Something’s Brewing in Augusta: Changes in State Laws Could Bring More Craft Breweries to City
It’s a Friday evening in early August, around 7:45. Savannah River Brewing Company closes at 8. The place is still packed, though. Every table is full as beer lovers float between their social circles, cornhole competitions and SRBC’s back porch that overlooks the railroads that dead-end near the intersection of 6th and Taylor Streets.
The wide-open main room of the warehouse is filled with consumers of all ages, but young people ages 21-30 largely characterize the crowd of Augustans sipping on fresh brews. They made their way here tonight from downtown Augusta, Evans, North Augusta, Martinez and probably other areas, too.
For 25-year-old Deaudra Mangus and her husband, Savannah River Brewing Company has become a favorite destination.
“The last time we came downtown, we came here,” Mangus said. “We like it because it’s relaxed.”
Austin Melancon, a friend of Mangus, said that “downtown has gotten much better” over the past six years. But for Augustans who frequent local breweries SRBC and River Watch Brewery, 1175 4th St., the best is yet to come.
Before Sept. 1, no one who visited SRBC – or any other Georgia brewery – could walk in and buy a beer. Georgia law had prohibited breweries to sell directly to consumers since Prohibition. In fact, Georgia was the only state in the country that still had this restrictive law. Mississippi had similar restrictions until earlier this year, when it passed its own law allowing breweries to sell to consumers. Of course, Augusta didn’t even have a local brewery until River Watch Brewery opened in 2016.
At Georgia breweries, visitors had to pay for a tour of the facility (usually around $15), after which they received a few “samples” of beer – no more than 36 ounces in total – to enjoy on site (they could also choose to take home up to 72 ounces of beer).
All that changed on Sept. 1. Earlier this year, Governor Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 85 into law, which allows breweries and distilleries to sell directly to consumers.
“I think we’ll see more people once the law’s changed,” said Steve Ellison, co-owner of SRBC, in August.
Now that people can walk into SRBC and simply buy a beer — or two or three — without having to take a tour, SRBC and River Watch hope to see the fruits of their labor enjoy more widespread appeal.
Ellison would like to extend his brewery’s hours, too. They’re currently limited to 4-8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 1-8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. River Watch Brewery, the smaller of the two breweries, is open only 12 hours per week.
Ideally, Ellison said, SRBC might even be open every day.
To put it simply, Ellison said, if you want to be a city that people come to visit, you need more breweries. America has taken that as truth; there are more breweries in the United States than ever before, which has been the case for a few years. In 2014, the Washington Post wrote that America was in “a golden age for beer lovers.”
But that was three years ago, before Augusta had a single brewery of its own. In the Garden City, a new era is just beginning.
The business of beer
A few blocks north of SRBC, next to Firestone on Broad Street, sits a vacant building with a blue awning owned by Fred Daitch. It’s prime real estate, and he’s received plenty of offers for it, but nothing satisfactory.
Daitch is a fourth-generation Augustan. He’s watched the city’s downtown area thrive, fade, then begin to bloom again. He owns seven commercial properties downtown, but he wants to be able to open that door on Broad Street to create a special place. He wants it to be a destination spot unlike anything else that’s available in the area.
“I don’t think we need any more bars,” Daitch said. “A brewery would be good.”
Interest is there. Daitch says he’s already had three parties reach out to him about turning the 7,200-square-foot space into a brewery or brewpub. One of them, Daitch said, was seeking consultation from Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewery and was the only individual who seemed to be seriously pursuing the possibility. While it’s still unclear what he’ll do, the interested individual, who has been brewing at home for several years, predicts a thriving brewery scene in Augusta over the next few years.
“I think they’re on the starting edge of it,” he said.
Daitch will wait for an opportunity he thinks will stimulate downtown growth. A vast selection of locally brewed beer, Daitch said, would do just that. Good food and drink are vital to the process of revitalizing any downtown, and unique restaurants like Farmhaus and Craft and Vine have proven that. When The Pizza Joint moved into the lot neighboring Daitch’s property almost 20 years ago, Daitch said his business, International Uniform, Inc., saw an uptick in sales.
