Much Ado About Brew

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A new influx of artisanal breweries has upped the sophistication factor among Savannah’s suds-slingers.  Jenny Dunn hops aboard the beer wagon and buzzes about it.  »  Photography by Michelle L. Morris

It’s the jalapeno-lime vodka sorbet—the intermezzo slurped between rounds deux and trois of the quad-course beer dinner at Dub’s Pub—that pushes me over the edge as I slip off my bar stool to determine whether I can still stand up.

A lucky enclave of Savannah locals overindulge on fresh-faced chef John Benhase’s fried corn soup, seasoned with basil, chili and lime, topped with corn-husk-smoked trout and paired with both a whole-hearted lager and a woodsy, tricked-out IPA.  We’re nibbling on a salad of feta, mint and pine nuts, drizzled with watermelon vinaigrette, and we’re washing it down with a watermelon wheat.

After such a luscious supper of savoring and sipping, I am abuzz, though I can’t help but wonder: when did beer leave the pepperoni pizza at home with the babysitter, don black tie and tails, and classy-up this town?

Southern Suds

Microbrews certainly aren’t alien to the Hostess City, which is reputed to have been one of the major ports of entry for rumrunners and moonshiners during Prohibition.  Legendary brewmaster John Pinkerton, head of the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild, has been batching barley pop in imaginative concoctions like “Lil’ Chocolate Donut” at Moon River Brewing Co. since 1999.  And recent years have seen the emergence of gastro-pubs and lounges, such as The Distillery, Green Truck and the reimagined Crystal Beer Parlor, tapping a burgeoning supply of regional kegs.

“Savannah is a little late to the beer game, though,” explains beer consigliore David Little of Savannah Distributing.  “We’ve historically been a liquor town.  The South is the last region in the U.S. to come to the craft beer table, but they have embraced it wholeheartedly.”

That embrace is expansive, encompassing 64 ounces of take-out beer at last legal measure.  Craft-draught-to-go via refillable growlers are all the rage at the fancy Parker’s on Drayton Street and the neighboring Beer Growler in Drayton Tower, which just opened with a full complement of 45 regional, national and local taps—including Scattered Sun Belgian Wit and Iron Lion Pale Ale, courtesy of Southbound Brewing Co., Savannah’s first production microbrewery.

Pioneers of Beer

Southbound occupies a 13,000- square-foot warehouse in the industrial neighborhood on Bay Street east of the Talmadge Bridge.  The 20-foot ceilings accommodate myriad giant stainless steel brewing tanks, each with hinged openings like submarine hatches just big enough for brewer Alex Breard to wiggle into and clean from the inside out.  A spindly Big Ass Fan turns in a slow, wide circle.

Carly Wiggins, Southbound’s co-founder and marketing director, graphic designer, administrative coordinator and occasional filler and washer of kegs, pours me a pint of their Hoplin’ IPA.  It has a clean and woodsy taste.

“It’s an easy-drinking beer,” she says.  “Savannah’s a food city; you want to be able to pair with that.  It has the malt-hop balance, not super hoppy, pretty sessionable.  The alcohol’s only 6.2 percent, which means it doesn’t burn your throat going down.”

Craft draughts vary in drinkability, since artisanal beers tend toward higher alcohol content, but they’re a step up from shotgunning a Silver Bullet in stadium parking lots and pounding picklebacks at college pubs.

“People just love handcrafted beer,” Carly asserts.  “They get excited about trying new things and challenging their taste buds.”

Carly tells me there are more craft breweries now than there’ve ever been—except before Prohibition.  Upwards of 2,300 span the nation.  In Savannah, they all still smell like fresh paint.  But they’re proof that people are getting over the boilermaker-and-backyard-barbecue aspect of beer.  Beer is no longer just a working class beverage, and the new American Beer Dream purports that there are infinitely more drinking options than your average American lager.  Southbound’s brewmaster, Smith Matthews, self-proclaimed beer geek (never beer snob), says he’ll drink anything.  “Anything” includes Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“Making beer is pretty awesome,” Smith tells me.  “It’s hard work and there’s science involved, but you taste it and it’s pretty good.  The best part is when people tell you they love your beer.”

Carly and Smith have been buds since preschool.  They both attended Georgia Tech for business and industrial design.  When they weren’t hitting the books, the Statesboro duo whet their taste buds on artisanal barley working at Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta.  Smith went on to brewing school at The Seibel Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he met Alex.

