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Unrated — The Emergency That Changed Wild Heaven Craft Beers Forever

I’m sitting in a fancy cocktail bar, having a couple drinks before watching Jeezy celebrate the 10th anniversary of Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, when I realize the power of Emergency Drinking Beer.

The vessel itself is gorgeous, of course—all bright yellow and big, weird text. It’s in your face, daring you to doubt it. But it’s also funny and stark and weird. It feels like it’s breaking the rules, somehow. The realization doesn’t hit until I order an EDB and the bearded man with the golf hat and the tattoos and all the self-seriousness lights up.

“Watch this,” he says, with a goofy twinkle in his eye. He’s happy because he’s on his Beta Band shit, gesturing down the length of the bar and leaning in to tell my wife and I conspiratorially, “I’m gonna sell a bunch of this now that you got one.”

Clearly, he’s seen the magnetism of the can’s unusual design in action, has learned to use it to his occupational advantage. Literally just the sight of the thing gets people talking about it, ordering it, drinking it. But EDB is more than that, even. Since its debut in April 2015, it’s changed the course of Wild Heaven Craft Beers. The company started contract brewing with South Carolina’s Thomas Creek Brewery in 2010. It opened a space in Avondale Estates—a nice suburb of Atlanta just east of a nice suburb of Atlanta called Decatur—in 2014. When EDB debuted, the brewery was making about 4,000 barrels of beer a year. A year and a half later, they’ve doubled that volume (and purchased a lot of equipment) as the yellow canned wonder has become half of their business.

The beer—which the brewery calls a Pils-style Session Ale—is tasty in a beer-that-tastes-like-beer sorta way, albeit with a slight touch of citrus. It’s the kind of beverage you can just crush without even thinking about it on a balmy afternoon in the yard—especially during the Georgia summer.

Like its design, the drink’s origins are unusual. Most beers, after all, don’t start out as the Frankensteinian brainchild of a sandwich joint, a celebrated cocktail maker, a graphic designer, and a young craft brewery. Unusual origins can mean a lot of different things and lead to a lot of different outcomes. In this case, they brought with them unprecedented success and a little drama.

 

When Ian Jones and I sit down at one of a smattering of benches at Victory Sandwich Bar’s latest location in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, he hands me an EDB can while we discuss the obvious.

“I’m interested in Emergency Drinking Beer because—,” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“—because it’s fun,” Jones says.

He’s not wrong.

We’re sitting next to a huge shipping container for which, at the time, Jones says they haven’t determined a purpose. A few months later, they’ll paint it to match the EDB can. Then they’ll serve those very cans out of it. Jones tells me that, before Emergency Drinking Beer was Emergency Drinking Beer, it was a Victory Sandwich Bar idea. He and his Victory partners wanted to do “a craft beer for people who hate craft beer,” which is, incidentally, how Jones describes himself.

For the flavor profile, the crew turned to Victory’s beverage director at the time, Paul Calvert, one of Atlanta’s most celebrated drink makers. Wild Heaven’s Eric Johnson, like most people who enjoy drinking in Atlanta, is a big fan of Calvert’s work. Before Johnson was Wild Heaven’s brewmaster, he founded one of Georgia’s best beer bars, Trappeze Pub in Athens. He’s a longtime homebrewer and horticulturist, and has hosted the PBS show, GardenSMART for 12 years. While he understood Victory was trying to make a “yellow beer” that allowed them to pare down their macro options, he says he didn’t want to dumb down his product.

“We thought, what can we do for the craft crowd where they won’t think we just made a douche-y pilsner?” Johnson says. “Paul’s a great mixologist, and we started talking about what flavors we could inject in a subtle way that would make the beer interesting, crisp, and refreshing, but also very much a craft beer. We actively test-batched it for over half a year. I would brew a batch, Paul would come in and taste it.”

Calvert’s modest about his role.

“I was there, and I’m really proud to say I was a part of it, but it’s very much a Wild Heaven beer with an Alvin Diec design for the can,” he says. “Do you know what a dramaturge is? It’s like, if you decide you wanna direct Hamlet and you’re a really great director and you’ve got really great actors and lighting people and makeup people and everything, but you wanna make sure you’re really understanding the text? You call a dramaturge. And usually that’s someone who works at a university and teaches Hamlet. So he or she hangs out and just kinda answers questions about the stuff along the edges. I feel like I hung out and just said, ‘Well, this is how I think grapefruit and sea salt go together,’ and, ‘No, I wouldn’t put any orange in, because orange is a pretty flabby acid.’ I just hung out and told Eric things he probably already knew.”

For the packaging, Jones turned to Alvin Diec of Brothers, the design office responsible for, among other things, more than 400 Atlanta-area menus. Diec and Victory have worked together since the latter opened its first location in 2011. Diec also designed Athens brewery Creature Comforts’ logo. This is his only other beer work.

