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Beer Issue - Homebrew: Atlanta's DIY beer community makes a splash

It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday, and while many East Atlanta residents are still rolling bleary-eyed out of bed, the party’s already started in Dave Hatker and Richard Whitner’s back yard. “Can someone bring me a beer?” Hatker calls to the assembled group of friends. His hands are full stirring a huge pot of water as Whitner pours in grain from a giant sack. It’s brew day at the East Atlanta Brewery, Hatker and Whitner’s homebrew operation. The pair’s setup consists of a large metal stand holding two huge pots sporting gauges and controls. It’s impressive. These guys have taken a hobby and ramped it up to what seems like an almost ridiculous level of obsession. It soon becomes clear, however, that with this particular hobby, obsession is part of the package.

Homebrewing is experiencing a surge in popularity in Atlanta right now. This is partly due to the increased interest in beer brought on by so many new beers allowed into the state the past few years — a function of changing laws and increased distribution. Although the practice was only legalized in Georgia in 1995 (it’s still illegal in Alabama, and the laws are confusing in many other states), there’s been a strong Atlanta homebrewing community for more than 20 years. The law still puts serious limits on the practice - beer must be consumed in the household in which it was brewed, and cannot be sold under any circumstances. But now more than ever, the community is benefitting from increased resources, visibility and passionate spokespeople.

Hatker qualifies as one of the most passionate of those spokespeople. He’s been brewing under the East Atlanta Brewery name, along with housemate Whitner, for two years. While both of them act as brewers, Hatker’s the obvious pitch guy. He’s also the one friends refer to as a mad scientist and is the go-to guy for advice on brewing, equipment and general beer knowledge.

Hatker moved to Atlanta from Florida on Jan. 1, 2005. Knowing no one in town, he spent a lot of time in Athens where he had college friends. Those friends were doing some homebrewing, and it wasn’t long before Hatker brewed his first batch of beer. He says he was drawn to homebrewing because of the unique nature of the finished product. “Each bottle is totally unique,” he explains. “And you made it yourself. Plus, it’s beer!”

In mid-2005, Hatker placed an ad on Craigslist renting out a room, and Whitner responded. The two became roommates, and Whitner observed Hatker’s early brewing efforts involving a turkey fryer, the preferred starter kit for more serious homebrewers. “The process can be done using pots and pans,” Hatker says. “You just need a vessel to ferment that’s sanitary.” Soon after, Whitner bought his own equipment and began brewing. The two combined their setups and East Atlanta Brewery was born.

But the system they now have in their back yard is far from pots and pans. Once they graduated from turkey fryers, they went to 10-gallon converted kegs, using propane as a heat source. But they saw weaknesses in the process, “and the amount of propane we were burning through was ridiculous,” Whitner says. So they began to formulate a plan for a more permanent, serious solution. It involved running a new natural gas line into their back yard. And welding a stand. And taking specific measurements and plans from a professionally made system to re-create something similar themselves.

The setup, called a brew sculpture, along with the pair’s enthusiasm, knowledge and craft-quality beers, have made the East Atlanta Brewery house a gathering spot for this part of town’s homebrewers. On brewing days, up to three other brewers bring their equipment over, and everyone brews together. The support and knowledge of other brewers, as well as the opportunity to taste the results of so many different styles and techniques, fosters an environment of enthusiastic, slightly tipsy high-geekdom. Brewing’s social benefits are obvious — Hatker and Whitner’s broad porch and leafy back yard are often filled with friends, fellow homebrewers and appreciative acquaintances.

They’re appreciative because all this obsessing and investment of time and resources has turned out some seriously high-quality beer. In a fridge in a room adjacent to the kitchen, two homebrew kegs held a balanced, amber, malty IPA the day I visited. The beer they were brewing that day turned out to be slightly more inventive — a Belgian-style whitbeer, flavored heavily with nutmeg, oranges and grapefruit. These beers taste like professional brew, not backyard experiments.

