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First Draft with Andy Gonzales

Steinbeck's Ale House's chef and general manager talks beer

Twenty-one years ago, at the age of 21, Andy Gonzales had his first craft beer.

"I was running packages as a courier in Dallas," he remembers. "They had Sierra Nevada on tap ... I ordered one and really enjoyed it, but at that point, it was so amazingly bitter I didn't know what to do with it."

By 25, Gonzales had started cooking. While he was waiting tables and tending bar to make ends meet, a chef asked him to help in the kitchen at a job once, and the rest is history. He started working his way up, spending time at Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, South City Kitchen in Midtown, and famed chef Jean Georges' now-shuttered Spice Market. He learned a lot about wine.

"I used to say that wine and I are professional, but that beer and I are old friends," he says. "Back when I started in the '90s, nobody talked about beer as a thing. Beer was something you drank recreationally. With wine, you had to know your varietals, your terroir, stainless steel, all that stuff. When I took over Steinbeck's, I got to apply my wine knowledge and palate to beer."

The Texas native and former Savannah College of Art and Design student joined the Decatur establishment in mid-2009, when he took the then-fledgling oyster house ("They were a little ahead of their time," he says with a laugh) and re-envisioned it as something like the gastropubs he'd been reading about in books — and like the trattoria he and his wife visited in Italy. The tradition was perfectly timed with Atlanta's beer scene awakening. With a simple mantra ("I taste it, and if I don't like it, we don't pour it"), he's created a sneakily excellent beer list at a place many might not expect it. Creative Loafing sat down with him at the unpretentious pub to talk about a beverage he's been loving for half his life.

Describe your first non-craft beer.

I was two years old. I was begging my father, who was drinking Budweiser in a can. He gave me a can with the pull-tab. I took a sip and regretted it immediately. That's probably a pretty common story for '70s/'80s children, that American lager experience.

You took over Steinbeck's as Georgia's beer scene was waking up in 2009. It's been pretty bonkers ever since. How has that played into your selection?

My goal is to pour great beer, not specifically regional beer, as much as I love supporting local product ... We have heard some rumblings that we don't have enough local stuff, and I think there are some great players going on right now — we've got a couple Orpheus beers on. We pour Terrapin, we pour SweetWater. But generally, the goal is to pour whatever's the best. If it's from Michigan, North Carolina, California, and it's fresh, we pour it.

How has your clientele's reaction to beer changed over time?

It's changed a lot! When I first took over, we had Guinness, which we still do — that'll never go. We had Stella, we had Red Hook IPA, we had Bombardier. When I went to take Stella off, people were very upset. I mentioned that I was gonna bring on a similar style, that I wasn't gonna keep Stella on any more, and I wanted them to give it a chance ... I really feel like people are getting more adventurous. They're drinking better product, and they care more about what they drink. Honestly, it was a weeding-out process for some of our regulars. Unfortunately, we didn't make everyone happy. But I believed we would find a niche, and I think we have.


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BEER EVENTS

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Terrapin’s 13th Anniversary Carnival
When: Sat., April 11, 4:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: Terrapin Beer Co. (Athens, Ga.)
Price: $25
One of Georgia’s most celebrated breweries will celebrate entering its teens with live music from Gurufish, carnival games, and beer dunk tank, and 13 special cask beers.

Classic City Brew Fest
When: Sun., April 12, 2:30-6 p.m.
Where: Graduate Athens Hotel
Price: $40
For its 20th anniversary, Georgia’s longest running beer festival rounds out Athens Beer Week 2015 with about 350 “rare, regional and world craft beers” alongside the legendary cask ale pavilion’s “20+ one-off real ales.”

Burnt Hickory Brewery’s Third Anniversary Open House
When: Sat., April 25, 12-5 p.m.
Where: Burnt Hickory Brewery
Price: $10–15
Kennesaw’s noisiest brewery celebrates three years with rare and vintage Burnt Hickory beers, a “Meet the Future Brewers of GA” showing off beers made on BHB’s pilot system, and, if last year’s anniversary was any indication, plenty of weird surprises.

Creature Comforts Brewing Co.’s First Anniversary
When: Sat., April 25, 11:30am-2:30 p.m.
Where: Creature Comforts Brewing Co.
Price: $25
In celebration of the young Athens brewery’s first year, attendees will receive “sexy, collaborative stemware” into which they can pour a selection of 18 different Creature Comforts beers.




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