Jonathan Ingram's picture

A Small Town Lives Large

Although the four square miles occupied by tiny Decatur, Georgia may be small, the city looms large when it comes to craft beer.
Brick Store Pub Interior
Photo Credit: The Brick Store Pub

Decatur boasts one of America’s most unique craft beer festivals and is also home to The Brick Store Pub, often mentioned in the same breath with establishments in cities like Philadelphia, New York, Toronto, and San Francisco.

It seems only natural that the little burg just east of Atlanta is evolving into a brewing center as well. Twain’s Billiards and Taps, which was one of the co-founders of the Decatur Craft Beer Festival along with the Brick Store, is now distributing kegs of its seasonal offerings from an expanded brewpub.

Wild Heaven, a wildly successful start-up due to its Ode to Mercy American brown ale, is planning its own new brewery in Avondale Estates, cheek-by-jowl to Decatur. Three Taverns anticipates a launch of its first beers from a new $1.9 million facility that will feature Belgian styles made on New Street in Decatur. The nano-sized Blue Tarp will open a tasting room and provide tours on College Avenue this summer as well.

“I think that craft beer and Decatur is a good match because Decaturites tend to be open-minded, worldly, and adventurous folks who appreciate the independent and creative spirit that informs craft brewing,” said Uri Wurtzel, who co-owns Twain’s with his brother Ethan. It was Ethan who first brought up the idea of Decatur hosting a beer festival, first held in 1998.

While Twain’s remains a more traditional beer bar with pool, indoor games and televised sporting events, the Brick Store evolved into an epicenter of craft beer’s cutting edge brews. Once the laws in Georgia allowed for higher gravity beer in 2004, the Belgian Bar appeared upstairs. Not long afterward, a cellar was opened in the vault of a nearby shuttered bank, featuring a hands-down stellar collection.

“We’ve been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” said Dave Blanchard, who co-owns the Brick Store with Tom Moore and Mike Gallagher. “We knew we had a good concept and it’s evolved over the years. What was available in Georgia in 1997 when we opened is a whole lot different than what’s available now. We were lucky enough to be able expand and evolve and sort of push the envelope and ride the wave and get way ahead of the beer game.”

That game now includes Leon’s Full Service, a restaurant owned by the Brick Store ownership. It’s located around the corner at a former filling station that featured a portico style drive through. The new Kimball House, opening in the old railroad depot next to the always active tracks, will be co-owned by the Brick Store and some longtime employees.

The time and place continue to be right when it comes to craft in Decatur, the seat of DeKalb County. Underneath a tree-lined main street and its latter-day Bohemian atmosphere, Decatur sustains a credo of enjoy, create and work hard, which is similar to the attitude that prevails in many craft breweries. A small town that attracts those looking for less traveled paths, the stores, restaurants and coffee shops tend to be home grown and hip without being completely quirky or, on the other end of the spectrum, pretentious like nearby Midtown or Buckhead in Atlanta.

Since the government of a major metropolitan county is headquartered there in modestly modern buildings adjacent to the old courthouse, the city cannot get too funky and laid back. There are also the usual political tensions between growth in the form of high rises and sustaining the city’s unique small town character.

A new emphasis on hip bars with sophisticated mixed drinks has recently arrived along with the Victory Sandwich Bar and the affiliated Paper Plane next door.

One thing is unlikely to change. For anyone living within or near Decatur, or just visiting, numerous locations are within walking distance of one another when it comes to finding what craft beer chronicler William Least Heat Moon referred to as “a glass of handmade.” 

“I do like the fact that beer is getting its due and we probably do have a lot to do with Decatur being the beer town,” said Blanchard. “I’m just a fan of any Decatur place that is doing something good, something different, something that reflects who the people are and something creative. There’s a nice fraternity of industry folks who support each other. The better they are, the better Decatur does and the better we all do.”

Nothing quite spells out Decatur’s beeriness like its craft beer festival, which has generated over $500,000 in grant money for local projects. The non-profit festival, presented hand-in-hand by the city government and supporting local businesses such as the Brick Store and Twain’s, pours only craft beers made in America. Last year it had 62 beer stations.

"The American beer scene has blossomed in the last several years, so a couple of years ago we went from being an international beer festival to limiting it to American breweries,” said Blanchard, who co-ordinates the beer side of the event. “That was tricky. We’ve had a lot of our importer friends who have been involved with the festival from the beginning.”

In many respects, the scale of the festival is the source of its charm. Although the festival increased its space last year by expanding into Ponce de Leon Avenue, the town’s main street, the size remains constrained by its location around the old courthouse, one reason why ticket sales are limited to 4,000. The beer list, meanwhile, is limited by law to those who distribute in Georgia. Alas, heightened awareness of the beer scene in the state due to the presence of the Brick Store and the festival tend to bring in craft stalwarts like Boulevard Brewing Company, which began distributing in Georgia last year.

The fact Atlanta Beer Week has begun aligning with the Decatur Craft Beer Festival in October has leveraged the scene in Decatur even more. Brewers and owners such as Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Company, Eric Wallace of Lefthand Brewing Company, John McDonald of Boulevard and Peter Brouckaert of New Belgium Brewing visited events in Decatur last year that were held in conjunction with Atlanta Beer Week and the festival.

The increase of more fresh-brewed beer in Decatur (scheduled to arrive before this year’s October festivities) means only one thing: Just when it seems the craft scene in little ol’ Decatur can’t get much better or bigger – guess what?