“I was just excited Ian was willing to do something that looked really ugly,” Diec tells me when I ask him about the design. “That’s one of our specialties—making bad things. Because we don’t know how to make good things. So every time someone asks us to make bad things, it ends up working out really well.”

I was just excited Ian was willing to do something that looked really ugly. That’s one of our specialties—making bad things
— Alvin Diec

Diec has a unsettlingly calm, wry way of speaking that makes it impossible to tell when, if ever, he’s being serious. “I think it’s the greatest can of all time,” he tells me later in the same conversation.

When Jones approached Diec about the collaboration, he told him he wanted to make a “really plain” beer. As it turned out, Diec had just the concept for such a beer. He showed Jones an image of some cans that Diec had “been obsessed with for a long time.” Ten years earlier, in college, Diec had worked on a coffee packaging design project—he called it Fair Trade Gothic Coffee Company—where he used the cans as a reference. Now it was time to make an homage using actual cans. Jones loved the idea, and suggested they call it Emergency Drinking Beer.

From there, Diec went to work, contrasting large, black font with a bright yellow can, crafting cheeky copy like “ALL PURPOSE BLEND,” “CONTENTS: BEER,” and “REAL BREWED” that winks at the drinker. He fought hard to keep the can nearly logo-less with exception of a few small marks on its side. Alongside Wild Heaven’s logo is “VSB” for Victory Sandwich Bar, and “ZFG” for “zero fucks given.”

“The first time I saw it, I thought it was great,” Calvert says. “[Beer is] my first beverage love, and I’m consistently disappointed by the majority of beer design. Beer people have greatly diminished their own market share by turning inward and just talking to themselves and each other about beer.”

“When [the design] was first sent over, I was like, ‘Oh, I get it. That’s really cool. But that’s not Wild Heaven,’” Wild Heaven president Nick Purdy says. Purdy's worked in magazines—he founded Paste, where I was employed from 2006-2011—and as a media consultant, so he’s no stranger to weird, sudden change. And yet. “It took me some time to understand that that didn’t matter.”

 

For release day, Victory’s Decatur location hosted a tapping party where they gave away can-shaped glasses to the first 100 attendees. They disappeared immediately—a harbinger, perhaps, of the beer’s forthcoming popularity.

"I had just finished playing tennis, it was insanely hot outside, and I was drenched in sweat,” says Nathan Berrong, Three Taverns Craft Brewery’s brand cultivator, about the first time he tried EDB. “That can went down like water—maybe three gulps and I’d finished it. It was so clean and refreshing and had just that right amount of ‘beer flavor.’ It was probably my best tennis beer to date, and I've had a lot of fucking tennis beers."

Two months in, EDB was more than half of Wild Heaven’s 4,000-barrel production. The brewery’s projected 2016 volume has doubled to 8,000 BBLs. With EDB holding steady at 50% of that volume, there will be as much of it in 2016 as there was Wild Heaven in 2015.

“It’s changed a number of things,” Purdy says. “If you’re small like we are, and you’re still in your formative years, you need to be consistent. But, if you can hit a home run with a unique design, then you should do that instead. We decided to see if we could do that a few more times.”

So far, that means White Blackbird Saison and Wise Blood IPA, a pair of new beers in attractive new cans designed by Bart Sasso. He also designed the new can for Wild Heaven seasonal Autumn Defense, a Marzen-style beer only available on draft before 2016. Sasso is a founding partner—along with Calvert—of Ticonderoga Club, one of Atlanta’s most talked-about new restaurants, which opened in late 2015. He’s also a graphic designer and half of the agency GENTLEMAN, whose clients include The Bitter Southerner, Treehorn Cider, and a smattering of Atlanta-area restaurants.

Johnson says it was EDB that inspired the company to hire on someone like Sasso to keep pushing their design forward. “The creative genius of Ian and Alvin has undeniably been a huge part of the success of EDB,” he says. “In many ways it changed the trajectory of how we viewed the art associated with our beers and showed us the importance of getting the marketing right on a product.”

Furthermore, Johnson says, that packaging fueled the beer’s runaway success.

“It’s a beer that I’m proud of,” he says. “But if we had put that same exact beer into a bottle, with a label that looked similar to Ode to Mercy, and called it Sunshine, it wouldn’t have sold.”

 

Everyone involved with Emergency Drinking Beer agrees Emergency Drinking Beer costs too much.

“I would like to be able to sell it a bit cheaper, but it’s a great product, and it’s expensive to do,” Jones says. “We sell it for five, but I’d like to be able to sell it for four.”

While talking with Wild Heaven’s Purdy and Johnson, I mention I’ve seen it for as much as $6 at a bar. “Ideally, that would be a $4 beer,” Johnson says. “I’m oftentimes surprised. There was a Ponce City Market account that was charging $7 for it. I still bought it, but it was like, god, that is the wrong number [laughs].”

