As the battle for more modern brewery laws rages on in Georgia - one of only five states that doesn't allow breweries to sell beer directly to consumers - the conversation becomes even more relevant in Savannah as Coastal Empire Beer Co. opens its doors for tours and tastings.
Yet, Coastal Empire is not new to the Lowcountry. Brothers Chris and Kevin Haborak have been brewing beer for 10 years, starting with their signature Savannah Brown Ale, which immediately won praise, winning the People's Choice Award during its first Savannah Craft Brew Fest appearance in 2011. Since then, they've trusted Blue and Gray Brewing as a contract brewer for their recipes, which also include Tybee Island Blonde and Pale Ale.
Kevin says they chose to start with contract brewing to minimize their risk during the recession.
"It was 2010 and banks were very hesitant to lending money because of what was happening with real estate declines, as well as the stock market plunge," he says. "Also, Chris and I have young families to provide for, so contract brewing allowed us to continue to work our current jobs at the time and still bring our product to market to see how it would be received. We were both excited and relieved when Savannah Brown Ale was met with great reception."
And opening a brewery in Savannah is no small feat, since Georgia laws make our state 47th in breweries per capita and 44th in economic impact from craft breweries. Unlike neighboring states such as North Carolina, Florida and South Carolina, production breweries in Georgia cannot sell growlers filled with draft beer, six-packs or even a pint to patrons. Instead, guests can only take a tour and sample up to 32 ounces of beer.
However, the Haboraks have kept their eyes on the prize for more than a decade, and that determination has led to the grand opening of their tasting room Dec. 20.
"From the first day that we started talking about opening a brewery, the goal was always to eventually brew locally here in Savannah," Kevin says. "With the growing success of our brands, we knew it was time to open our brewery to help ensure quality and meet growing demand.
"We committed to buy a 20-barrel brew house from W.M. Sprinkman at the Craft Brewers Conference in March of 2013. After the completion of construction in August of 2014, we brewed our first batch the same month," he says.
The brewery now employs three additional positions, with plans to grow that number to seven. Yet if Georgia laws change, that number could grow, since the facility could have longer hours and sell beer to patrons.
For now, tours will take place from 1-5 p.m. the first and third Saturdays of each month, and the brothers plan to have four to six beers in rotation for people to sample during a tour.
"We will be doing a lot of experimenting with small-batch brews, so the variety should be good," Kevin says, adding that the inspiration for these small batches "comes from a lot of places. It can come from Dustin, our assistant brewer, and I just sitting around talking, or from foods that we eat, or even from just wanting to design something around a malt or hop that we haven't used before."
Some of these experiments will transition to seasonal or full-time offerings, such as Dawn Patrol Imperial Breakfast Stout, set to be released in January. It already won a bronze medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival in the herb and spiced category, and will later be joined by two other Coastal brews: Southern Delight, a praline amber ale, as well as Inshore Slam, an IPA.
"Our distributor here in Georgia is Savannah Distributing, and we plan on working with them to increase distribution of Coastal Empire to the whole state," Kevin says.
The brothers remain optimistic that Savannah's craft beer scene will continue to grow, and advise beer lovers to get involved if they'd like to see Georgia's brewery laws updated.
"Some of our neighboring states have more updated brewing laws than does Georgia, so when Georgia modernizes some of the laws that govern breweries' growth, jobs will continue to grow," Kevin says. "People can help facilitate this by talking to their state representatives about the positive impact of local breweries on local economies."
Local craft beer enthusiasts can help the cause by signing a petition at www.gabeerjobs.com.