As a great American success story, Sweetwater Brewing makes a pretty compelling case study. Founded in 1997 by two friends who met while studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the early 90’s, Sweetwater had humble beginnings. Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney discovered that brewing beer was more fun than attending classes. Yet, the duo, who shared living quarters as well as a passion for beer, persisted in their studies while taking on jobs as keg washers at a local brewery in exchange for free beer.
When graduation day came a sudden reality that in the real world you had to have a real job struck Freddy and Kevin so, in true beer-lover spirit, they headed out west to the prestigious American Brewers Guild in California to master the art of zymurgy. After that the boys took jobs brewing beer for breweries around the west coast.
In 1996, Freddy found himself in Atlanta amid the flash and crowds of the Olympics. As he wandered the town’s beer scene he became aware of the fact that Atlanta needed its own West Coast style brewery and he knew just the person to help him get one started. And so, the quest began for a location and the necessary start-up money to get an aggressive, in-your-face brewery off the ground.
By February 1997, enough money had been scraped together to get things rolling and Sweetwater – named for a nearby creek Freddy enjoyed kayaking – began producing the ales we now know and love. And what extraordinary beer it was. After only five years of operation, the Great American Beer Festival awarded Sweetwater the prestigious Small Brewing Company of the Year award making them the only brewery east of the Mississippi to ever win that award. As if that were not enough, Kevin was bestowed the Small Brewing Company Brewmaster of the Year award. The two awards represented a major coup for the young brewery along with several gold and silver medals for their brews.
Monday night, November 28th, I had the opportunity to talk with Stuart Brown, Jacksonville sales representative for the company as he conducted a tasting at Kickback’s. This was not the first time Stuart and I had talked, but, as always, it was a pleasant conversation. That night the conversation was about the Dank Tank series beers he had brought with him. This series is a very limited supply of interesting beers created only a few times per year. I thoroughly enjoyed them as my notes below will attest.
Fresh Sticky Nugs
The name refers to Nugget Hops, a bittering hop with a heavy herbal aroma. This brew is a double red, dry hopped ale that will really kick you in the seat. It pours deep red with huge hoppy, pine, and citrus aroma. The flavor is almost that of an IPA with pine and a citrus tang that reminded me of orange peel and a bit of malt as a backbone. The finish on this one is long and bitter and thoroughly enjoyable.
As the Sweetwater website confesses, “Warning: We don’t even know what style it is either,” this brew is, as its name implies, a mixture of many parts. Utilizing three grains – two-row, black wheat, and Munich malt – and 14 hops, this brew is truly a brew stew. This mélange pours very dark brown, almost black and boasts aromas of coffee, pine, and citrus. The flavor is floral, citrus hops, and roasted malts with light carbonation. This is a smooth beer with very little bitterness or alcohol flavor even as it weighs in at 8.5% ABV.
Sweetwater’s holiday entry is Festive Ale a dark, medium to full-bodied ale with subtle but wonderful aromas of chocolate and caramel malts along with spices and dark fruits. The taste reveals the chocolate flavor promised in the aroma and subtle spices you would expect from this style of brew.
In 2004 demand had outgrown brewery capacity and operations had to be moved to a larger and the current space. Currently listed in the top 50 American brewers in both the craft and overall sales categories by the Brewers Association, Sweetwater is set for success and ready for growth, but not at the expense of freshness. Sweetwater is fanatical about freshness and even employs a tester who drives their territory in the southeastern United States, tasting Sweetwater brews to ensure only top quality beer is served.
With their dedication to quality beers, this is a brewery that will surely stand the test of time. The brews are tasty and the philosophy is sound. Next time you are out and about, try one of their brews and, as their tag line says, “Don’t float the main stream!”
Until next time,
Long Live the Brewers!