State laws continue to make craft brewers cringe, but city officials hope a rewrite of local laws might attract more handmade booze to downtown Augusta.
The city zoning ordinance has permitted brewpubs – restaurants that brew and serve beer on the premises – for years but makes little mention of any other venue involved in making alcoholic beverages besides relegating “distilleries” to heavy industrial zones, according to a memo from city Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson.
While discussion was delayed last week because of commissioner absences, Wilson said the department is taking a hard look at how Augusta regulates smaller-scale breweries, wineries and distilleries because of growth in the industry nationwide and the establishment of Augusta’s first microbreweries.
The owner of Augusta’s only functioning microbrewery – Riverwatch Brewing, located at the state farmer’s market at Fifth Street and Laney-Walker Boulevard – said she wished the discussion had come up earlier but isn’t surprised existing laws don’t embrace small brewers.
“I would have preferred to be downtown,” Brey Sloan said. “I would love to be there, but I would love for this to have been a question two years ago.”
Instead, Sloan said she was told she’d face steep commission opposition to opening a brewery and could only hope to open Riverwatch at the site, which is zoned light industrial.
The brewery stays busy providing tours and using a local distributor to get the beer to restaurants, but its location is challenging, Sloan said. The farmer’s market address, for example, is on Fifth Street, but the property doesn’t have an entrance on Fifth, Sloan said.
The Chicago native said she’s seen breweries there transform an area, attracting restaurants and other businesses, while development is limited around her at the farmer’s market.
“There are breweries all over the inner city, not necessarily in the industrial area,” she said.
Augusta’s second brewery, Savannah River Brewing Co., is awaiting final permits to open a few blocks away on Fifth in another light industrial zone.
The city rules aren’t as a much of a headache as Georgia laws that prevent Sloan and other craft brewers from selling beer by the glass or a six-pack to visitors, she said. They’re only allowed to provide “samples” and “souvenirs” during a tour.
“Mississippi and Georgia are the only two states that do that, and Mississippi is about to change that,” Sloan said.
Local laws vary around the state, according to Wilson’s presentation. Athens only defines brewpubs, although it has two breweries including one downtown. Sandy Springs, Ga., defines “microproducers” and allows them in business, commercial and mixed-use zones. Savannah says microbreweries must serve food while breweries and distilleries are only allowed in industrial zones.
Two commissioners said revisiting the regulations could ensure Augusta and downtown in particular are welcoming to new brewers, winemakers and distillers.
Other challenges aside, local zoning changes could have helped bring the manufacture of brands such as Fruitland Augusta – which makes its Georgia peach vodka blends outside the city – or Edgefield microdistillery Carolina Moon to Augusta.
“Downtown is seeing growth, revitalization and a lot of interest for private investment and we need to be prepared to handle each of those,” Commissioner Mary Davis said. “We need to discuss updating the ordinance to ensure we are being business-friendly.”
Commissioner Sean Frantom, who placed the item on Monday’s meeting agenda, said the changes would help “accomplish new things” such as give visitors the interesting experience of touring a brewery or distillery.
“We have to continue to find ways to bring people downtown to spend money in our city,” he said. Having breweries and distilleries around Broad Street would “create a destination and synergy hub.”
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.