Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Savannah Craft Beer Sojourn

By Owen Ogletree

Savannah, Georgia in 1985: No brewpubs, no breweries, no craft beer bars. With this picturesque and historic coastal city's Celtic heritage, many visitors often remarked that Savannah would be an ideal spot for a few traditional pubs. Alas, about the only option 30 years ago was Kevin Barry's Irish pub on touristy River Street that sold Guinness alongside a limited variety of bland lagers.

Savannah, Georgia in 2015: The city houses an award-winning brewpub, three craft microbreweries and some of the finest craft beer bars in the state. Still crave a Celtic theme? Savannah now boasts English-style pubs and a Scottish tavern. Even the patrons at Kevin Barry's can now enjoy a variety of craft beers to sip during live Irish music.

Moon River Brewing's owner and brewmaster John Pinkerton explains, "Since 1999 when our brewpub got started, Savannah has come a long way in terms of the availability of great craft beer. The fact that Moon River is located here in this magical, mysterious city is a big part of our appeal."

Housed in what was once Savannah's oldest hotel on busy Bay Street near the center of downtown, Moon River brewpub makes the perfect first stop for any visiting craft beer lover. "In terms of our beer, I'm most proud of our core philosophy of diversity and balance," says Pinkerton. "I don't want to be boxed in to one kind of beer style or theme. I want to make a broad spectrum of flavorful beers, so we try to keep at least ten different beers on at a time. We always have exciting seasonals like our upcoming Savannah Berliner that's barrel-aged with Brettanomyces."

Crafting New Breweries

Southbound Brewing began production in Savannah in 2013 in a location just a couple of miles west of downtown. Southbound's flagship Hoplin' IPA is the top tipple during tours, but brewmaster Smith Mathews also offers pilot mini-batches that are only available in Southbound's tasting room. "This experimentation has been extremely fun and exciting, with some of the special beers being straight-up hits," remarks Mathews. "Many times we'll revisit these recipes and make a big batch. Seeing a huge interest in our wild and Brettanomyces beers, we decided to do one on the large system. It'll be called Loving Cup - a Rolling Stones music reference. It's dry-hopped with Simcoe, and we're doing it as a collaboration with local radio station Rock 106.1."

L-R: Southbound's core team of Chris Geerlings, Alex Breard,
Carly Wiggins and Smith Matthews

Southbound's marketing director Carly Wiggins adds, "All our beer names are music-oriented and based on a band, a song, an album or singer. It's a fun part of our business when people understand the references. Visitors who make it to our tasting room to tour the brewery and sample our beers usually comment on what wonderful people we have working here. Our philosophy at Southbound is to make great, approachable beers and just enjoy life."

Community Spirit, Local Flare

Savannah's Service Brewing celebrates its first birthday in September with the release of SBC 1 - an 8% ABV American strong ale with blueberry juice, vanilla, coca nibs and local honey. Service's extraordinary production brewery and vast, gorgeous tasting room are just a half mile walk from downtown Savannah, and craft beer locals and visitors flock there to taste the beer range, chat with the friendly staff and pet brewery cats Chinook and Black Hawk. Service Brewing's CEO Kevin Ryan relates, "We have a phenomenal space - extremely thoughtful in design - in a building that's over 100 years old. We even got a preservation award this year from the Historic Savannah Foundation."

Service Brewing CEO Kevin Ryan and brewery cat Black Hawk

Along with making an excellent assortment of beers, a goal at Service Brewing is honoring those who serve in the military. "We are a veteran-owned brewery," notes Kevin Ryan. "Out of 24 investors, 20 of these are vets of the army, navy or marines. Our head brewer and assistant brewer served in the army, and so did I. In our first year, we've raised over $15,000 for charities that support military, police and fire services."

Located a few miles from downtown in a small industrial park, Coastal Empire Beer Company usually offers four exciting specialty beers in the tasting room, along with the regular lineup of Savannah Brown, Tybee Island Blonde and Coastal Pale. Look for a vanilla-forward, barrel-aged brown ale at the brewery in August, along with the delightful Praline Amber Ale that's mashed with pecan flour from Mascot Pecan Company in Glennville, Georgia. Check the website for newly expanded tasting room hours.

Brothers Kevin and Chris Haborak own Coastal Empire. Kevin serves as brewer, while Chris heads up sales and marketing. The brothers grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and named their beers after coastal themes and Savannah landmarks. Chris' personal so far has been Kevin's Dawn Patrol mole stout. "Kevin took the black malt out and replaced it with dehusked chocolate malt," explains Chris. "I had my doubts, but when I tasted the end product, I knew we had something amazing." Dawn Patrol went on to take a bronze medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival in the herb/spiced category.

Brothers Chris and Kevin Haborak set the tone
and keep the fermenters full at Coastal Empire


Pubs Aplenty

Savannah has also gained a reputation as a foodie destination, with Top Chef television celebrity Hugh Acheson's new gastropub The Florence generating a substantial buzz. The Florence features an adjoining coffee shop, large bar and dining area and a small seating section overlooking the kitchen. Acheson points out, "The Florence is a beautiful place to go for a panoply of reasons. Whether you want a great multi-course meal with stellar wine or a simply perfect pizza with a local craft brew, the Florence has you covered. The surrounding arts district is booming, and the space is stunning."

 Julia Volen manages The Distillery pub

Visitors will not be at a loss for superb craft beer pubs in Savannah. Located next to Moon River Brewing, Churchill's Pub serves up hearty UK pub grub to munch with a tantalizing range of draft and bottled beers. The historic d├ęcor at Molly MacPherson's Scottish pub is quite impressive, as are the beer and single malt menus. Enjoy craft beer and authentic Greek cuisine at the time-honored Crystal Beer Parlor, then walk four blocks to The Distillery pub for the best craft beer selection in the city. Don't miss other pub standouts that include the Belgian and German-themed Bier Haus, hipster-favorite World of Beer, and the quaint Abe's On Lincoln.

Savannah's craft beer week culminates with the popular Savannah Craft Brew Fest that's usually held on the first Saturday of September at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center across the river from downtown. Take the fun Savannah Belles Ferry across to the fest from the landing on River Street to enjoy two-ounce, unlimited sampling of craft beers from around the world combined with food, beer seminars, live music and a cornhole tournament.

Need a few "non-beery" reasons to visit Savannah? Join a ghost walk to tour historic squares filled with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Gaze at the impressive talent on display at the museum of art of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). Drive out to the unpretentious beaches of Tybee Island or take a hike through the acres of hauntingly beautiful grave markers of Bonaventure Cemetery. Savannah truly ranks as a must-see destination for lovers of history, charming architecture, distinctive pubs and flavorful, home-grown beers.

This article was first published
in Southern Brew News.

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