The Craft Beer Guide to Atlanta

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When I moved to Atlanta in September of 2014 to begin full-time work at Paste, it was a new beginning in more ways than one. Hailing from the idle suburbs of Chicago, my only experience with The ATL, the “Empire City of the South,” was having once passed through it en route to a childhood vacation. The city was a seemingly blank sheet of paper in my mind … except for a dozen or so glowing red dots. Those dots were the breweries.

It’s simultaneously a great time and a challenging time to be a craft beer fan in Atlanta, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s always been a challenge here, but things are currently heading in the right direction. That should be no surprise—in Georgia, we simply look over at Alabama for inspiration, a state that went from the worst in the nation to nearly average in terms of its brewery laws and restrictions in the space of only two or three years. If Alabama can get its act together, we certainly can as well, even if breweries are currently prohibited from so much as selling a beer to people who visit their taprooms. The Georgia Craft Brewers Guild is currently fighting on the state legislative level for these very rights, and it’s impossible to ignore how plainly reasonable their requests are. Those requests simply boil down to “Hey, can we update Georgian law so it’s roughly the same as the rest of this country?”

Despite the poor law, though, Atlanta-based breweries are actually thriving. Like so many other U.S. metropolitan cities, Atlanta has undergone its own local craft beer renaissance, although this one was a little bit longer in coming. Sweetwater Brewing Co. and Red Brick Brewing were the city’s standard bearers and kept the torch of craft beer burning for quite a while, and for that, they’ll always have a place of honor in the scene. In the last two to three years, however, a plethora of new breweries have opened their doors, several in 2014-2015 alone. Many are very small, several are draft-only, but all are making at least some intriguing beer. I now know that because I’ve visited every single one.

After arriving in September, I resolved to write this guide once I’d been here long enough to physically visit every single brewery in the greater ATL area, and as of last week that task is finally complete. I’ve familiarized myself with all of their products over the last six months, diving into the culture, attending local beer fests, living out of the beer bars. I’ve written about them, I’ve reviewed them. I’ve made them my local go-to’s. I’ve physically set foot in every building where beer is being commercially and officially brewed in Atlanta/Decatur, as of March, 2015. And I’ve formed some general conclusions.

Here, then, is your beer guide to Atlanta. This is not meant to include every brewery. This is a guide to the places you should check out, if you’re visiting the city—and why.

The Breweries

These are the commercial breweries you should visit, which is unfortunately easier said than done. Many are open for only a few hours, a few days a week, once again thanks to those wonderfully archaic Georgian beer laws. Still, all of these breweries do offer weekly “tour hours” where visitors can plunk down a few bucks for a labeled glass, which just so happens to come with tickets or tokens redeemable for samples of beer. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. I’ll include current hours of operation.

1. Monday Night Brewing

Monday Night Brewing is a portrait of a successful craft brewer in 2015 with mass appeal. They have a very strong sense of core design and brewery identity, embodied in the necktie-shaped tap handles you’ll see throughout the city. Their beers are by and large approachable, classical takes on popular styles such as IPA, Belgian witbier and scotch ale—nothing that really pushes the boundaries too much, but almost uniformly solid. Their tasting room is also one of the cooler places to hang out on a weekend afternoon or “Monday night,” a large, airy room where one can plop down on a couch, watch sports projected onto the wall, play some table shuffleboard or hang out on an outdoor patio with a pleasant view of some vintage Atlanta foliage. It feels like a welcoming, no-frills space, and it’s these kind of breweries that continue to drive new converts into craft beer. Bring an old necktie to contribute to their wall of ties and they’ll give you $1 off your entry price.

Open hours: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Monday and Thursday, 2-4 p.m. Saturday

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2. Three Taverns Brewery

If there’s a specific genre of beer that is made very well in the Atlanta/Decatur area, it’s Belgian ales, and Three Taverns is one of the reasons why. Their lineup features both traditional Belgian styles (singel, dubbel, quadrupel) and styles with an American twist (hoppy wit, Belgian IPA, Belgian imperial stout), making for a well-balanced portfolio that still leans heavily toward their Belgian inspiration. The small, attractive taproom, meanwhile, evokes a different aesthetic than the bro-friendly hangout of say, a Monday Night. Darker, warm in color and redolent in wood and exposed brick, it captures the feel of an old English pub (or perhaps a Belgian monastery), evoking a place that is far older than it really is. Another good taproom to visit on a weekend afternoon, although perhaps with a bit more quiet contemplation or conversation in mind.

