If you haven't yet tasted anything from the Sweetwater Brewing Co., just wait.
The Southeast's largest - and nation's 18th largest - craft brewery is in the midst of a staggering expansion, launching in the Philadelphia, Northern New Jersey and New York City markets last month and announcing plans to open a second West coast brewery earlier this month. A third, central U.S. brewery is also being explored.
That's a long way from the company's humble beginnings in 1996 - when friends and family wondered if founders Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney had lost their minds by opening a craft brewery in Atlanta, which was a macro brew stronghold at the time.
"It was barren," says Bensch. "The guys who were there were doing bland, mediocre beers. We felt we could come in and work off our west coast training and experience and do something big."
Initially living out of a hotel off of I-75 (until the manager realized he had brought along his dog Badger), Bensch initially sold the beer out of his van. Before long, Sweetwater was using more traditional channels - and couldn't keep up with demand. While the company did eventually produce to become a Southeastern powerhouse, it was still unable to brew a sufficient amount to grow too far beyond that until recently.
"Capacity has always been an issue for us," says Bensch. "We eventually got fed up with being run over by the truck. I needed to rip the bandaid off and do something bigger. So in 2011-2012, we ... went from a 24,000 square foot facility to a 116,000 square foot one - and our capacity, which was around 140,000 barrels once, [has greatly expanded]. Once we fully outfit this facility, we can produce in excess of 600,000 barrels."
The second brewery, which will be powered by equipment purchased from Pyramid Brewing, will bump up that capacity by another 420,000 barrels. (The company says it's exploring location options in all western states - and just starting the discovery process for the potential third brewery in the central U.S.)
That's still going to put Sweetwater's output well below the 4.1 million barrels the Boston Beer Co. (sam) puts out each year, but it's likely to move them up significantly in the annual rankings. And Bensch says it achieved that growth without taking on a significant equity investor. Sweetwater paid cash for the equipment.
"For the past 18 years, we've been able to do pretty much all of our expansion out of cash flow," he says. "We've been very conservative. We've been very smart about how we build and we took on this [expansion] without taking on a ton of debt."
Sweetwater's flagship beer - 420 - will lead the way, but one style worth keeping an eye on are the brewer's 'hash' beers - Hop Hash and Hash Brown - which are hoppy, flavorful explosions.
Rather than being made with hop pellets, these two are made utilizing an ingredient that, for many years, was considered waste product from the creation of those pellets. Put simply, when hop farms dry and convert fresh hops to pellet form, they are dried and shredded. The process causes oils and other attributes from the hop cones to stick to the sides of the machine. It's referred to as hash. Hop farmers generally scrape it off and throw it away, but Sweetwater started buying it from them.
"This stuff is golden," says Bensch. "It's sticky, gooey and pungent and gives flavor that's really, totally its own."
Sweetwater hasn't cornered the market on hop hash - Oregon's Caldera Brewing Co. and California's Saint Archer makes their own Hop Hash beers - it does have several long term contracts in place with some hop farms.
"When you have a waste product or something that has never really been sought after, you just don't know what quantities there are, so we started trying to get as much as we could get," he says.
While there have been reports Sweetwater is considering an IPO, Bensch dismisses the chatter - though, he notes, never say never.
"It's amazing to me how the rumor mill goes inside our industry," he says. "Our eyes are laser focused on continually growing our brand ... It's not something we're focused on now, but let's be realistic, we're in business to make great beer and be successful financially, so you never know."
If Sweetwater beers are just hitting your city - or you've yet to try one - the brewery has a wide assortments of offerings. Here are a few of our favorites.
Sweetwater 420 - This extra pale ale has a nice bitter hoppy taste, but isn't too heavy - and that bitterness doesn't linger. In fact, it's damn near perfect. It has a mild citrus taste (leaning towards grapefruit) with a solid malt backbone. The medium body has a zing to it that makes you want to come back for more. (ABV: 5.4%)
Sweetwater Hash Brown - You've never tasted a brown ale like this before. The concentrated hop oils add a big, bold punch to it that compliments, but doesn't completely dominate, the roasted grains. Pine and citrus dominate through most of the taste, but the sweetness of the malt comes through at the end, giving the beer a light, creamy finish with just a mild lingering bitterness. (ABV: 6.2%)
Sweetwater Hop Hash - There's a big funky nose on this beer and it pours a lot darker than you've come to expect from an IPA, but that's your first hint that there's something different going on here. Hop Hash is a flavor explosion, with a big blend of grass, pine and citrus. It carries a bitter punch at the end, that leaves a resin-y taste, but it's not an unwelcome one. It's a beer that gets more complex the more frequently you drink it. (ABV: 7.8%)
Sweetwater Blue - Generally, I'm not a fan of blueberry ales, but Sweetwater's is a bit different. There's a tart quality amidst the sweetness that works well with the malts that dominate this blonde. For me, it's very much a summer beer that may seem a bit weak in cold weather, but fans of the genre swear by it anytime. (ABV: 4.9%)
Sweetwater IPA - A wonderful blend of hops and citrus and pine, this IPA is a bit more intense than 420, but not one that overpowers your tastebuds. It's a crisp, medium-bodied beer that uses its carbonation to avoid overpowering you with its strong flavors. You'll get hints of grapefruit and even pineapple on the finish, which blend wonderfully with the bitterness of the hops. (ABV: 6.3%)
The Pit & The Pendulum - Brettanomyces yeast can dominated a beer, completely taking over the flavor profile, so it's a credit to Sweetwater's brewers that this funky wild ale is able to avoid that trap. The peaches make their presence known, adding a hint of sweetness at the beginning, but that's quickly tempered by the Brett. It's not an overly tart beer, so I wouldn't yet classify this as a sour. But if you were to cellar one of these, it could easily go in that direction. This is one of Sweetwater's Cork and Cage series - limited releases that are almost always worth your time. (ABV: 8.3%)