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How two college buddies from Colorado stumbled into town, built a brewery, threw outrageous parties, and forever changed the way Atlanta drinks beer. An oral history of SweetWater.
First the governor arrived, aides in tow. Later came the mayor, riding in a black SUV with tinted windows. There were state officials, city council members, and local TV stations, illuminated in a dazzle of flash photography. But it wasn’t the dignitaries or the media that caused a traffic jam on Ottley Drive in Brookwood Hills. No, it was the giant flatbed bearing one of two sixty-five-foot, shiny, silver fermenters, each with the capacity for 1,000 barrels of beer (that’s 31,000 gallons), being delivered to the newly expanded SweetWater Brewing Company that morning.
The March 20 ribbon-cutting made it official: Atlanta’s beloved brewery with the iconic rainbow trout logo and the laid-back image (“don’t float the mainstream”) is no longer the scrappy upstart it was sixteen years ago—back when two beer-loving buddies from the University of Colorado gathered up their belongings, packed their trucks, and took their knowledge of brewing beer to the unconquered Southeast. Today SweetWater ranks thirty-fifth in the top fifty breweries in America by sales volume. Among just craft brewers, it ranks twenty-fourth. Close to 77,500 gallons of beer gets brewed in SweetWater’s Midtown plant each week. This year’s expansion will enable the brewery to potentially triple its current output. SweetWater now employs eighty-three people, with plans to hire more. Tough economic climate? No wonder the governor wants to
Amid the success and visibility (it was all over this season of The Office), SweetWater has held fast to the youthful spirit that brought it this far. The brewery’s tap handles still evoke carefree college days: Road Trip, Happy Ending, 420. Lines for SweetWater’s tours stretch down the street, bringing young singles and seasoned professionals to the same party. And even forty-one-year-old Freddy Bensch, a Californian who cofounded SweetWater with New Jersey native Kevin McNerney, still shows up to work in flip-flops and shorts whenever he can (he upgraded to a sport jacket on the day of the ribbon-cutting).
But don’t let the casual vibe fool you. The two men have been serious about making beer since scrubbing nasty kegs clean as college kids. Bensch went on to study at the American Brewers Guild, while McNerney took brewing positions in Colorado and California. Bensch was the first to arrive in Atlanta, and it was hot with Olympic fever.
Freddy Bensch, forty-one, cofounder, CEO, aka Big Kahuna. The Olympics were coming. This was early ’96, so there was an incredible buzz here. Everybody was amped—there was tons of energy, buildings were going up all over the place. The girls shaved their armpits and legs, which they didn’t do in Boulder, which was nice. That helped immensely. And you know, people were extremely nice, and I thought this town was really going someplace.
Kevin McNerney, forty-one, cofounder, former brewmaster; now brewmaster at 5 Seasons Brewing in Sandy Springs. The craft brewing industry was very much at the beginning stages here. The Southeast was kind of the last frontier.
Bensch There was Dogwood, Red Brick Brewing Company [then Atlanta Brewing Company], and Marthasville.
McNerney Only one of which still survives, Red Brick Brewing Company.
Bensch All my shit was in my truck, including my dog, Badger. You don’t think too deep when you’re that age. It was probably the shaved legs. Really.
McNerney We were only twenty-six years old.
Bensch Kevin was a ski bum in [California]. He was living pretty large; he was the man. Still had his ponytail. I called him up and said, “Hey Kev, we’re gonna do it in Atlanta. If you’re gonna get on, you need to come.” And I suckered [Matt] into coming down here.
Matt Patterson, forty-four, former sales director, aka Consumption Consultant; worked at Breckenridge Brewery in Denver—Bensch and McNerney met him while buying kegs for a party. I moved out right after the Olympics. I had never been to Atlanta at that point. My wife was six months pregnant. She quit her job, I quit my job, and we packed up. I think it was just cockiness on all our parts. Luckily we were as dumb as we were, because if we really had given it some thought, we may never have made that jump.
Bensch We raised under a million [dollars]. Friends, and family, and a couple of local people. We got an SBA loan, and we leased a space, the cheapest space we could possibly find in Atlanta. Off
Patterson I knew Freddy was going to put a good company together, Kevin was going to make awesome beers, and I knew I could sell it.
Before SweetWater’s first lease became a brewery, the warehouse off I-20 on Fulton Industrial was a 911 dispatch center. The friends did a lot of retrofitting to ready the space for brewing. There were drains to install, offices to clear out, and power requirements to meet. And then there were the neighbors.
