Though you might not guess it from the name, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival has turned out to be an important gathering for Southern craft brewers.
Building on the learning experiences of the 2011 inaugural festival, 2012 again proved that craft beer has a place at the Southern table, alongside barbecue, bourbon and other regional delights.
One of the best examples of that serendipity could be found at the afternoon tasting tents, where people were visibly giddy to spy a row of Southern craft brewers pouring beer directly across from a row of Southern chefs serving fried chicken.
The crowded walkway between the tables was a very happy place, with sipping and munching and perfect impromptu pairings like Sweetwater’s hoppy-citrus IPA and Cardamom Hill’s South India-style spicy fried chicken. And there was a convivial buzz as brewers and chefs traded samples back and forth.
On Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of introducing Julian Van Winkle III of Kentucky’s Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery to brewer Leslie Henderson of Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co.
Van Winkle enjoyed Henderson’s Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale and wondered how she was able to brew it with whole roasted pecans. When Henderson demurred and said it was trade secret, Van Winkle winked and said he would tell her how his bourbon was made.
In that spirit, Van Winkle’s son, Preston, produced a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve from his back pocket and led a laughing toast.
On Saturday and Sunday, I moderated a discussion and tasting called Southern Craft Brewers Spill It.
Henderson was there both days, along with Oscar Wong from North Carolina’s Highland Brewing Co. Georgia brewers Freddy Bensch of Sweetwater Brewing Co., John Cochran of Terrapin Beer Co. and John Pinkerton of Moon River Brewing Co. joined in on Saturday. And Dan Kahn, the brewmaster at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Cartersville, dropped in on Sunday.
We tasted a lot of good beer, including Sweetwater’s award-winning Exodus Porter, Terrapin’s Belgian-inspired 10th Anniversary Ale and Moon River’s Dixie Crystal Belgian-style tripel.
On Sunday, Wong brought Highland’s Thunderstruck Coffee Porter, brewed with organic coffee from North Carolina’s Dynamite Roasting Co. Scott Witherow, the founder of Tennessee’s Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. was on hand, too. And his Barrel Aged Bourbon Nib Brittle proved to be a sensational pairing for the deep roasted flavors of Thunderstruck.
While discussions of the state of the Southern craft beer business turned serious at times — especially when the brewers explained laws that have sometimes kept the region from growing as fast as other areas of the country — there was also a great sense of pride and fellowship and fun.
“My biggest thing was the camaraderie in the industry and how it differs from almost any other,” Terrapin’s Cochran said. “I think the real reason for that is that none of us got into brewing to start a business. We did it because beer is our passion and we learned about business along the way.”
Highland’s Wong thought the entire weekend was an exceptional opportunity to present Southern craft beer to a sophisticated food and drink audience.
“Being included in the festival was a big plus and much appreciated, as we got to go up against fine wine, liquor and exceptional food,” Wong said. “The event has spoiled me for the standard beer festival cuisine, which won’t measure up in the future.”
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog