Being headquartered in Atlanta, Paste keeps its ear to the ground as far as the local craft beer scene is concerned. Through both personal fandom, and our long-running series of blind craft beer style tastings, we manage to keep fairly up to date on what beer geeks are buzzing about locally, and which new breweries are making waves. In the last year or two, though, one of the ATL scene’s more unexpected, low-key stories has been not the rise of a new brewery, but the reinvention of a venerated one. Today, Red Brick Brewing Co. is putting an exclamation point on several years of modernization (and increasingly tasty beers) by unearthing a throwback: The company’s original name. From this day forth, Red Brick Brewing Co. is gone. Welcome back, Atlanta Brewing Co.
Atlanta Brewing Co. was initially founded by former Guinness executive Greg Kelly in 1993, at a time when it was one of only three breweries in the Atlanta area. Today it has the distinction of being the oldest operating craft brewery in the metro area, having survived the demise of contemporaries Marthasville Brewing Co. and Dogwood Brewing Co. In that time, its employees have witnessed the rise of a proper Atlanta beer scene, anchored by such breweries as SweetWater, Three Taverns, Wild Heaven, Scofflaw, Monday Night, Orpheus and the Wrecking Bar Brewpub. It was the latter that gave ABC its current director of brewing operations, Gavin McKenna, who designed the recipes for beers such as the Soul of the City Pale Ale or Dry-Hopped Pilsner, both of which placed impressively in recent Paste blind tastings. More innovation is on the way, including a new core “international IPA” called Hartsfield (in honor of ATL’s airport), which will be brewed with a partially rotating series of hop varietals from around the world.
With that evolution in mind, and with the announcement of Red Brick’s transformation into Atlanta Brewing Co. on the immediate horizon, Paste spoke with current ABC president Garrett Lockhart, as well as sales director Matt Wells and marketing director Cameron Davis, to discuss both 25 years of company history and the brewery’s outlook for the future.
Paste: The obvious question, in terms of the name change, is “why now?” Why are you becoming Atlanta Brewing Co. again as the company celebrates its 25th anniversary?
Garrett Lockhart: Well, there were a lot of things that led up to this. I started back in the end of 2010, and by 2012 I had taken over brewing operations. I knew a lot of things had to change, so we started making a lot of basic improvements to make better beer. Three years ago, I stepped into the President role after Bob Budd retired, and started hiring the team I thought would take us to the next level. We now feel like we have that solid team, that solid foundation. Matt and Cameron and Gavin were the ones who came to me and pitched the idea of the name change, and at first I was against it because I thought it was too early. But I told them that if they could put together a presentation that sold me, I would take it to the board and try to sell them on it. And they greatly exceeded my expectations.
Ultimately, this seemed like the moment. We have a new distribution partner in United (United Distributors), and we think they’re best suited to help us grow and get to where we want to be. We also wanted to capture some of the buzz that is going on in the city right now. People are feeling really proud of being in Atlanta—it’s a cool space to work, grow and play, and we want to reflect that.
Matt Wells: I think some of the consumers who have been here for a longer time have a perception of what’s in a Red Brick can, and what Red Brick can be, that is limiting. With Gavin McKenna’s renewed focus on innovation, this was a good time to not just change the name but change the look and feel of what we’re doing. We’re hoping it will give us a new way to engage with the local craft community.
Paste: It’s interesting to me that the return to the old name coincides with an era marked by experimentation. People might expect it to imply a return to “how things used to be,” but it’s sort of the opposite, yes?
Cameron Davis: That’s true, but with this resurgence of Atlanta pride, we just wanted to reconnect with our Atlanta roots. We always retained control of the name, and not using it felt like a huge miss on our part. It’s not about going back to what we were before, it’s emphasizing our connection to the city as something that is special to us.
Paste: In the brewery’s original format, Red Brick Ale was a flagship, but I never got to sample it because I didn’t move to ATL until 2014. What style of beer was it, and when did it go away?
Lockhart: The original Red Brick Ale was basically an English-inspired brown ale. When the company name then changed to Red Brick, it became known as Red Brick Brown Ale, and then A-Town Brown. It was discontinued sometime in 2014 because brown ale has become an increasingly difficult style to sell, but down the road we want to bring in a more robust pilot system that will hopefully allow us to bring back some of those old favorites, along with new experiments. We still get a lot of requests for old beers like Red Brick Blonde.
Paste: What about the Laughing Skull sub-brand? Will those remains Laughing Skull, or will they be folded back into Atlanta Brewing Co.?
Lockhart: The Laughing Skull lineup will remain unchanged in general. We view that as a different piece of the company that doesn’t fit into our bigger portfolio—it stands alone, as it has.
Paste: In our blind tastings, we’ve noticed how beers like Soul of the City convey a much more modern brewing style than we’ve associated with Red Brick in the past. Do these reflect a change of philosophy for the brewery?
Lockhart: There’s no question. Gavin brings a fresh perspective to what we’re doing here, and a level of expertise we probably haven’t seen before. We’ve been fortunate to build off a lot of great brewers in our history, but Gavin brought a modern touch we haven’t seen before.
Wells: This is exemplified by a series of collaboration beers we’re doing, where we’ve partnered up with about 14 other breweries, many of them local in Atlanta and some friends from out of state. We’re hoping to show that not only are we making world-class beer in relevant styles, but also the recognition that the brewery has from our peers for what we’re trying to do.
Paste: That’s pretty cool; can you give me any examples of those collaboration beers?
Lockhart: We have two with the Wrecking Bar Brewpub—one of them at their place is a rosé-inspired IPA. At our place we did a really cool beer, something very unique, a barrel-fermented milk stout with coconut. We also have one with Southern Grist in Nashville, a birthday cake-inspired kettle sour called Best Birthday Ever.
Paste: How would you describe the nature of the Atlanta beer market in 2018? Is there anything that makes it or its customers unique, compared to other cities?
Lockhart: For me, I think we’re still a relatively young craft beer market. I grew up in Southern California and was drinking craft beer before I was supposed to be because it was part of the culture there in the ‘90s. I think on some level, the Atlanta market is still figuring out what it’s all about.
Wells: At the same time, I think we’ve got a pretty progressive craft beer community here, even if it’s not fully mature yet. These talented brewers around Atlanta have their ears to the ground about what’s happening around the country. The beer scene is following in the footsteps of the restaurant and cocktail scenes, and becoming increasingly innovative.
Paste: At the same time, does the influx of new Atlanta-area breweries represent a hurdle for the city’s oldest craft brewery as it turns 25?
Lockhart: Our daily challenge is “How do you stay relevant with consumers?” Brewing new, exciting beers is only part of it. You have to gain consumer confidence, and I think doing the name change is going to allow us to reintroduce ourselves, to invite people to pick up the brand and try it again for the first time in a while. We think those people will notice that the quality of the liquid in the package is better than it’s ever been.
Wells: There’s a lot of competition and it’s not going to get easier, but if we’re willing to change in order to meet this market, I think people will follow us.
The newly christened Atlanta Brewing Co. will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a party on Sept. 29, 2018. You can find more information on the brewery at its official web site and the newly rebranded Facebook page.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.