Bensch Crack dealers, hookers, and beer. Good times.
Bob Townsend, beer columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, editor of Southern Brew News. It was just crazy. The first time I went to the brewery I was like, Oh shit, what is this out here? There’s [prostitutes] in the street and they’re waving down cars.
Bensch We did everything ourselves that we knew how to do. From installing plumbing to glycol [a refrigerant that controls the temperature in tanks] to the electrical.
McNerney We wanted to translate through the beer what our personalities were, and that’s where “SweetWater” came into play, because that definitely spoke to our outdoors nature.
Bensch We started brewing in January of 1997 and sold our first keg of beer February 17: ESB and Blue. 420 hadn’t come yet. Because it wasn’t 4/20 yet. Ding!
McNerney The beer thing we knew. The business thing and the marketing thing and all those other technicalities—that is what we were green at. We got several doors closed in our face.
Freddy Bensch, Steve Farace, and Nick Nock in tasting room; photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Patterson When we first came to town and started talking to the different distributors, most of them thought we were nuts. I had a distributor literally laugh at us, saying we’d never make it. I had a guy call me and he said, “I’ve heard a lot about those microwave beers and I want to try to taste yours.” Microwave was the word he used to describe microbrewery. That’s how the market was in those days. But there were a bunch of guys that bought into SweetWater on day one, and they’re still great customers.
Juanchi Vélez, forty-one, former controller, early volunteer; founder of 3 Cordilleras, a microbrewery in Medellín, Colombia. I had an MBA from Kennesaw State. I wanted to learn the business. So I went for an interview and Freddy was in shorts, without shoes. He said, “How can I give you a job? You don’t even speak English.” I said, “Look, I have an MBA in your country but you don’t understand me. But those professors understood me. So I don’t know, there’s something wrong with your English, too.” It was kind of funny. He said, “I can’t afford you.” I said, “I will work for you for free for five months if you teach me the business.” He gave me some boots and a shovel, and we started squeegeeing.
Sabrina McNerney, forty, Kevin’s wife; the two met in 1999 while she was working in sales for the Costa Rican beer brand Cerveza Imperial. Everything was a mess in the old brewery. It looked like a college apartment. But at the same time, I had a lot of faith in them. I felt like they had a good thing.
Bensch We’d load up our company car, which was an old Honda station wagon, with kegs. And this was illegal at the time and we didn’t know this—so, sorry. We’d load up our car with beer and go around to various bars in Little Five Points, Buckhead. With a growler of beer, we’d go in and say, “Hey, we just made this down the street. We’re starting this new brewery; would you like to try this?”
Patterson You’d walk in and every person in the bar has a Bud Light or a Coors Light in their hands. It was a shock to the system because it wasn’t what we were used to.
McNerney All we had to do was get you to pick up the beer, and once you took a sip of it you would be sold.
Bensch We sold seventeen kegs our first month. The first bar that ever put us on was Neighbor’s [in VirginiaHighland]. The pale was hoppy, the ESB was amazingly hoppy and bitter, and the fruit beer was for the girls with the shaved legs. Always workin’!
McNerney Manuel’s [Tavern] was one of our early places.
Patterson Virginia-Highland and Little Five Points got into what we were doing a lot earlier than some of the other places. It was pretty apparent that the farther away you got from Downtown Atlanta, the harder it was to sell. The Georgia Tech kids bought in right away. I think they eventually convinced their parents and that’s how we started making our way outside the center of Atlanta.
Sabrina McNerney Freddy wouldn’t do any advertising. He had a plan in mind and he got it done. It was all word of mouth. In the beginning, all their loyal fans were basically their salesmen.
Vélez At the university, the business cases they teach you are always Coca-Cola, Apple, the big ones. They never teach you how to run a small company. When I got [to SweetWater], I didn’t believe Freddy’s theories. Because Freddy was always trying to do things in a very different way than a big company would have done it. I was always like, “Man, why don’t you try this strategy that I learned in school?” I kept telling him that we were working too much at the plant, doing labor that was keeping us from more important work in the office—strategy or planning. He always said that we needed to do both, that helping in the plant was not optional. That gave everybody the sense of the importance of the beer. When we discussed the opportunity to get into important bars, sometimes they wanted free beer or big discounts. Freddy always said, “Why are we going to give away [the product] to a bar that did not trust us?” He was like, “Juanchi, keep your school out of this.” Two or three years down the road, I started seeing the results. SweetWater has been my best school ever.
Bensch, McNerney, and Patterson knew tours would be essential in building the SweetWater buzz. But would anyone make the trek to Fulton Industrial, twenty minutes from Downtown? And once they arrived, would they stay?
Bensch [We wanted] to get people in and be able to try our products. And to give the public a glimpse of who we were and show the authenticity behind the brand—that it really wasn’t just some marketing BS, but in fact it’s a bunch of guys really busting their ass trying to make the best beer possible.
McNerney We knew that there was a mystique for people to come and actually experience the breweries. We also knew that [a tour] was a cheap and effective way to support our product. They walked away with a good experience, they walked away with a visual that they could then go and talk up in the community. Before too long we had hundreds of people coming for tours.
Nick Nock, forty-three, current head brewer, first employee; started as a volunteer, fitting time in between brewpub gigs. Fulton Industrial, that was kind of like a frat house.
Mary Jane Nock, forty-three, Nick’s wife, tour manager; used to work in IT sales. It always had this really fun, exciting vibe to it. I was coming down there in my suit after my sales job to have a beer, and I’d be on the bottling line throwing bottles in the boxes. The tours used to be on Monday and Wednesday nights. It wouldn’t even cost you anything. Throughout the late 1990s to early 2000s, there were always twenty-five more people every time. And there were always hot women. These guys are always completely surrounded by hot women. And they still are, to this day! You think you’re hot and cute down at the brewery. But all of a sudden you start drinking, partying, and before you know it, you’re married and pregnant. I always tell these hot chicks at the brewery these days, this is how it starts.
Townsend They had bras pinned up all over the walls. Junky old couches.
Mary Jane Nock Girls would just take their bras off and they would want to donate it to the wall! Every tour there was another bra added to the mix. Eventually the bras went all the way around the trim of the room. [The guys] don’t want to come off like a bunch of horny twenty-year-olds, but they were! The only thing they did more than party was work.
Townsend I came from a place initially where I was sort of dubious about SweetWater—I thought, These guys are kind of wacky and not very serious—to being somebody who is an admirer with a lot of respect.
Patterson We’d have people just sitting there doing nothing but putting six-packs together and there’d be a huge mountain of [cases] as we were starting the bottling run. Without fail some pain in the butt would throw a tennis ball and [Freddy’s dog] Badger would go running through. You’ve just spent two hours putting six-packs together and Badger’s flying through the middle of it chasing a tennis ball. That epitomized what we were.
Bensch Badger’s real paw print is on every six-pack bottom. I got him right before I went to Boulder, and he made it all the way until our sixth or seventh year.
Steve Farace, thirty-eight, marketing director, aka Minister of Propaganda; started at SweetWater in 2002. At the brewery everybody did everything. You had brewers who ran the bottling line, and Juanchi would do the books, then run out back and drive the forklifts. Most of the time, I was outside of the brewery, but if I was there and the bottling line was running slow, I’d be back there packing cases.
Nock The big volunteer day would be [for] the Festive ale. Initially we’d hand-bottle that in the liter bottles. And that just turned into a crazy party. If you didn’t have a bottle, your cup tended to go under [the spout] to catch it just in case. Can’t have that beer hit the floor. Some people started doing some stupid stuff. We don’t do that anymore.
The SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale has what beer geeks call “poundability.” It’s smooth, drinkable, and golden, and it offered Atlantans more flavor than most mass-produced options, without pushing unsuspecting palates too far. Fans love 420’s bright bursts of citrus, but the not-so-subtle drug reference (420 refers to the time of day to light up) also made it a hit with a certain segment of SweetWater’s demographic. The beer solidified SweetWater’s presence in Atlanta and won it a silver medal from the Great American Beer Festival in 2002.
McNerney It was a given that we were going to do [an extra pale ale] as one of the beers in our profile. We thought we would be more successful if we just focused on two and let them gain some traction, and then follow it up with the third brand, the 420. 420 was one of those things that we stumbled upon. It was phenomenal. And that was the cool thing about 420—people that got the 420 reference, they attached themselves to it, they bought into it, they were fans from the get-go. People who didn’t get it were none the wiser.
Bensch [We were] three guys in a room with a batch of beer already in the tank, trying to name something. We knew what style we wanted this thing to end up like. This beer was already fermenting and we didn’t have a name for it. That’s how loose it was. We’re sitting there going around and around. We’re looking at our brewer’s sheet that says all the ingredients and at the top was the date that we brewed it on—4/20. “What do you guys think?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” There you go.
Townsend Super drinkable. Kind of a cool name. Kind of a cool image.
Crawford Moran, former brewer at Dogwood Brewing Company; now brewmaster at 5 Seasons Brewing’s Westside and Alpharetta locations. It just went gangbusters. It’s a very nice beer.
McNerney A lot of people think that we did these test batches and kind of fiddled around with it in the backyard. There was very little of that going on. By the time Freddy and I came out to open up SweetWater, if we didn’t have the confidence that we knew how to brew a batch of beer, then we had no business doing what we were doing. So we’d do some scratch work over a couple beers in an office and nail it down from the get-go based off of that.
Pam Ledbetter, former general manager at Neighbor’s Pub; now owner of Wahoo! Grill in Decatur. We were doing like seven or eight kegs a week. For a little place like Neighbor’s, that was pretty big. They would come in and say, “Who filled the most pitchers of SweetWater today?” And they’d hand them a $20 bill.
Within two years of opening, SweetWater was the host brewery for the World Beer Cup, an international brewing competition sometimes referred to as the Olympics of beer. In 2002 SweetWater won Small Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, where Kevin McNerney also took Brewmaster of the Year. And in 2004 the founders finally struck a deal with United Distributors, one of the largest volume beverage distributors in the U.S. Things with United hadn’t worked out the first time around—United, at the time, was already representing SweetWater competitors Marthasville and Red Brick Brewing Company (then Atlanta Brewing Company). But after Marthasville went out of business and SweetWater gained traction, United took notice. Still, the first sit-down in 1997 didn’t go as planned.
Paul Kirbabas, director of sales administration, United Distributors. This is a white-collar environment, [and Freddy] comes in wearing shredded shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that looked like he grabbed it out of a Dumpster in front of the building.
Vélez And all of a sudden Freddy says, “Hey Paul, do you mind shutting off your air-conditioning? It’s freezing in here.” And the guy says something like, “Why don’t you dress [properly] for a meeting like this?” And Freddy said, “Man, don’t be stupid. You know that you’d rather be dressing like me but you can’t.” I was like, Oh man, this guy just killed the deal!
Kirbabas I said I couldn’t really represent him and do him justice . . . We were too busy because we represented the other Atlanta craft brands. Seven years passed by, SweetWater is starting to roll and has become Atlanta’s favorite microbrewery. We entered into a deal with National Distributing to acquire SweetWater, and we haven’t looked back since. [We] took the brand from 200,000 cases to 700,000 cases in six years.
Patterson Lo and behold, we were the host brewery for the World Beer Cup when we were two years old. There were a lot of ruffled feathers. Honestly we probably didn’t deserve to be hosting it as young as we were, but that was a huge feather in our cap. Kevin and Freddy just put a full-on blitz on Charlie [Papazian, founder of the World Beer Cup]. Michael Jackson, he was the beer expert of the world, he was in our brewery. He was craft brewing back in the 1990s and was standing in SweetWater Brewing Company. That was a cool thing
Townsend These guys had really done something. They’d done something that’s not only amazing for them but they’d done something that’s amazing for the South in terms of brewing. Because the South was considered kind of a wasteland of brewing.
By 2003 the brewery had outgrown its Fulton Industrial space. Operations were moved to a site on Ottley Drive, where SweetWater is today.
McNerney Once we started seeing the growth, we knew we wanted to come closer into town so people could experience the brewery. We bought an entire brewery that had gone out of business in California. Crews of folks had to go to California, dismantle, lower tanks onto trucks, travel to Atlanta on the road, stand up tanks, and install [at the new location].
Bensch Half our staff was continuing to produce beers and do the books, and the other half was over at the brewery soldering and welding and putting tanks together. We had the ability to build the new one while still being able to operate the old one. We had sold the old one, but there was no endgame on when we had to deliver it. Up until we got it running and felt we had the beers right, then we turned the other one off, packed up our gear, and split.
Sabrina McNerney I was shocked. I was like, this is way bigger than I thought it was going to be. Ever.
If a brewery has to pick a problem, it would probably choose the one SweetWater had, which is that its supply was always just shy of its ever-growing demand. The company went from producing less than 2,000 barrels per year in 1997 to more than 14,000 barrels by 2003. Expanding to a larger space to keep up with demand meant more time, more energy, and more hiccups.