“Smith is my best friend,” Carly says.  “We live together, we work together, we always hang out together.  And we haven’t murdered each other yet, which is fantastic.  Working with two of your best friends, doing something you love—really, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Southbound plans to concoct seasonal beers and one-off batches, she continues, to “give the guys the chance to be creative, to sit down and brainstorm.”  They also want to feature local artists and sponsor local music, give private tours and host private events.

The equipment they’ve invested in, with a ballpark price tag of $2.5 million, has potential to brew far beyond their initial projections, as long as the demand is there.

“We could brew all day, but someone’s gotta buy it and drink it,” Carly says.

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Going Coastal

The microbrew scene in Savannah is a club that everyone is encouraged to join.  The sense of camaraderie and passion among the brewers adds up to an inclusive and infectious team spirit—one of shared purpose, not competition.

“The more, the merrier,” Chris Haborak, co-founder of Coastal Empire Beer Co., says about the microbrew industry on the rise in Savannah.  “Craft beer is growing at a pretty good clip.  We all just want to promote craft beer as a whole, and we’re rooting for each other.”

Chris signed a lease in July 2013 to move Coastal Empire’s contract brewery from Huntsville, Ala., to closer quarters west of Ardsley Park at 79 Ross Road.  Coastal Brewing is a family affair, with Chris’s brew-master brother Kevin Haborak inventing and producing their award-winning Savannah Brown Ale and Tybee Island Blonde.

“We always knew we wanted to be brewing locally, here in Savannah,” Chris says.  “That was always the end goal.”

Coastal’s Savannah Brown not only won People’s Choice at the Savannah Craft Brew Fest two years running, but it also captured a silver medal at the 2012 U.S. Open Beer Championship, besting 1,650 other entries.  Coastal’s 20-barrel system is slated to ferment its premiere batch within city limits by January 2014.

Coastal, Southbound and up-and-comer R&D Brewing are collectively gunning to charter a “brews cruise,” a tour bus that would visit all local breweries, allowing guests to sample the Savannah flavor.  In the meantime, the “hopheads” have joined forces to lobby for loosening city ordinances in the hopes of lifting the cap on how many ounces visitors could potentially sample at the source.

Garden to Glass

“Southbound is kind of leading the way in Savannah,” says Kevin Ryan, lone brewmaster of R&D Brewing.  “They’ve been educating the city on why breweries are good for the town, tourism and jobs.  I’ve been able to come in behind them.”

We’re standing in a plot of bright sunlight behind his nano-brewery on Telfair Road, where this aficionado has planted a raised-bed herb garden to cultivate spices for his small batch brews—everything from basil, rosemary and cilantro to pineapple sage and coriander.  Vines of hops twine in dogged curls out of pots and across a gridded trellis.

“This isn’t the best climate for growing hops, but it’s kind of an experiment to be able to dry and possibly use the hops throughout the year or make fresh hop beers,” Kevin explains as he walks around the garden.

Kevin is also experimenting with harvesting his own honey for his signature beers, which he plans to supply to three or four local hotspots this fall.

His recipes aim to please.  His pistachio pale ale warms the back of the throat.  His chocolate strawberry IPA is subtle, sweet, brewed with cocoa powder and strawberry extract for a decadent finish—further proof that artisanal beer has boiled into a fervor all around town.

Quality beer is more than just a fad; it’s showing up in martini bars around town in high-end cocktails, condensing the slick sides of copper mugs.  It’s teaming with gourmet five-course meals.  It’s growling in your refrigerator at home.

Jazz’d About Beer Cocktails

Move over, martinis; make way for mules.  Jazz’d Tapas Bar owners Brian and Julie Curry unveil their new drink menu on Sept. 1, and among the updated offerings—cocktails with beer.

“Jazz’d is not a big beer bar; we’re a martini and wine bar,” Brian says.  “But we’re trying to catch the wave.”

The couple first learned about beer cocktails from Spike TV’s Bar Rescue.  Inspired, they sent their entire staff of mixologists to Atlanta in July for training.  Now, they’re bringing in bombers, tapping half a dozen microbrews, squeezing their own fruit and vegetable juices, mixing their own sours and serving up classic and craft-enhanced cocktails made with small batch liquors, like the ones pictured (left to right):

The Matador:  a sangria-style cooler of muddled fresh fruit, orange curacao, brandy, St. Germain liqueur and framboise lambic beer.

The Slow Work Day:  a refreshing brew of sloe gin, St. Germain liqueur, blackberry puree and freshly squeezed lemon juice topped with Yuengling.

The Peach Pit:  a reimagined Bellini concocted of citron vodka, peach liqueur and peach puree, and crowned with peche lambic beer.

» Jazz’d Tapas Bar, 52 Barnard St., 236-7777