AT THE MONTHLY MEETING of Final Gravity, the homebrew group Hatker and Whitner belong to, turnout is much higher than expected. Held in May at the new 5 Seasons Brewery on the Westside, people crammed in around a long table, straining to hear founder Bob Sandage as he opened the meeting. Final Gravity has been operating for about four years, and is one of many homebrew groups in Atlanta. It provides community and support, and is open to anyone. Final Gravity also hosts an annual homebrew contest, the Strong Beer Competition, which focuses on beers with a higher alcohol content.

As the gathered brewers take turns introducing themselves, two things are striking. One is the huge diversity in level of expertise — one member of the group has been brewing for more than 17 years, another sheepishly but proudly states that he just brewed his first batch the previous weekend. The second thing is the incredible lack of diversity in … well, just about every other aspect except age. Apart from two wives who came along for the meeting and me, there are no women at the table. “Abby Jackson is a member of this group, right?” I ask Hatker. He nods. “Are there any other female members?” He shakes his head no.

I joke that this isn’t the place to come to meet chicks. Hatker laughs and says, “Make sure you stress in your article that we need more women to start brewing, and come to the meetings. Hot women.”

Tonight’s discussion is on carbonation. Sandage hands out notes and begins a presentation, one with so much technical jargon, it’s easy to get lost. The notes are rife with sentences such as “A little stoichiometric algebra shows that we will add 1 volume of CO2 for every 3.7 g/L glucose added to the beer.” But everyone is asking questions, some are taking notes, and heated conversations about methods and equipment are bubbling up on the edges of the group.

A guy named Dan says he’s been trying to brew gluten-free beer for his wife who’s gluten-intolerant. He describes his chocolate sorghum stout as “interesting.”

It’s Doug Cunnington’s first meeting, although he’s been brewing for a couple of years, learning from books and podcasts. He says he was interested in finding a community, perhaps trying some other homebrewers’ beers to see what he could absorb.

Chris Terenzi plops himself down beside me and asks me why I decided to write about homebrew.

“I think Atlanta is really just getting a big homebrew movement,” I start before he cuts me off.

“I totally disagree!” he says. “I’ve been brewing for over 15 years, and there’s always been a community. It goes in cycles, and we’re certainly enjoying a boom right now. I’ve never seen a turnout like this before,” he nods, indicating the crowd of people around the table. “But we’ve always been here, the community has always existed.”

“People don’t recognize the significance of homebrewers,” he continues, as if to answer his question for me, but this time give the correct answer. “Every single brewer in this town, at any of the commercial breweries or brewpubs, Crawford Moran here at 5 Seasons, the guys at Sweetwater, the guys at Terrapin. All of them started out as homebrewers. This is the community that all beer comes out of. Every single one of the local beers you drink, they originated with homebrew.”

Whitner and Hatker certainly have aspirations to take East Atlanta Brewery beyond homebrew, although what they envision is something Georgia hasn’t seen before. “Out West, in Portland and around there, there are tons of neighborhood breweries that just supply the local bars and sell their beers to the neighborhood,” Hatker says. “We’d love to do something along those lines.” Under current Georgia law, such a thing would be practically impossible, since beer must be sold by a distributor. But the guys at East Atlanta Brewery have hope. "There's a law in the works that would allow it," Hatker says optimistically, referencing House Bill 604, which would allow growler sales (when a brewery sells a jug of beer directly to the consumer). The law was introduced, but if the plight of Sunday sales in Georgia is anything to go by, such a change is a long way off.

After the meeting, 5 Seasons’ brewer Moran takes the group on a tour of the massive, state-of-the art brewery. The homebrewers climb up and peer into the giant vats, many of which aren’t yet in use. Sandage, who is in the planning stages of opening his own brew pub, questions Moran on his techniques in a quiet, serious manner. You can see the glee in Hatker’s eyes as he wanders around the facility, and Terenzi’s words from earlier ring true. These guys look a lot like the future of Georgia brewing.

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