Open hours: 5:30-8 p.m. Friday, 2:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday

3. Orpheus Brewing

It wouldn’t be a brewing scene in 2015 without at least one beermaker squarely focused on sours, and in Atlanta that would be Orpheus Brewing. The results, as one might expect, tend to fluctuate a bit in quality, but the core lineup is strong. Atalanta, a mildly tart plum saison, has quickly become a city staple, although I personally prefer the Lyric ale, a classically dry, funky, Franco-Belgian saison. Also popular, their Bone Tablet IPA series, especially the 10% DIPA, Transmigration of Souls, featuring the currently trendy Azacca hop. The taproom, meanwhile, is a small, interesting space with an industrial aesthetic that is weirdly offset by the wall decorations, which trend toward postmodern weirdness as well as some neat sketches of their labels. This is a good taproom to visit if you’ve got someone in town who wants sour and funk.

Open hours: 6-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2-4 p.m. Saturday

4. Wild Heaven Craft Beers

The philosophy of Wild Heaven is all about originality and novelty—some of the styles may be classical, but there’s always a tweak of some kind that pushes things into more unique territory. Take the Ode to Mercy, an imperial brown ale brewed with local coffee and lightly oak-aged. Or the Civilization, a barleywine with dried Prussian lemons, tart cherry and cranberry (and most recently aged in tequila barrels). From beginning to end here, nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. The tasting room, meanwhile, is an attractive but still developing space, with room for a good number of tasters and a long bar that makes service much easier. It’s an especially nice brewery to visit when the weather is nice, as the outdoor patio and its long wooden tables are a perfect place to hang out with friends on a spring/summer evening.

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Open hours: 5:30-8 p.m. Friday, 1-6 p.m. Saturday, 2-4 p.m. Sunday

5. Second Self Beer Co.

Second Self owns the latest brewery taproom to open in Atlanta, an unadorned, no-frills place that nevertheless was filled with people thirsty for beer when I recently visited on a Saturday afternoon in February. The brewery’s philosophy seems to favor balance, blending some classical styles with a collection of genre-expanding spiced and herbed beers. Those who favor classic American craft brewing will feel at home with the red rye ale or session IPA, while more adventurous drinkers may tackle the Thai spiced wheat beer or gin-inspired IPA, which evokes a full range of botanicals and not just juniper as too many “gin” beers do. In fact, spicing and delicate flavor combinations seem to be a strength of Second Self’s brew team—we were particularly impressed by the restraint and balance shown in their molé porter during our recent tasting and ranking of the American porter style.

Open hours: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, 2-4 p.m. Saturday

The Brewpubs

Compared to the commercial breweries, the brewpubs of Atlanta have the additional benefit of being open to the public during normal business hours, which is certainly helpful if you want to visit somewhere making local beer on say, a Wednesday or a Sunday. Despite this, there’s actually not quite as many brewpubs in the area as one might expect, but what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.

6. Wrecking Bar Brewpub

The Wrecking Bar is as notable for its food as it is its beer, which is actually quite the compliment to the beer. With an eclectic, adventurous menu of gastropub cuisine and a very cool location situated below a 115-year-old house, it immediately makes a memorable impression on appearances alone. The beer menu, meanwhile, is all over the place—you’re just as likely to find a reverential take on Dusseldorf altbier as you are a puckering American wild ale or double IPA with experimental hops. In fact, there may be no place to visit in Atlanta that is such a sure bet for good beer—just about everything on the menu is a home run.

