In our column Suds & Sounds we turn the spotlight on breweries, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we are talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.
Is there a headier brewery than Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Company? Probably not. For going on two decades, the folks at SweetWater have gleefully inhabited the intersection of hippie culture and craft beer. You wouldn’t expect a company from the South to cover their bottles in tie-dye and give their beer names like 420 Extra Pale Ale, Hash Session IPA, and Dank Tank – all overt references to pot. Then again, this is the land of the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic, so maybe it’s not so unexpected after all.
It should come as no surprise that the brewery’s hippie roots arise from a love of music, among other things, and since the beginning SweetWater has always embraced the freewheeling grooves of good times music. Their annual SweetWater 420 Fest may be the epitome of fusing a love of music with a love of craft beer, bringing a huge lineup to Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park every April. This year’s roster features stalwarts of the jam band scene with Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, Anders Osborne, Twiddle, and more. Besides the festival, the brewery also hosts bands regularly during their tours. To get an inside look at the brews and culture that makes SweetWater Brewing so heady, we recently caught up with their head of PR Tucker Berta Sarkisian.
For people who may have never heard of your brewery, can you give us a little background on how it started and what kind of beers you specialize in?
SweetWater Brewing Company is an Atlanta-based craft brewery living by the motto “Don’t Float the Mainstream!” The award-winning lineup of year-round beers includes SweetWater 420, IPA, Blue, Georgia Brown, and Hash Session IPA. Four annual seasonal releases offer palate pleasing variety – 2016/17 include Hash Session IPA in spring (which was made into a year-round offering), Goin’ Coastal IPA with pineapple in summer, Hash Brown in fall, and Squeezebox IPA with grapefruit in winter. SweetWater also features an experimental, one-time-only Dank Tank series and more progressive styles in the 750 mL Cork & Cage series, which includes The Pit & The Pendulum and Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout.
From the first day a SweetWater was brewed, founder Freddy Bensch’s passions for beer, fishing and music, and his abiding love and respect for the outdoors, have inspired the brand and informed the business strategy.
In 1996, Freddy traveled from Boulder to Atlanta with a fresh environmental conservation degree from CU in his pocket. It was during the summer Olympics in Atlanta, and he was enamored by the city’s vibrancy, beautiful river and creeks (and Southern ladies). He immediately recognized the potential to introduce the Southeast to the bold, flavorful craft beers he helped brew back in Boulder – and decided to put down roots and pursue his dream of starting a craft brewery of his own.
After long days of brewing and growing the company, Freddy would go to nearby SweetWater Creek to paddle or fish, just to be in nature. And that’s how we got our name – it was Freddy’s tribute to that important daily respite, and a nod to his passion for all things outdoors.
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How long have you been brewing and what do you consider the brewery’s greatest triumph so far?
Celebrating 20 years in February! We have 187 employees who work hard every day to make and sell great beer, and have a blast while doing it.
Talk about the beer culture a bit in your city. What do people look for in a good beer and what do you hope to provide, and also do you see the beer scene as being linked in any way to the music scene?
When SweetWater first started brewing in Atlanta, we were one of just a couple craft brewers in the South. Now there are tons, and we hope we played (and continue to play) a part in giving the South a strong voice in the craft beer scene. Over the last 20 years we’ve also seen the number of craft beer drinkers grow dramatically – it’s cool that we were able to introduce so many people to craft beer through 420, and they’re still huge fans of it today. But today, in addition to brewing our core styles like 420 and IPA, we’re also barrel aging brews, experimenting with sours, trying out new recipes in our pilot system, infusing brews with Brettanomyces – and our consumers are excited to try them. It’s a fun, evolving conversation.
A lot of breweries seem to incorporate their own musical tastes into their packaging and presentation, whether it be a collaboration with a band, a tribute label, or a beer name that references something they like. Has you brewery ever done something like this, and if so can you tell us about it?
Definitely – right now, we’re working on a collaboration for 420 Fest 2017. Can’t reveal any details though…
Has your brewery ever brought in any bands to play?
Music is a huge part of the SweetWater lifestyle – we often have bands come out to the brewery and play during tours. These range from an unknown guy with an acoustic guitar looking for a break, to favorite local acts. Then there’s our annual 420 Fest, which has grown from a tiny celebration of April 20th, Earth Day, music and craft beer with a handful of people, to a massive 60,000 person, 3 day festival in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. We have multiple stages, nearly 50 musical acts, a comedy stage, a SweetWater Experience tent where consumers can taste rare brews and interact with brewers, artist market, non-profit and environmental village, and a ton more.
In your opinion, what is the absolute best band or kind of music in general for drinking beer?
Definitely depends on what you’re drinking, doing, mood, weather – but our 2017 420 Fest lineup is as close to perfect beer drinking music as I can imagine. Headliners are Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Slightly Stoopid, Trombone Shorty, Dark Star Orchestra (plus about 45 more).
Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?
What’s better than watching an old favorite band or discovering a new one, at an incredible outdoor venue, while drinking a delicious craft beer?
SweetWater Brewing Company is located at 195 Ottley Drive in Atlanta , Georgia. For brewery hours and more info visit sweetwaterbrew.com.
For more info on SweetWater 420 Fest visit sweetwater420fest.com.
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