picnic and a brown ale for the relaxing evening out.”
As the craft beer movement continues to grow in the South and throughout the country, it’s likely the list of favorite ales, lagers, porters, stouts and other varieties will grow with it.
Beverage manager Ryanne Carrier and the Sea Island culinary staff pride themselves on offering some of the South’s distinctive craft brews, with a focus on Georgia breweries, alongside a list of meticulously curated options from around the world. Here’s a look at some of the beers available throughout the resort:
Wild Heaven: This Georgia-based company has plans to open up a brewery in Avondale Estates soon. Guests can find Wild Heaven’s Belgian-style Invocation in Southern Tide and the Davis Love Grill. Tavola serves the brewery’s Let There Be Light, an American ale, and Oak Room serves their imperial brown ale, Ode to Mercy.
SweetWater Brewing Co.: The brewery’s 420 Extra Pale Ale can be found at the River Bar and the Davis Love Grill; this West Coast-style ale is best savored after a day spent at the beach.
Terrapin Beer Co.: The Athens-based brewery’s Hopsecutioner IPA will please hops lovers; it’s available at Southern Tide and the Davis Love Grill.
Lazy Magnolia: From a couple states west comes Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan Brown Nut Ale. Served at the Davis Love Grill, this Mississippi brewery’s offering won bronze in the 2006 World Beer Cup in the specialty beer category.