I’ve been crowing about the rise of craft beer in the Southeast forever, it seems. But it’s time to crow some more.
New numbers from the Brewers Association confirm that craft beer sales were up again and strong throughout the region last year. In the same report, Atlanta’s Sweetwater reached another major milestone, coming in at No. 24 among the top 50 craft brewing companies in the U.S., based on 2011 beer sales volume.
But some of the biggest news to hit recently wasn’t so much about facts and figures as it was the strong beer culture that’s taken root since small breweries like Sweetwater and Asheville’s Highland pioneered making beer around here in the ’90s.
In late January, the No. 2 craft beer company in the country, California’s Sierra Nevada, announced it soon would be breaking ground on a new 90-acre brewing complex with a restaurant and music venue, located 12 miles south of Asheville, along the French Broad River.
In early April, Colorado’s New Belgium, the nation’s No. 3 craft beer company, announced it would follow suit with a new 400,000-barrel brewery and packaging facility in Asheville’s River Arts District.
“It’s as if Asheville landed two major league baseball teams in the same season, as if the Yankees and Braves both relocated here,” was how Asheville Citizen-Times beer writer Tony Kiss reacted to the news.
During a recent phone interview, Brewers Association director Paul Gatza put the Southeast’s craft beer scene in a larger context.
“It seems like Asheville is a representative for beer culture in the way other cities are heading, and where they could get to,” Gatza said. “When I think about the Triangle area in North Carolina, each of those three cities could really pop in the next few years, and Asheville could serve as something of a model.
“Atlanta has breweries and brewpubs and some really well-known beer bars that could serve as a model to other parts of the South as they grow a craft beer culture — because it is growing, and nothing is going to stop it at this point.”
This year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, May 11-13, will be another special occasion to celebrate the region’s brewing, especially in the context of great Southern traditions, such as seafood, barbecue and bourbon.
North Carolina’s Duck Rabbit and Highland, Maryland’s Heavy Seas, Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia and Georgia’s Sweetwater, Terrapin and Wild Heaven beers will be represented in the tasting tents.
I’ll be presenting a couple of connoisseur discussions and tastings at the festival May 12 and 13 with Sweetwater’s Freddy Bensch, Highland’s Oscar Wong, Lazy Magnolia’s Leslie Henderson, Moon River’s John Pinkerton and others.
Titled “Southern Craft Brewers Spill It,” it’s sure to be a spirited back-and-forth, along with a rare opportunity to sample beer with the people who make it.
Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, May 11-13, atlfoodandwinefestival.com.