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7. Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards

Twain’s is the kind of place that average American beer drinkers picture in their heads when someone says “brewpub.” In the classic American sense of the word, it’s an archetypal example of the style, with a menu that celebrates burgers in particular, and a constant murmur of families chatting, laughing and playing pool in the background. The beer menu is similarly what you’d expect for the style of establishment, although it features better-than-average takes on styles such as “nut brown ale” or American pale ale. Beer flights are a particularly good value at Twain’s—for just a couple bucks you can easily taste your way through the entire lineup. Great daily specials as well—A burger and a beer on Wednesday or Sunday evenings will run you just $10. In the heart of downtown Decatur, which is filled with pricey fine dining options, Twain’s is refreshingly down to Earth.

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8. 5 Seasons Brewing Co.

5 Seasons has three locations, with one perfectly situated on Atlanta’s west side, right next door to perhaps the best beer store in town, Hop City. Despite being more common, they still seem to fly under the radar a bit, which is really unwarranted because the beer lineup is award-winning and extensive. This is another brewpub where the flight of tasters is an especially good value—you can taste a generous sampling of everything they have to offer for the price that a single pint would cost you on its own. The food menu is extensive, waffling between brewpub standards (pizzas, sandwiches) and some more thoughtful fare (a Belgian beer-paired tapas menu). The chain presents itself as a little bit more buttoned-down than the earthiness of a Twain’s, with a greater focus on the restaurant aspect.

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The Beer Bars

9. The Brick Store Pub

Decatur’s Brick Store Pub has long been acknowledged as not just one of the best beer bars in the South but one of the best in the country. With two bars (including a wonderfully cozy upstairs Belgian bar) and a full menu of gastropub food, it’s a one-stop shop for experiencing some of the best beer available in the area. In particular, The Brick Store has the single largest cellar collection I’ve ever seen, which is codified in a large manual of vintage beer that you can peruse while sitting at the bar. If you’re not the kind of person patient enough to put together a six-year vertical tasting of say, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, then this is the place you can go on any night of the week to make that happen. The carefully curated selection of aged beers is second to none.

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10. The Porter Beer Bar

The Porter may very well have the best overall draft list in the city, with a collection of more than 45 beers that tend toward the novel, esoteric and newly available. That extensive lineup is supported by wonderfully written tasting notes, which is always a great plus when browsing a beer list, wondering what you should settle on, especially when confronted with such a vast array of choices. Another beer bar with a stellar kitchen, The Porter’s food menu runs toward the decadent, from bacon hushpuppies to goat cheese fritters. I dare you to look at the brunch menu in particular without becoming ravenously hungry. The Porter is an epicurean’s dream.

11. Steinbeck’s Ale House

A slightly more out-of-the-way locale, Steinbeck’s is a bit better kept secret and is less likely to be overrun with tourists and beer geeks on a weekend than the likes of The Brick Store or The Porter. An Irish pub in look and in musical taste, Steinbeck’s actually contains a smaller but extremely high-quality beer list and solid menu of bar comfort food. It’s the kind of place you should follow on Facebook because you never know if they’ll be announcing a rare tapping—several months ago, Steinbeck’s was one of the only Atlanta institutions to pour servings of Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. That’s beer geek caché.

12. Argosy

There are more than 30 beers on tap at Argosy, but what makes the draft list stand out is how adventurous it is. “Entry-level” offerings do not abound here—you may find a few low-ABV, high-flavor offerings, but expect the majority of the lineup to be dominated by big DIPAs, stouts, sours and Belgian ales. As much a restaurant as it is a bar, though, Argosy also offers a unique selection of woodfire pizzas, homemade hot dogs (really) and Southern staples. It’s that rare place where you can pair a locally smoked hot dog with a Belgian farmhouse ale and it doesn’t seem even the least bit odd.

13. The Bookhouse Pub

The Bookhouse is a humble, relaxing, inviting sort of place—the moment you walk in, you feel a bit like you’ve entered the cozy library of some rich uncle’s country mansion estate—or possibly the cloister of some cathedral, thanks to the stone and stained glass windows. The walls are framed with wood, and old books line the shelves in rings—you expect it to have that used bookstore smell that has become all too rare in 2015. Of course, this post being an Atlanta beer guide, there’s plenty of craft beer as well, in styles that trend a bit more toward the approachable. Food is available too, comfortable and simple. It’s simply a bar that evokes comfort and good times shared between friends, long nights spent in conversation where the beer is enjoyed but the company is what you likely remember.