Purdy says that, despite the fact that some retailers price it otherwise, EDB is “targeted to be $9.99 a six pack.” He says Wild Heaven’s calculation with their wholesaler, Georgia Crown Distributing, should yield that price—that when the brewery stopped mobile canning, it lowered its price to Georgia Crown. He says that’s the biggest price-cutting step they can take in the short term. While he’d love for it to be $8.99 a six pack, he’s not sure that’s feasible.

“When we increase the size of the canning line, it should be able to happen,” Purdy elaborates. “For now, when I see $9.99, I’m good with that. [It’s] pretty standard for a craft six pack.”

In addition to the price concerns, some hard feelings remain. Perhaps that’s to be expected of a handshake deal involving a bartender, a restaurant, a graphic designer, and a brewery. Or perhaps it’s a byproduct of a beer industry that’s chummy to a fault—one that’s still, in many ways, finding maturity.

“One of the things that was difficult when we first got this thing going was that people would be like, ‘Paul Calvert and Wild Heaven did a beer,’” Jones says. “And I’m like, [sighs] ‘Yeah, but who was paying his salary the whole time we were making the beer?’ It’s our beer.”

Last winter, Jones posted a snarky comment to Victory’s Instagram page under a photo of an Atlanta Magazine piece about EDB that didn’t mention the bar’s involvement in creating the beer. I mention the Instagram post and Jones takes a moment to compose his thoughts.

“I think we expected it to be more of a splash, like, ‘Look what Victory’s done with this cool beer!’” he says. “And it wasn’t anything like that. I’ll see people with [EDB] t-shirts or koozies, and I’m like, ‘We didn’t even get a t-shirt!’ [laughs] Like, thanks?”

Purdy points to Georgia’s archaic beer laws—which are some of the most restrictive in the United States—as a reason why, perhaps, Jones feels shortchanged.

“Until May of 2016, it’s been illegal for us to even mention any particular retailer in public, so we’ve been a bit hamstrung on that point as far as tooting Victory’s horn by name,” he says. “We’ve always made efforts to tell anyone that EDB exists because we worked with Victory and Paul on it—the VSB icon will always be on there. But we had to be extremely careful we didn’t violate any Department of Revenue regulations, so we have not been able to do the type of co-promotion that we’d want to do in an ideal world.”

Jones admits that it was an experiment, though, and one that mostly worked out for the good of everyone.

“You balance the work you put in while understanding the risk, monetarily, that they put in,” he says. “And now I know I can work with people who are good at what they do, and because we’re good at what we do, we can make something that I can sell 250 cases of per month.”

 

After EDB became the brewery’s accidental flagship, Wild Heaven purchased a couple 120-barrel fermentors that served, essentially, as EDB incubators. They got new bottling and canning lines as well. While it’s maybe not Johnson’s favorite Wild Heaven beer, it’s certainly given him the freedom to experiment going forward.

“EDB has clearly positively affected the finances,” Johnson says. “This doesn’t correlate one-to-one, but I suspect you would never hear somebody like New Belgium shitting on Fat Tire, even though they believe they make way better beers than that. It changes the dynamics.”

“It’s a very real problem,” Purdy says of the demand. “EDB hasn’t slowed down. In fact, it’s speeding up. We had to pull it back from most of Georgia and our Tennessee footprint about two months ago. We’re hoping to get caught up soon.”

Pulling their presence in those markets is a strategic move that lets them keep a steady supply in Atlanta.

“Kroger would have launched [Wise Blood] in 80 stores if we’d had enough,” Purdy says. “They asked for it and wanted to go big before even tasting it, just based off our success with EDB and White Blackbird. We should probably stop everything and make EDB all the time. I remember [Dogfish Head Brewery founder] Sam Calagione once saying that if they didn’t push against it, they’d be the 60 Minute Brewing Company.”

Wild Heaven is canning more, too, converting their core 12 oz. bottle selections—Invocation Golden Ale, Ode to Mercy Imperial Brown Ale, and Eschaton Quadruple—to aluminum to match the rest of their growing core lineup. And while EDB wasn’t the impetus for this new canning initiative, it was the start of it, and it played an essential role in generating the money, resources, and momentum necessary for all this change and growth. Every time something positive happens to Wild Heaven Craft Beers going forward, it’s thanks, at least in part, to the peculiar yellow can with the bold look and the oddball jokes and the unprecedented style. The can that changed everything for this brewery in 2015.

“Is it a pivot?” Purdy asks. “Yep, definitely. But it’s also a huge challenge. I don’t know that we’ll ever catch lightning in a bottle like we did with that again. That might be a once-in-a-career sorta deal. What do you do to follow that?”

Words by Austin L Ray
Photos by Michael Kiser

Austin L. Ray

Austin lives in Atlanta with his wife and two dogs, working for MailChimp by day and other folks by night and weekend. He writes The Georgia Brewsletter, likes weird beer, black t-shirts with white print, stand-up comedy, pit bulls, fancy socks, and nice people.

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