Georgia’s growing craft beer industry has been slow to reach the state’s second-largest city, but a retired Army colonel and homebrewer of 22 years is ready to change that.
Brey Sloan, who retired from the Army a year ago, lost her husband and business partner, Rick, a month later but is carrying on the family dream of opening a brewery with help from her two grown children.
The Army sparked her interest in brewing beer, while two assignments to Asian countries primed her interest in brewing it commercially.
“It was actually the Army school, a long, long time ago,” when a class member “told us how to make beer, the process,” Sloan said.
The class decided to brew a batch.
“It was awful; we didn’t get the bottles washed out and it had a bleach taste, but I was hooked,” she said. “I came back and taught my husband how to do it and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Later, when the family was posted in Burma, government sanctions greatly limited beer options, so Sloan started making her own.
“I would order and get shipped ingredients to make my own beer,” she said. “We were there for four years, and over those four years we became quite well-known for the beer we made.”
It was so well known that local businessmen asked the family to stay and open a microbrewery, but Sloan said by then they were off on a new U.S. Embassy assignment in Japan, where Sloan said she started formal schooling in brewing beer.
She now holds two diplomas in brewing technology and production from Siebel Institute of Technology.
In January 2014, the family decided to buy a house in Evans. They had military friends in the area, and thought the Augusta area would be “a nice place to retire.”
The one thing Augusta was missing, however, was its own brewery, Sloan said.
“So many places have them, and they’re great for tourism,” she said. “People want to drink local beer, and Augusta should have its own beer.”
Soon, Riverwatch Brewery was born, from the familiar commuter route Sloan said she frequently drives downtown.
The name is familiar to locals, but not so particular that non-locals would be put off, she said.
Interest is already high in the brew, especially among local restaurateurs Sloan said are anxious to serve it.
“There’s a lot of interest,” she said. “There hasn’t been any restaurant manager that hasn’t been excited about it.”
Her 20-barrel microbrewery has a target opening date of Nov. 1.
While she’s an experienced brewer, state laws don’t make it easy to brew and sell beer.
Finding a location for a small industrial use wasn’t easy, but eventually, Sloan said, with help from the Development Authority of Richmond County and Small Business Development Council, she found a suitable site, an approximately 5,000-square-foot building at the state-owned Farmers Market on Laney-Walker Boulevard.
The required industrial zoning made finding a downtown location challenging, but the biggest obstacle was finding a site that wasn’t within 500 feet of a school or church, Sloan said.
Once local approvals and federal and state licensing are in place, Sloan said she’ll start off brewing the beer for distribution in kegs before she decides whether to purchase bottling, or possibly canning, equipment.
She has about 10 recipes, including a pale ale, a strong India pale ale with an alcohol content of about eight percent, a golden ale and a crystal wheat beer that’s “quite light and refreshing” for summer drinking, Sloan said.
While she won’t be able to sell beer by the bottle (or can) at the brewery, Sloan said she’ll be able to hold tours and tastings where visitors can sample several glasses of beer.
Fortunately at the farmers market, “there’s a ton of parking space,” she said. “We’ve got a relatively secure parking lot.”
Local beer enthusiasts and licensing officials don’t recall Augusta having its own brewery since before prohibition, nearly 100 years ago, although a couple of venues have tried their hand at making beer to serve diners.
Strict state laws regarding brewpubs also helped prevent those outlets from making a go of it here.
Oldenberg Grill and the King George Pub, which brewed beer in the 1990s, shut their doors by 2001.
Brewpubs must make 50 percent of their revenue from food sales to remain open under state laws, said Augusta Licensing Director Rob Sherman.
“That is really hard for a brewery,” said Ann Wohlstadter, the manager of Poplar Creek Brewing, a local retailer of homebrewing supplies. “The point of going to a brewpub isn’t to eat.”
In general, Georgia is “very behind the curve as far as getting the laws a little more friendly to breweries,” Wohlstadter said. The laws “favor the distribution companies more than the brewery.”
The Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, of which Sloan is a member, maps about 18 craft breweries and 13 brewpubs around the state.
Most are located around metro Atlanta, although Athens and Savannah have two breweries apiece and Macon and Statesboro each have one.
The guild cited $14.3 billion in craft beer sales in the United States in 2013 when it pushed to allow pint sales and take-home sales at breweries and brewpubs, but the Georgia House modified the bill to allow only consumption of samples during paid brewery tours.
Regardless, Wohlstadter said she’s elated Augusta will have its own craft brewery.
“I’m glad someone is finally making it happen,” she said. Sloan “knows what she’s doing and I’m really looking forward to it.”