McNerney Our struggles came when we started growing so quickly. It seemed like you could barely come up for air. That’s ultimately what caused me to resign [in 2008]. Growing as rapidly as we were, and having to achieve these goals and continue to satisfy orders for many, many years, wore me out. I’m the type of brewer that I will not ask anybody to do something that I won’t do myself. So that required me to micromanage quite a bit—to a fault, probably, because I’m always trying to make sure everybody’s on task and doing what they need to do.
Vélez I remember there was like 60 or 70 percent growth every year, in production and revenue.
Patterson I worked there for three years—I had a baby at home and another on the way. Four a.m. curtain calls were starting to drain me.
Bensch I’m not sure people understand how difficult it is to consistently make a good beer. I’m not just talking about flavor, but quality-wise. To even get the label on straight. In the beer business, you really have to be a student in everything from economics to math to biology to chemistry, and then you better be a good businessman on top. If you are deficient in any of those things, you’re toast. But that’s what really attracted the industry to me, is that every day is just a different challenge. It’s never the same.
Nock The troubleshooting was pretty tough. A lot of things just broke. Or you didn’t open up a valve at the right time.
Sabrina McNerney They relied on volunteers. You’d tape up the packages, and you’d stamp the date on the top and send ’em off. They needed you. If you were there just hanging out, you weren’t just
McNerney When we initially opened up SweetWater, we had to contend with the alcohol content law. It was a very limiting factor. [Until 2004, beer with more than 6 percent alcohol could not be sold in Georgia. When the law was changed, beers up to 14 percent were permitted for sale.] So we couldn’t go and bang out a big IPA or a barley wine. Happy Ending probably never would have been created if the laws hadn’t changed. It was a black mark on Georgia and some of the other Southern states for a while.
Bensch I think Georgia is starting to understand that the craft brewing industry is positive for the state.
Success brought other challenges. In the early days, the brewery insisted that its product stay refrigerated, from the delivery trucks all the way to the grocery store coolers. But as SweetWater has become more ubiquitous, it’s often found stocked at room temperature in places like Costco or Your DeKalb Farmers Market.
McNerney Of course keeping the beer refrigerated at all times is ideal. It is refrigerated at the brewery as well as the distributor warehouse. In the event there is nonrefrigerated product on the floor, it is usually at a large-volume store such as Costco. [But] the brewery and distributor reps also take care of proper rotation of older beer.
Bensch Those beers you see on the floor are not on the floor for more than a week. We track how long that product is there. We feel like it can handle a week.
The change in Georgia’s beer laws ushered in a renaissance for beer drinkers throughout Atlanta. Competition for SweetWater stiffened. Nick Nock, as head brewer, began a special Dank Tank Series featuring more complex, higher-gravity beers in limited release. The brewery has become a major nonprofit contributor, donating more than $300,000 to protect the Chattahoochee River and raising more than $50,000 for Camp Twin Lakes. Bensch, McNerney, Nock, and Farace all have two children each. And there are no bras—visible, anyway—in the tasting room. But the tours are still happening, now four days a week, $10 a pop. This year they’ll aim to produce 120,000 barrels of beer, up from 94,500 in 2011.
McNerney Back then we had a portfolio to fill. So there was the Blue and the ESB and then we did the 420. We were a little bit shy on darker beers, so we [made] the Exodus Porter. We start adding the hop influence and getting that true West Coast style and we do the IPA. We were in a little cocoon so to speak. Back then craft beer was so brand new that, you know, if you went to a Kroger, you might see six or ten beers available. Now there’s sixty.
Bensch Folks that never really understood us ten to fifteen years ago are now starting to embrace what we’re doing.
Mary Jane Nock In the first few years, it was really all about the beer. Then it was like, wow, we can actually sustain ourselves with this place. Within the last five years or so, it’s been like, wow, this is a business.
Sabrina McNerney They have fiercely loyal fans. They’re customers, but they’re fans. The same people I met twelve years ago when I went there for the first time were showing up at the fifteenth anniversary party. I don’t think Freddy has an end
McNerney A big achievement for me was knowing that SweetWater had become successful enough that the people that believed in us and initially invested with us and had given SweetWater the opportunity to be what it is were going to be secure. And that includes all of our family, a lot of our friends. Just to know that we got to a point where that belief had paid off. I think the biggest fear for me was not to let these individuals down. I took it real personally that I needed to be a steward of their beliefs [in us]. I’m impressed with our tenacity to just not take no for an answer. And I’m impressed with our community that has embraced us. The community is as responsible for our success because they really helped us.
Nock And we all think that we’re still twenty-something. It ain’t over.