First Draft with Mary O. Boyle and Ron Smith

The authors of Atlanta Beer on documenting the city’s brief but burgeoning beer history

Monday January 13, 2014 04:00 am EST

Ron Smith and Mary O. Boyle have spent years traveling, researching, and sampling beer, but never in such an official fashion as their recently released book Atlanta Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Hub of the South. Boyle moved to Atlanta in 1993, and Smith in 2000 (they met on Match.com in 2003 and have been together since), so they remember times when there wasn’t craft beer — locally or otherwise — in (nearly) every bar, restaurant, and grocery store.

“When I came to Atlanta, I remember Dogwood was around, but it was hard to find,” Smith says. “I remember trying one of [Dogwood — now 5 Seasons Westside and Slice & Pint — founder Crawford Moran’s] stouts, and thinking, ‘Yeah, finally.’ But you were limited to a couple places here.”

Fittingly enough, Moran wrote the foreword for Atlanta Beer, which focuses mostly on the many years preceding Atlanta’s current beer boom. Its 144 pages document 19th century decades filled with saloons and early breweries, early 20th century decades of heated political battles surrounding Prohibition, and the recent couple decades that have found craft breweries springing up by the dozens and their brewers once again fighting political battles. It’s filled with fascinating facts both beer-based (The 1860s were a boom time for Atlanta breweries.) and otherwise (Castleberry Hill used to be called Snake Nation!) that brew lovers and Atlanta historians will enjoy in equal measure.

Written, photographed, and researched by Smith (an environmental consultant for the Army by day), with additional research and “hawk-eyed” editing from Boyle (who’s worked in IT), Atlanta Beer shows a surprisingly dense beer history for a region that seems to finally be fully bouncing back from the effects — and conservative mindsets — of Prohibition. Creative Loafing sat down with the pair and a few beers at the Argosy in East Atlanta to talk Coors Extra Gold, HTML programming, and how the book wouldn’t have existed if Boyle didn’t insist on paying a website’s domain fee.

Describe your first beer.

Ron Smith: Coors Extra Gold, which is no longer produced. It was a gift from a fellow student at Tennessee Tech University for helping her study. I was in my late 20s, and I remember thinking it tasted like barley soda.

Mary O. Boyle: I don’t remember my first nondescript beer, but I do remember my first interesting beer. I was living and working in Buena Park, Calif., and I asked for something different at a restaurant. This was 20 years ago. The bartender gave me a Dixie Blackened Voodoo, which comes out of Louisiana. It’s hard to find anymore. I remember sitting at the bar and thinking I didn’t like dark beer, but thinking that this one was really cool.

How did Atlanta Beer come about?

MB: BeerGuruATL.com had been up for about a year or so, but Ron was working out of town a lot, so keeping it updated got really tough. When it came up for renewal, he suggested we let it lapse. The content was good, so I said we should let it sit. About two months later, he gets an email from out of nowhere from History Press. The commissioning editor found the site.

RS: I almost deleted the email. But I checked the website for History Press and realized, wow, it’s a real publisher. So I started a conversation with the editor.

MB: It’s the book that might never have been.

Your book is a part of a series on city beer scenes. How much oversight did History Press require?

MB: They really didn’t dictate that. It’s like, here’s the concept and you propose the index. The level of research and how you tackle it varies a lot. We decided we wanted ours to show a little more investment in the research.

RS: They sent us a couple of their books, and I bought a couple more. Some of them were researched very well, and others were not. They’d give a nod to history, then go into the contemporary. But I think you gotta do both.

MB: Otherwise, the present doesn’t have context.

You’ve extensively documented Atlanta’s beer past. What’s holding back Atlanta’s beer future?

RS: Georgia’s beer laws have come a long way. A long way. Kudos to the groups that were involved in getting things changed. I think it’s probably going to become a bit harder. Any government entity is always a little bit behind the times because they spend more time analyzing things than the rest of the world. We’ve gotten to the point where, in the government’s eyes, we’ve already loosened up some laws. So I think it’s going to be a little harder. But I really want to see, even if it’s limited growlers sales, on-premise sales for off-premise consumption for brewpubs. You can do that run around the Atlanta area, grab a growler from Cherry Street, then come down and get one from Max Lager’s, things like that. Especially if you’re passing through on a beercation and you wanna take some Atlanta beer with you. People grab up growlers, shove them in a cooler, take them to the next state, rinse and repeat. Take-home sales, especially for brewpubs and small breweries, that’s what’s holding us back.