“I think the more quality establishments you have downtown, the more business you’re going to get,” said Sean Wight, owner of downtown restaurants Frog Hollow, Farmhaus and Craft and Vine. “We always have one of the local brewers on tap. I’m hoping they keep thriving and grow, and hope more will come in.”
Right place at the right time
River Watch Brewery, the cozier, more intimate counterpart to the much larger SRBC, lies just across the block from SRBC, near the corner of 4th and Laney Walker Boulevard. River Watch was Augusta’s first brewery when it opened last year. Right outside River Watch’s taproom is a wooden porch that will become an increasingly pleasant retreat for the brewery’s visitors as cooler months approach. Owner Brey Sloane thinks it will be a little fuller, too.
“We’ll be functioning in the taproom more just like a regular bar,” Sloane said.
River Watch’s limited hours were a direct result of the brewery tour requirement. Prior to Sept. 1, River Watch could only open for four hours on Friday and eight hours on Saturday because Sloane can’t take anyone to the back of the house while she’s in the process of cleaning it.
That’s a more significant restriction that some might realize; as Sloan sipped on a beer, she joked that her job is 10 percent drinking, 20 percent paperwork and 70 percent janitorial. Cut out the tour requirement, Sloane said, and things will start to open up. She plans to open River Watch four nights a week, have better prices due to direct-to-consumer sales and sell more beer.
“It gives us a lot more flexibility, and it gives our customers a lot more options,” Sloane said.
Even though SRBC and River Watch both opened within the last two years, Sloane believes Augusta is ripe for more breweries. Evans is primed for one. She also learned from the Brewers Association that there are already four craft breweries in development that plan to open in the CSRA, although Sloane said one of them has been on that list for about five years.
If any of those future breweries decide to open downtown, they’ll have one less roadblock than SRBC and River Watch had. In August, a new ordinance from the Augusta Planning Commission opened the door for microbreweries that sell fewer than 3,000 barrels of beer per year to set up shop in the general downtown business zone, which covers most of downtown, including Broad Street.
Both Ellison and Sloane would have liked to see the amendment implemented before they opened. But they envision future competition being far more positive than negative.
As Ellison described his vision for SRBC in a new era of Georgia brewing, he alluded to the relationship between breweries and the places where they exist. Breweries and cities both benefit from and feed off each other. During the Augusta Craft Beer Festival in April, SRBC gave dollar discount tours to visitors with festival wristbands. As it turned out, even a local beer festival gave SRBC a boost.
“You’d think a beer fest wouldn’t be ideal for breweries, but we actually had a really good day,” Ellison said. “The busier the city is, the more people show up.”
Anne Sloane, Brey’s daughter and co-brewer at River Watch, points out that more breweries will also likely bring more beer enthusiasts to Augusta.
“They’ll drive from Atlanta for three breweries,” she said. “They might not drive for two.”
Local taste has a long way to go, too. Brey Sloane has found Augusta to be a fairly weak craft beer market. In her experience, Augustans seem to be too content with macrobrews like Budweiser and Michelob to seek out local flavors like River Watch’s Cautionary Tale. (That doesn’t make her any less confident in her Double IPA’s potential to perform well in Colorado’s Great American Beer Festival in October.)
Still, it’s promising how perfectly the pieces are coming together for craft beer to begin to flourish in Augusta. The launch of Augusta’s first two breweries since Prohibition, the new direct sales law, the downtown zoning ordinance, The Brewers Association, the influx of government contractors from places like Washington D.C. and Maryland, where craft breweries are the norm – it’s all built up fairly quickly. That doesn’t mean it won’t take time to materialize. Sometimes all you can do is sit back, have a beer and wait.
“I’m optimistic, but I’m almost always optimistic,” Ellison said.