A pile of empty kegs is growing at Riverwatch Brewery, and so is the excitement surrounding what could be the city’s first brewery in more than a century.
Owner Brey Sloan said she and several helpers have worked around the clock to prep the facility, a rented warehouse at the Farmers Market on Laney-Walker Boulevard, and it’s finally starting to take shape.
In one corner is a room packed wall to wall with empty kegs waiting to be filled. In another are several thousand gallons worth of stainless steel tanks used in the brewing process. Somewhere in the middle is a sizeable tasting room that still looks like a construction zone.
Sloan regularly updates the brewery’s Facebook page, which now has more than 720 likes, and often has to respond to the same question: “When will you open?”
“We hope by St. Patrick’s Day,” she sometimes responds.
All that’s missing are the licenses that will allow Sloan to brew her first batch.
Though Riverwatch Brewery passed through the local permitting process with ease and its federal license is imminent, Sloan said much of the difficulty in providing an opening date is because Georgia requires brewers to jump through more hoops than other states, further delaying the process.
And it doesn’t stop after the first keg is tapped.
In South Carolina, for example, breweries can sell pints of beer on site and packaged beer to go, but Georgia brewers can’t, said Nancy Palmer, the executive director of the Georgia’s Craft Brewers Guild.
There are some workarounds. Georgia breweries generally use the “tour and taste” system in which patrons pay for a tour and receive a small amount of free beer while on site, but even that can be problematic, Palmer said.
She argues that Georgia should follow the example of other states by allowing brewers to harness revenue streams beyond sales to wholesalers.
“Without these modernizations to beer manufacturing law, the kinds of modernizations that allow small businesses to grow, Georgia is going to be left behind and we’re going to be handicapping the business owners that do choose to invest in Georgia,” she said.
The Brewers Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the craft beer industry across the country, lists 75 breweries in Georgia, 14 of which are considered to be in the planning stage.
In September, the organization announced that its database passed 4,000 active breweries nationwide, which it says is the first time the U.S. has passed that threshold since the 1870s. The Internal Revenue Department tallied 4,131 in 1873, according to the Brewers Association’s Web site.
Bart Watson, the association’s chief economist, said he believes the resurgence can be traced back to the 1970s, when the federal government legalized home brewing. That coupled with a cut in the federal excise tax on small brewers facilitated more growth in the beer culture nationwide, Watson said.
More recently, growth has been driven by consumer demand for fuller flavor, more variety in the beer aisle and a way to support local business.
“I think there’s emotional connection with local products,” Watson said. “It also means that those dollars are staying in the community when you know that it’s locally produced. The brewers with a local focus can do a lot more to market their products in a nimble way.”
Riverwatch Brewery, for example, is named after the stretch of road that links Augusta with Columbia County. One of the brews made there will carry some variation of the thoroughfare’s official designation, Route 104, Sloan said. Other varieties could carry the names of other prominent Augusta fixtures.
It’s something Sloan said she hopes not only instills community pride, but also will draw outsiders to visit Riverwatch Brewery and see what else the city has to offer.
Odds are that a craft beer connoisseur who passes through the area will make a stop at the local brewery, Watson said.
“We found that the average craft beer drinker, of course there are tens of millions in the country, visit an average of 1½ craft breweries while traveling a year,” Watson said, adding that 18 percent of craft beer drinkers quench their thirst at three or more out-of-town breweries a year. “It’s becoming part of a larger food and drink movement.”