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Craft beer comes to a head in North Georgia
Law, cultural changes putting suds in the spotlight
NICK BOWMAN | The Times Gold City Growlers owner Chad Wimpy, in the background, got approval to sell tasting flights of beer at his store this month from the Dahlonega City Council. - photo by Nick Bowman

Craft beer is bubbling up into North Georgia after a quiet few years proving itself in the conservative region.

It can be difficult to sell a drink in the area; cities have ranged from wary to outright hostile in their view of businesses exclusively slinging suds, wine or spirits. After decades, that’s changing.

It’s illegal to sell liquor at retail stores in Lumpkin and White counties. White County goes a step further and bans the sale of liquor for on-site consumption outside of the tourism haven of Helen.

Bans don’t apply across the board; wine sellers have for years been making inroads in both counties and many others where vineyards dot the landscape and attract millions of dollars in tourism and taxes.

Dahlonega in Lumpkin County has especially filled a niche in North Georgia for its downtown wine tasting rooms, where customers can buy “flights” of wine, a series of three or four glasses with different wine to taste. If they don’t want a flight, they can buy a full glass of wine, most of which is made in Georgia. When they’re finished, customers can buy bottles to carry out.

After several years of jumping through hoops and working under tight regulations, craft beer is following wine and wineries into wider cultural acceptance in North Georgia.

The Dahlonega City Council voted this month to ease up on regulations of the city’s only growler business, Gold City Growlers. Growlers are 32- and 64-ounce jugs that are filled from beer taps and sold to go.

Dahlonega had no ordinance for growler businesses before Chad Wimpy approached the city looking to start Gold City Growlers.

“When we first opened in 2014, we were doing growlers and we had a good bit of craft package on the shelves as well,” Wimpy said.

Even since 2014, craft beer has become more popular nationwide. Competition from grocery chains, which can offer lower prices than mom and pop shops, has cut down on Wimpy’s package sales. He’s instead focused on selling locally made pottery, honey and other products.

Unlike the wine tasting rooms just yards from his business, Gold City Growlers wasn’t allowed to sell samples of beer.

“We were only allowed to give samples away at no charge to basically make sure the beer (customers) were buying was what they wanted,” Wimpy said.

Feeling the retail pinch and hoping to draw in more foot traffic, Wimpy approached the city in 2015 asking to sell flights and samples, but he was rejected.

The business owner said he’s had to turn many potential customers away because they were looking to buy flights, as they had just done up the street at a wine tasting room.

This summer, Wimpy’s request stuck. On Aug. 8, Dahlonega council members unanimously voted to allow Wimpy to sell two flights a day to customers. Each flight contains 2-ounce pours in four glasses.

“It’s well-liked by all ages,” Dahlonega Councilman Michael Clemons said of craft beer. “So we just felt like when Chad came to us that he had good ideas that would be favorable, and he was really just asking for an even playing field between the wine tasting and his tasting.”

Dahlonega, along with other cities in North Georgia, is learning that the craft beer drinker is not the person they thought he was.

“It’s just like Harley Davidson (owners) — they’re not Hell’s Angels, they’re movers and shakers in the world,” said Clemons, who himself doesn’t drink craft beer. “These people are the same. They want to come in and get a cold glass of beer and enjoy it — do one, do two and that’s it. They’re not going to go crazy.”

Gainesville has been learning the same lesson since it allowed growler businesses and breweries in 2014.

A rewrite of the city’s alcohol code eased up on its restrictions and cleared the way for the creation of Left Nut Brewing Co. on Atlanta Highway and the town’s two growler stores, Tap It on Thompson Bridge Road and Downtown Drafts on the square.

Tap It was the first growler business to open and is an addition to Pro Touch Landscapes. Its owner, Zack Thompson, a Gainesville City Council member, said the addition of craft beer was a natural pair for his landscape and home good supply business.

It’s been more than two years since Tap It opened, and Thompson said his clientele is a professional crowd — including professionals who bring their employees to beer tastings.

“People enjoy the taste, the sampling, the flavors,” he said. “It’s more like a wine connoisseur. There’s so many different beers out there now, it’s getting close to the wine selection.”

Since 2014, Gainesville too has eased up on its restrictions for growler bars.

“When we first started, we were only allowed three 1-ounce samples and a growler to go. That was it, it was nothing,” Downtown Drafts owner Nick Hoecker said.

Growler bars are now able to offer 24 ounces of samples, or the same amount as two cans of beer.

“We’ve come a long way,” Hoecker said.

North Georgia is going further still, and craft beer is about to become a much more common sight in the state.

As part of the city’s code update this month, it created a “downtown dining district,” which allows people to drink alcohol in public from a clear 16-ounce cup on public property.

It’s an expansion of the city’s previous code allowing public consumption during special events and regulation on cafes, which allows alcohol consumption at sidewalk tables in front of restaurants.

What likely will be the biggest change is happening next month. On Sept. 1, the state’s new law allowing direct sales at breweries will go into effect after the Gainesville City Council went along with the changes this month.

That means Left Nut Brewing and the state’s other breweries will be able to sell beer by the pint along with cans, bottles, cases and growlers — a huge expansion of the brewery business.

Up to this point, breweries have, for the most part, been confined to cities with large enough populations to support the large operation needed to make a brewery profitable. The September law change is expected to allow more small breweries to open in rural and small-town Georgia, in towns like Dahlonega.

“The craft beer industry is obviously not going away,” Clemons said. “We listened to what people wanted. Especially if a craft brewery comes into place, I think that’s even greater. We’re lucky.”