Veteran Atlanta Bar Owners Ready New Brewpub Venture

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The team behind a popular Atlanta beer bar is venturing out into another part of the beer world, buying up a turnkey brewpub facility in light of big changes to Georgia’s beer industry. On Tuesday, Armando Celentano, Donald Durant, and Benjamin Rhodes, the three partners behind Argosy (and music venue MJQ and local watering hole Bookhouse Pub), announced they’d purchased property most recently occupied by Oak Brewpub in the next-door-ATL suburb of Decatur. The brewpub had quietly opened in summer 2017, celebrated a "grand opening" on Nov. 1, and then promptly closed a couple weeks later, explaining at the time that it was “in the process of changing ownership.”

In a statement, the Argosy team says its focus will center on “sophisticated styles and flavor profiles that borrow from the past, but fully embrace the modern beer culture and brewing techniques.” Reached by GBH, Celentano further expounded on the new project, saying opening a brewpub was always part of the group’s 10-year-plan, adding that that timeline sped up when the Oak Brewpub real estate became available unexpectedly.

“This opportunity was kind of a surprise, to see a fully built out brewery and pub and restaurant on the market like this,” Celentano says. “[We’re] proud of what [we’ve] done in this business, on the retail side, and helping guide people’s taste. But at some point, you feel like you want to feel like you have something to contribute creatively.”

While on the surface this may seem like a three-tier violation in a state with a historically strict attachment to separating those three tiers, curiously, Georgia considers brewpubs a part of the retail tier. Which is to say: Argosy’s owners could not purchase a production brewery space, but they can purchase this brewpub which will nevertheless produce its own beer—including in the form of can releases, for example, which Celentano says they will be doing "as soon as possible."

“It's weird that Georgia makes such a strong distinction,” says Georgia Craft Brewers Guild executive director Nancy Palmer. “In most states, small brewers can do X, Y, Z—some of everything. Here, it's only two things. You're a retailer with limited manufacturing on the side, or a manufacturer with this tiny retail bit.”

Under new leadership and a new name, the brewpub is expected to open in March. Celentano says the team has been brainstorming branding ideas, but would not disclose any information as he and his partners wade through licensing procedures and ensures they're not infringing on anyone else’s intellectual property.

But he did elaborate on some of the broader visions for the company. For instance, while Oak Brewpub was largely restaurant focused, the new operation will emphasize a great deal on building an off-premise presence through distribution. He says the company has heard from wholesalers in the area, though they’ve not yet entered into any contract just yet.

On the production front, brewmaster Barron Slüder (Burnt Hickory, Dry County) didn’t show the company’s cards too much, saying only that it plans to provide offerings that highlight the team’s skills in brewing traditional flavors while also showcasing its creative and innovative spirit.

“We’re gonna brew what we like,” Slüder tells GBH. “But we also want to make sure that we’re providing the Atlanta beer community with what they need.”

Slüder was the brewmaster at Oak Brewpub before it closed. He’s not the only person from the Oak staff staying on board under new ownership, either. General manager Drew Gillespie will also stay on.

Celentano says his team very likely would not have pursued the project if not for a recent legislative overhaul that lifted a prohibition on take-home sales from the state’s breweries and brewpubs.

“Those markets where you can go to a world-class brewery and grab a selection of beers and have lunch and walk out the door unfettered by meaningless antiquated laws, that’s so much fun,” he says. “And we didn’t have that here. Without that legislative change, we probably would not have been interested in this.”

Indeed, both Slüder and Celentano say the state’s industry is enjoying an unprecedented emergence, with the newly minted laws opening up previously unseen opportunities for established breweries, and beer makers yet to open. All of this new runway is allowing Georgia to position itself as a leader in the southeast, rather than a flyover to more beer-friendly environs.

“We were once the last state people thought of to have good beer,” Slüder says. “And now we have a lot to look forward to.”

—Dave Eisenberg