A View of Wild Heaven
By Owen Ogletree
Eric Johnson, co-owner and brewmaster of Wild Heaven Craft Beers in Georgia's Avondale Estates, smiled as he dumped buckets of mission figs marinated in Madeira into the kettles of his Autumn Defense Märzen. Eric explained, "This brew is a real lager with four weeks of cold conditioning - a horribly expensive idea for a small brewery. To me, great malt and hops are a canvas, and the fig addition provides an added layer of nuance, complexity and originality."
Proud of Eric's ability to be wildly creative and buck style trends, Wild Heaven's founder and co-owner Nick Purdy said, "Eric has a really hard job - making unique, esoteric beers that appeal to a wide range of people. Because our beers don't fit styles very well, we'll probably never win much at the Great American Beer Festival."
Claiming to only be a small part of the Wild Heaven story, Nick Purdy sees Eric Johnson's inventiveness as the essence of the brewery's success. "I started Paste Magazine as well, so people know me," Nick mentioned. "I left the magazine because I was blown away by Eric's unbelievable uniqueness and creativity as a brewer. He doesn't see problems - he sees opportunities. Eric's an artist and a scientist, and his understanding of beer on a molecular level is like a highly trained lab guy."
Eric and Nick began contract brewing the initial Wild Heaven recipes at Thomas Creek in Greenville, South Carolina in September of 2010, with their high-gravity Invocation and Ode to Mercy ales first being sold in the Belgian bar at Brick Store Pub in Decatur.
Eric found contract brewing complex beer recipes in another state quite a challenging process. "Through the whole contract brewing experience, it was tough to even consider launching any new brands," he noted. "We always wanted to be dynamically involved in the brewing process. Now that we finally have our own facility, we can taste the beers daily to figure out when to cold-crash, dry-hop and package. Even with a great contract brewer like Thomas Creek, you're essentially handing your kids over to someone else and hoping the finished product will turn out great."
Fitting Into a Community
This year, Wild Heaven completed its own brewing facility in a warehouse in the Avondale Estates neighborhood next to beer-centric Decatur, and Eric and Nick were hands-on in doing a ton of work to make the edifice attractive and aesthetically pleasing. "One of our investors came across the building," Nick said. "It's probably one of the best rent deals in the Southeast, and we are so happy that Avondale Estates has been so supportive. The city is kind of reinventing itself right now, with lots of renovation and even a new distillery."
When asked about the value of being a part of a local community, Nick replied, "Avondale and Decatur are becoming a craft beer destination. We aren't "Beer Town USA" just yet, but we're getting there. The density of walk-able craft breweries on this side of Decatur is impressive."
Nick and Eric see craft beer as a communal product that can hold a fundamental role in a creative, social community. "There's so much beauty, art and passion in the flavors and camaraderie that surround craft beer and make it a social beverage," said Nick. "We always have new people come to our brewery tours and say, 'Wow - I didn't know beer could be like this.'"
Passing the Craft Beer Torch
Eric fell in love with brewing years ago while setting up an impressive brew system at home. With three adorable one-barrel, glycol-jacketed fermenters, this homebrewery now serves as the convenient test-batch system at Wild Heaven, and allows Eric a means to produce small batches of unique brews that will only be available at Wild Heaven tours.
Fortunate timing allowed the guys at Wild Heaven to purchase Terrapin's old brew system and move it from Athens to Avondale Estates. Eric even got to brew on the system at Terrapin about three months before it was decommissioned. "I knew the system well when we plumbed it in," noted Eric. "Terrapin got lots of free labor, and I got a free education. Our White Blackbird saison was the first beer I made on the system back in May after moving the vessels to our new facility, and the brew day was like hanging out with an old friend again."
Before Terrapin owned the brew system, it formed the original brewhouse for SweetWater. Eric sees this as "passing the craft beer torch around local breweries," and he appreciates the fact that the system is quite manual with low automation - just the way he likes to brew. Eric also installed a new heating calandria, lauter tun false bottom and control panels.
Recipes for Inventiveness
Wild Heaven's current lineup includes Invocation Belgian-style golden ale, Ode To Mercy imperial brown ale, Eschaton Belgian-style quad, Let There Be Light American pale ale, White Blackbird saison and Civilization English-style barleywine. Seasonals and barrel-aged specials are always on the brewery's radar.
With Wild Heaven, Eric wants to be distinctive and add to the lexicon and landscape of beer. "I want to come up with something new and exciting, and not try to 'out IPA' all the IPAs out there. Unlike winemakers, who can basically just tweak watering and when they pick the grapes, brewers have a tremendous range of opportunities regarding the variety of beer we can make, and something new and exciting that expands boundaries is always coming out - morphing with the evolving and maturing taste of craft beer drinkers. With craft beer, we just never bored."
This article was first published
in Southern Brew News.