Honorable Mentions: The Midway Pub, Augustine’s, Ormsby’s, Cypress Street Pint & Plate, TAP, Taco Mac, Thinking Man Tavern

Bottle Shops

14. Hop City

Now with two locations in Atlanta, Hop City has what is probably the single largest and most comprehensive beer selection in the city. Each location also benefits from its surroundings—one next to 5 Seasons Brewing as previously mentioned, the other in a new shared marketplace full of small food vendors, the Krog Street Market. The latter is significant because the second Hop City location operates a separate “bar” outside the main store, featuring a ridiculous selection of 60 beers on draft at notably low prices. Visitors are able to buy a beer and walk around the market, browsing the other shops—will you choose to pair your drink with burgers? Or pastries?

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15. Ale Yeah!

Ale Yeah! is a hip little beer shop and growler-filling station with a great selection and friendly atmosphere. They make the most of a small space, filling tall wooden racks with beer categorized by style. The best thing about Ale Yeah! is that they’ll also let you break up any four or six-pack to purchase individual bottles, which is a godsend for an organization like Paste when we’re attempting to put together the biggest possible monthly beer tastings. If it’s new and exciting, you’ll probably find it at Ale Yeah!

16. Tower Liquor

Where HopCity or Ale Yeah! are stores that cater specifically and primarily toward the craft beer market, Atlanta’s northern Tower Liquor is more of the classic package liquor superstore, albeit one that still has a fantastic craft beer selection. It’s a great place to browse for new, fresh releases from the cooler, especially if you’re the kind of consumer who doesn’t go to the beer store specifically looking to engage the shopkeep in beer nerd conversation. Tower Liquor is simply where you get your craft business done and maybe browse the extensive whiskey collection on the way out.

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Three Standout Beers You Have to Drink

Eventide Brewing Co. Dry Irish Stout

Of all the breweries in Atlanta, Eventide is the least likely to dabble in crazy experimentation. It’s not in their DNA. The brewery’s true philosophy is all about simplicity, execution and making approachable beer for the masses rather than the beer geek thrill-seeker. And yet, if you can appreciate a truly classic style such as dry Irish stout, there are few who are doing it better than Eventide’s offering, which is served on Nitro (draft only). Luxurious and silky in mouthfeel, with ashy roast and cocoa powder flavors, it makes for amazing session beer at 4.8%. This beer is essentially what Guinness is supposed to taste like, but doesn’t. Eventide isn’t packaging yet, but is currently planning to get a taproom open to the public in April, following a Kickstarter campaign that is currently underway and about halfway to its goal.

Wild Heaven Eschaton

This beer has been around since 2011, but only in the last month has it finally made its way to bottles. An all-malt quadrupel, Eschaton packs all of the dark, vinous and dried fruit flavors that you would expect, along with spice notes and a kiss of oak and winey character. It’s unmistakably an American quadrupel, with rich, rounded maltiness, toffee and caramel and tons of fruit flavors. It’s also another component in my argument that Atlanta is a Belgian beer town: Of all the “beer families” and styles, classic and experimental Belgian ales are the city’s best overall offerings.

Three Taverns Theophan the Recluse

Exhibit three: Even the imperial stouts also have a Belgian twist in Atlanta. Theophan the Recluse may be the best beer in a solid family of beers by Three Taverns, if only because it’s probably the most unique one they make. Eight specialty malts and a Belgian yeast strain make for a beer that is startlingly complex, leading off like a great imperial stout before seguing abruptly into a beer that seems almost more like a Belgian dark strong. The dark and dried fruit flavors are intense, while the spice and funk remain more subtle. As it warms, the two come closer together to meet somewhere in the middle. It’s the kind of beer you want to take an hour to experience very slowly.

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Beer Festivals

If there’s one thing that Atlanta and especially Decatur have in abundance, it’s festivals—and it often seems like every other festival is a beer festival. Indeed, there seems to be a stretch from late spring to fall where every weekend has a beer festival of some kind happening around the city. They’re a great way for drinkers new to the local scene to begin familiarizing themselves with Georgian breweries.

