Georgia Breweries Find Different Kinds of Success Through Direct Sales

Austin Ray
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In early September, Georgia became the 50th and final state in the country to allow its breweries to sell directly to their consumers. A years-long brewers vs. distributors fight ended (for now, anyway) when Senate Bill 85 became law on Sept. 1. With language backed by both brewers and wholesalers, the new law allows breweries to sell up to 3,000 barrels of beer a year to visiting consumers, enabling drinkers to enjoy beer by the glass on-premise and buy up to one case’s worth (288 ounces) of beer to go. The bill also includes a provision freeing up brewpub to-go sales.

Now two months into this new normal, Georgia breweries are defining success in different ways. GBH reached out to three Peach State breweries of differing sizes and locations to see how direct sales have changed their day-to-day. From money to consumer experience to, well, saving a business, their answers run an interesting and diverse gamut.

Three Taverns Brewery in Decatur (a next-door suburb of Atlanta) celebrated Sept. 1—which, fortuitously for brewers, landed on a Friday this year—by doing a rare bottle release (a german chocolate version of their Helm’s Deep Imperial Stout, limited to around 300 bottles) and putting several hard-to-find beers on draft. The result, Three Taverns Brand Cultivator Nathan Berrong says, was a day they consider “a big success, [though we] had some challenges in managing a crowd that size with a line of hundreds out the door before we even opened. [We] definitely learned some lessons from that day we’ll implement in the future for limited bottle releases.”

Despite crowd issues, the brewery brought in around $20,000 in revenue—a massive spike from their usual Friday sales of $1,800. That day was an outlier, of course, the first of its kind in Georgia history, but also a coveted bottle release for the brewery. Berrong says sales “have been really steady since, more than doubling our pre-law Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.” But he also has hope for the future, saying he doesn’t think most beer drinkers in the state even know they can buy a beer at a brewery yet.

“I think it’ll take some time for everyone to really view a brewery as a place to come and grab a beer after work or hang out for hours trying beers you didn’t even know existed,” he says. “The beer geeks get it, of course, but I think the ripple effect of the general public viewing breweries as a regular drinking spot will take awhile.”

For Burnt Hickory Brewery founder Scott Hedeen, the law was about more than just money. While he admits his Kennesaw brewery did “five times the sales of one week in one day” on Sept. 1, more importantly, he says that “this law saved our brewery.”

Hedeen opened his business as a nanobrewery six years ago in the Cobb County suburb about 40 minutes north of Atlanta proper. “It was supposed to be a learning experience about the craft beer world and a place to build my brands,” he remembers. “The way the state law was, I had one customer—my distributor. I was okay with that. I was just happy to see my beer bought from me and on tap somewhere.”

Over time, though, Hedeen found himself buried in bills and unable to make enough beer to cover them. “How were all the other breweries my size staying open?” he asks. “Smaller breweries than mine where thriving in other states and I was living week to week.”

The answer, he says, was the own-premise taproom model. Hedeen says he focused on building “brand equity rather than the foldable kind” while his brewery scraped by for a few years. Meanwhile, he watched neighboring states change their laws for the better and brewers leave his company because they were tired of waiting for that change to come to Georgia. So when it finally happened, well:

“September 1st came not a minute too soon,” Hedeen says. “We’re seeing the bank account start to flow. We’re seeing vendors getting paid and smiling at me when I see them. Burnt Hickory was a brewery I started without outside help. I thought I could do it on my wits and love of craft beer. Turns out, that's all great, but as the Wu-Tang Clan says, ‘Cash rules everything around me.’ Money may not make you happy, but it will let you brew the beer you want and not have to lose sleep at night.”

Like Scofflaw Brewing Co., who, when interviewed by GBH recently, said sales—and bartender gratuities—were up, but that traffic stayed about the same, Hedeen is experiencing similar revenue-per-consumer trends.

“We haven’t seen more people come to BHB, but that number has spent more,” he says. “The cash flow that direct sales generates has given me options. I can sustain now. I can feel better walking in the door to my business without the gut punch of looming failure.”

In Athens, where Creature Comforts Brewing Co. is thriving, CEO Chris Herron says the new law is less about bringing in money and more about changing the taproom experience.

“Consumers have overwhelmingly enjoyed the ability to pick their own path through how they experience our beer in the tasting room,” he says. “For some, that’s getting flights of beer, for others simply having one beer, and others it’s spending an extended afternoon trying multiple pours from a large variety of beers.”

And when there’s more choice for the consumer, Herron says, Creature Comforts can observe that behavior and use it to inform future production.

“It helps us make the best decisions possible on which brands to take to the broader market as well as the appropriate pricing for those brands,” he explains. “It looks like it will have a positive impact on the business as a whole, meaning we can continue to reinvest more quickly in our people, our products, and our promotions, which creates jobs, drives proven innovation into the market, and provides valuable brand building for the beers that we sell through our distributor and retail partners.”

—Austin L. Ray