Beer hasn’t been brewed commercially in Augusta since before Prohibition, which gives special meaning to the poster hanging in the future tasting room of RiverWatch Brewery: “About Damn Time.”
The microbrewery, one of two under development in Augusta and expected to be open by year’s end, hopes to ride a wave of popularity that has boosted sales of craft beers for the past several years and turned city-centric labels into national brands.
Between 2014 and 2015, microbreweries increased 21.6 percent to 2,397, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the craft beer industry nationwide.
Nearly every major city – and many minor ones – have a hometown brew. Atlanta has Red Brick Brewing; Savannah, Ga., has Southbound Brewing Co.;Asheville, N.C, has Highland Brewing Co.; and New York has Brooklyn Brewery.
But Augusta, home to a world-famous golfing heritage and a growing population of young professionals, has had no craft beer to call its own. RiverWatch Brewery and its fledgling competitor Savannah River Brewing Co. aim to change that.
Setting up shop in Augusta’s virgin territory was a no-brainer, Savannah River Brewing President Steve Ellison said.
“When we would come visit (my daughter and son-in-law), we noticed there were no breweries in Augusta, and it’s a big town – vibrant,” the Monroe, Ga., resident said. “I told myself, ‘Wow, this an opportunity here.’”
Though the two breweries are using the city’s international cache to build their business, they are having to contend with state and local alcohol laws designed to make such ventures difficult to operate. Zoning regulations, for example, relegate the breweries to industrial zones – both are within a block of each other in a warehouse district off Fifth Street – while distribution laws prohibit the companies from selling directly to consumers.
“Generally speaking, a brewery in another state is on average about 2.5 times more profitable per gallon of beer they make than a Georgia brewery is,” said Nancy Palmer, the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild.
Unlike states such as South Carolina, where breweries can sell pints of beer on site and packaged beer to go, Georgia breweries must operate on a “tour and taste” system in which patrons pay for a tour and receive a small amount of free beer on site, meaning they don’t technically purchase alcohol. That explains why Georgia has fewer than 50 breweries in operation while Portland, Ore., alone has
more than 80.
RiverWatch Brewery has yet to produce its first batch, but owner Brey Sloan, a retired Army colonel in Grovetown, said she intends to distribute kegs to local bars and restaurants. Savannah River’s Ellison said he wants to distribute more regionally, including along the East Coast.
AUGUSTA HASN’T always been without locally made brews. Before Prohibition, Augusta Brewing Co. opened up shop near 13th, Fenwick and Nelson streets in February 1889 and whipped up its own brand of beer until Georgia passed its prohibition legislation in 1907, according to Augusta Chronicle archives.
When brew pubs came into vogue during the 1990s, Augusta had two: Oldenberg Grill on Washington Road and the King George Pub downtown. Under state law, both were required to make at least 50 percent of their revenue from food sales. Both were closed by 2001.
Sam Holloway, a craft beer industry expert and associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Portland, said it was only a matter of time before someone decided to launch an Augusta-based beer.
“At a time when we have access to material from every corner of the globe, our buying habits actually shift in the opposite direction,” Holloway said. “It comes as very little surprise to me that an entrepreneur would look around Augusta and say, ‘I’ve got a chance to give these local people something to be proud of, something to celebrate.’”
Marsha Loda, an associate professor of marketing at Augusta University’s Hull College of Business, said beer companies walk a fine line between clever and cliched.
“You can have a very great product that’s not very appealingly packaged, and it can go unnoticed,” she said. “The opposite is also true. The magic happens when you’ve got a great product and a great marketing campaign going together.”
SAVANNAH RIVER RAN into road bumps early when it launched “Green Jacket Pilsner” as one of its first four beers. Two weeks before the start of this year’s Masters Tournament, it posted a cease-and-desist letter from Augusta National Golf Club on its Facebook page.
Ellison said the company managed to spin that into a positive by launching a beer-naming contest among its social media followers. The company’s other beer labels include uniquely “Augusta” names, such as Savannah River IPA, Westobou Amber Ale and Dynamite Brown Ale.
RiverWatch Brewery, named for the expressway connecting downtown Augusta to Evans, has taken a different direction with its names. Aside from Route 104 Pale Ale – a nod to the official name of River Watch Parkway – the rest of the lineup holds nondescript names, including Scenic Overlook Blonde Ale, Queen Maeve Irish Red Ale, Cautionary Tale Double IPA and NPR Wheat.
The idea is that locals will recognize the local brand and seek it out. That is similar to the strategy being employed by Atlanta resident Yuri Kato, the driving force behind Fruitland Augusta, a peach vodka brand she launched two years ago and is now trying to get located in downtown Augusta.
The brand is built around the heritage of Augustan Prosper J. Berckmans, a horticulturist whose 300-acre tract helped launch Georgia’s iconic peach industry and became the city’s most storied piece of real estate: Augusta National.
Kato, a Tokyo-born spirits marketer and former CNN contributor, settled on the “Fruitland” brand name as a nod to Berckmans’ Fruitland Nurseries, where the Belgian immigrant cultivated, harvested and exported peaches from the estimated 3 million trees he planted on the property from his arrival in Augusta in 1850 until his death in 1910. Based on Kato’s research, there were only about 100,000 peach trees in the entire state before Berckmans’ arrival.
“Here in Augusta, because we have Berckmans Road, people are kind of aware of the name Berckmans, but nobody was aware he was the person who made our state the Peach State,” Kato said. “We want people to know Augusta started this. It just happens to be the land that started this whole thing is the most famous golf course that this city is known for.”
Kato acknowledged some locals were taken aback by Fruitland Augusta’s 2014 launch, which was intentionally planned for August, National Peach Month.
“I think when we first came out, some people thought, ‘Oh, those guys are just trying to make money off Masters Week,’” she said. “I mean, here comes this weirdly tall Japanese woman trying to sell Georgia peaches – that was weird enough.”
Locals’ sensitivity to profiting off the Augusta name is why she is building the brand slowly, distributing only in Georgia and avoiding overt golf references or images to market her vodkas, which she says are the only peach- and peach tea-flavored spirits using real Georgia peaches in the distillation process. She said other Georgia peach
brands use only Georgia peach flavorings.
CREATING A LOCAL craft beer and spirits industry is one of the easiest ways Augusta can boost tourism, said Jennifer Bowen, the vice president of destination development at the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We believe it’s going to be another feather in our cap as far as tourism goes,” she said. “If they’re successful in (brewing) their beer and their product is carrying the Augusta name, that’s further recognition for our city. It’s sort of happening naturally with their success.”
Holloway, the professor in Portland, said it’s not too farfetched to think that people outside of Augusta would buy those products just to feel a connection.
“Beer is this wonderful thing that allows people to come together and share experiences, and you don’t always have those experiences at home,” he said. “If you get to one day go to the Masters, why wouldn’t you want to remember that trip and the people I met by drinking
a beer that was made by their neighbors? That’s a very powerful branding move.”