First Draft with John 'J.R.'
Max Lager's John "J.R."
Like a lot of people, John "J.R." Roberts' first beer was one he snuck from his dad. But unlike a lot of people, he had a watershed beer moment literally handed to him by a future beer pioneer. After a long day of construction work in 1984, Roberts sat in a quiet Boston bar when a guy in a suit walked in with an unmarked six-pack under his arm. It's clear the bartender wasn't interested in what the suit was trying to sell, so he turned his attention to the future Max Lager's brewmaster.
"He says, 'Try this, and tell me what you think of it,'" Roberts remembers. "He pours it, I taste it, and I'm like, 'Man, this is awesome. Where do I get this?' He turns to the bartender and says, 'See? That's what I told you. People will drink this! They're gonna love it.' It was Jim Koch, and that was the initial version of Sam Adams Boston Lager."
That was a turning point for Roberts. Within a few years, he was an avid homebrewer. Then he started volunteering at breweries in the Boston area and working for a homebrew shop, where he taught brewing and talked brewing all day every day. He moved back to Atlanta in 1996, when his aunt, a CPA, and his uncle, who has a hotel and restaurant degree, expressed interest in helping fund his vision. It took a couple years to get the business going, years he spent working for Atlanta Brewing Company (now Red Brick Brewing).
Max Lager's Wood-Fired Grill and Brewery opened in Downtown Atlanta in 1998, and to this day it's the oldest running brewpub in Georgia. Creative Loafing sat down with Roberts on the soon-to-be-renovated second floor of the establishment to talk milestones, laws, and the future of Peach State brewing.
Why did you decide to do a brewpub instead of a production brewery?
For me, it's the most flexible form of professional brewing. Production breweries can kind of turn into factory work. In a brewpub, if I don't wanna make the IPA the same way every time, I don't have to. That was very appealing to me. And I just really love the ambience of a brewpub, the thought of food and beer together, sitting down at the bar and having fun with your friends ... And to be honest, as far as business is concerned, there's a lot more immediate profitability. It's more secure, as long as you get everything else right. Beer is the easy part. laughs
You've been around as long as nearly anyone. What kind of milestones do you remember, looking back?
The biggest milestone, initially, was the change of the alcohol limit. In 2004, Georgia raised the alcohol-by-volume limit for beer made or sold in the state from 6 to 14 percent. Before the law changed, if someone asked you about the alcohol content of your Scotch Ale, it was always 5.999 percent. I think we're passed the statute of limitations on that, and they can't prove anything now. But those beers were being made, you just couldn't talk about it.
It's no secret that Georgia's beer laws are some of the worst in the nation, but it also seems like there's three different levels of urgency and priority: breweries, then brewpubs, then homebrewers. Is that frustrating as a brewpub owner?
Yes, it's been frustrating. And to certain opponents, we're the evil one in the three-tier system. We don't break the rules, but it sticks in their craw that we're able to sell by the pint and actually make money off what we produce. At the same time, I feel like, despite all the problems with SB 63, there's a lot of potential for brewpubs. We got a lot out of it, but no one's tapped into it yet. We've always been able to package in draft form to sell to distributors, but we finally got the words "draft form only" struck, and now we can bottle or can. No one's taken advantage of that situation yet, but it's gonna happen. And it's gonna happen fairly soon. I can think of two brewpubs right now that will be doing that in a year, year and a half. It's gonna be a completely different dynamic for the brewing industry here in Georgia.
Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting
When: Sat., Jan. 23, 2:30-6 p.m.
Where: 5 Seasons Sandy Springs/Taco Mac Prado
Now in its 12th year, one of Atlanta’s best and longest running beer festivals will feature around 50 rare, cask-conditioned real ales from the United States and the United Kingdom.
When: Sat., Jan. 23, 7-10 p.m.
Where: The Foundry at Puritan Mill
This traveling event makes its Atlanta debut with food from local restaurants (Bhojanic, Cooks & Soldiers, Empire State South) with beers from Georgia (Creature Comforts, Three Taverns) and beyond (Allagash, Crooked Stave, Orval).