Decatur Craft Beer Festival

The Decatur Craft Beer Festival is a well-established, very popular festival with thousands in attendance each year—essentially a model of what to expect from any of the large, outdoor festivals. Held in the middle of downtown Decatur, it’s located in a prime location to make a day of the event, sampling the local beers before eating at one of the many nearby restaurants. Like many other beer festivals these days, tickets are sold in a tiered structure, with one level gaining general admission and VIP tickets granting access to food and beer rarities while fundraising for the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild. Given the sheer number of breweries in attendance, though, and the average quality level, the $40 regular admission is a damn good deal.

Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting

Heading into its 13th year, the Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting is one of the area’s longer-running annual beer events—especially impressive given that cask or “real ale” has been a subset of beer geekdom that has been slower to spread into nationwide popularity than more conventional craft brews. Focus here is on the novelty of the offerings and a celebration of cask ale, which is still not terribly common in most beer bars. Lovers of traditional British ales, this is most definitely the festival for you.

The Hard Stuff

The microdistillery scenes of large cities tend to have a way of following in the wake of the emergence of a craft brewing scene, trailing a few years behind, and so it is in Atlanta. Especially considering that spirits take months or years to make, the city’s craft liquor scene is truly in its infancy, but with that said, there’s no shortage of incredible places to enjoy spirits.

Lazy Guy Distillery

Lazy Guy, located northwest of the city in Kennesaw, GA, is the only distillery in the immediate Atlanta area to be old enough to have bottled and sold an aged whiskey/bourbon. Specializing in bracingly strong white whiskeys, as many craft distilleries do before they’ve been open long enough to have an aged product, Lazy Guy is leading the way into an aged whiskey market for the area. Of note: Their website has an excellent, extensive collection of recipes for using their spirits in cocktails, which is a nice touch.

17. Old 4th Distillery

The only distillery in Atlanta proper, Old 4th is very new, having only been in official commercial operation for a few months. They’re taking the other distillery route, which is focusing on vodka and gin rather than whiskey as their first products. This will presumably give their whiskey project a chance to move forward and age. The vodka is now becoming available, with the gin soon to follow.

18. Kimball House

A bar located on the east edge of downtown Decatur, Kimball House has been widely recognized as one of the best pure cocktail programs in Georgia, and they’re proud of that fact. Also boasting a very nice collection of local beer on tap, the star is still the cocktails and liquor menu, which is truly extensive and nicely complements the upscale farm-to-table menu and raw bar. Go for the oysters, stay for the whiskey and “absinthe service.”

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19. Mac McGee

Mac McGee styles itself as an Irish pub, but your average Irish pub has a handful of whiskeys on hand—not a couple hundred. Yes, you can still get your shepherd’s pie, but you can also wash it down with a once-in-a-lifetime dram. More than 200 American whiskeys alone—and that’s not counting Scotch, Irish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey. You won’t find a better pure selection of brown liquor anywhere else in town.

Fill Your Belly

20. Leon’s Full Service

The menu of Leon’s, a downtown Decatur staple, is not the largest, but it’s been honed to a fine point and paired perfectly with a large selection of carefully curated craft beer on tap. Whether it’s braised short ribs, grilled duck or pan-seared trout, you’re not going to go wrong. Mandatory are the pub frites, available with a wide range of dipping sauces that include everything from peppercorn gravy to masaman curry. Pair with a craft cocktail or something from the 14 local-leaning taps.

21. Holeman and Finch

One could theoretically include Holeman and Finch on so many places on this list—beer bar? Sort of. Whiskey bar? Definitely. Restaurant? It’s certainly that as well. With the atmosphere of a cocktail or wine bar, one expects there to be a certain refinement to the menu, and that’s certainly present in the oysters, foie gras and blood sausage. At the same time, though, Holeman and Finch is simultaneously known more than anything for that most common of bar foods: The hamburger. Serving them only after 10 p.m. and in limited quantity caused skyrocketing demand for the famed Holeman burger, quickly creating legendary status. Thankfully, it’s no longer such a tough acquisition: The burger recently appeared as a full-time menu item.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Atlanta’s craft beer landscape over the last 6 months. He hopes it will continue to flourish and thrive. You can follow him on Twitter.