Around the country, state governments are clamoring to promote local beer breweries and liquor distilleries as tourist hot spots, but local manufacturers say cumbersome regulations are making Georgia late to the party.
Former news cameraman Scott Hedeen opened Burnt Hickory Brewery in June 2011 off Moon Station Court a half-mile north of Kennesaw’s downtown area.
“In Georgia, the market isn’t saturated; it isn’t even wet,” Hedeen said.
But in Kennesaw, Hedeen said elected officials and residents understand a unique brewery draws visitors into the city, who stay to shop and eat at other local establishments. Burnt Hickory’s once-monthly open house and tasting draws crowds of 300 to 400 people.
Hedeen, who lives to Acworth, said locating the shop in Atlanta would have meant more bureaucratic red-tape and much higher rent.
Scott Hedeen is not your average entrepreneur. After years of criticizing the taste, labels and names of certain beers, he started home brewing in 1991.
Along with his brother, Hedeen has invested $500,000, not including a bank loan, with some funds from selling 20,000 punk records and a handwritten Nirvana set list by Kurt Cobain.
“It is a family-owned, family-invested business,” Hedeen said. “We are investing in ourselves.”
A risky investment pays off
The sweet odor of grain fermenting is the smell of success for Burnt Hickory, which offers 10 robust-flavored beers with high alcohol content.
The year-round options include pale ales, a Belgium beer spiced with green peppercorns called the Fighting Bishop, the Big Shanty stout, made with cracker crumbs and honey and a red velvet porter.
Because Georgia state law restricts beer manufacturers to only sell through a wholesale distributor, breweries can not sell the crafted beverages directly to consumers. For Hedeen, this means selling kegs to a distributor, who places them in bars and restaurants around Georgia.
“Our distributors are buying every drop,” Hedeen said. “No tank is ever empty here.”
Although Hedeen has developed a business model that does not require selling products directly to consumers, if the law were to change, it would open up daily cash flow with regulars coming in to fill up their glass jugs, called growlers.
Technically, Burnt Hickory is a nano-brewery. But in six months, Hedeen will expand the operation to take his 2.5 barrel system to 20 barrels, increasing yearly production from 200 barrels to 2,000 barrels.
Although Hedeen said Burnt Hickory is about the quality of the amber liquid filling each glass and not the quantity produced, the increase in production would also mean a small bottling or canning line to package the beer for retail stores.
Doubling down on space
Until now, Hedeen said Burnt Hickory has operated more as a “brew school,” testing his ability to work with a city government and meet customers’ needs.
“I am a brewer learning how to be a businessman,” Hedeen said. “I pretty much ran the smallest brewery in the state for two years, but it has to expand in order to make money.”
Besides Hedeen, Burnt Hickory has one full-time and two part-time employees, who volunteered for six months before getting paid jobs.
Once the expansion is completed, there will be five full-time workers, including a business manager and marketing personnel.
The company’s 1,500-square-foot brewery off Moon Station Road will expand next door, leaving the footprint of the building much the same but transforming the production and office space to 5,000 square feet.
Construction will begin in the next two weeks to add a restroom, enlarge the tasting room and reception area, build a large cooler room and install a $350,000 custom, American-made brew house. The upgrades, including a boiler and chiller outdoors, should be done by September.
Mike Lassiter, president of LCM Inc., an Atlanta-based construction consulting firm, has worked with Hedeen for two years, sketching plans, applying for permits and getting variances.
“We had special needs here,” Lassiter said, which includes not shutting down the operations of the brewery during the build out.
On Thursday afternoon, pallets with two tons of grain were delivered to Burnt Hickory that should last two months.
“A year from now, this will be about a week’s worth of grain,” Hedeen said.
Neighbor offers stiff competition
One businessman hopes Burnt Hickory’s success will float down Moon Station Road to the doors of the Lazy Guy Distillery, one block east of Main Street, across the railroad tracks from The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
Owner Mark Allen, 43, is leasing the peach building with a white front porch and the dark brown barn in the back to tempt residents and visitors of Kennesaw with refined moonshine.
The craft whiskey distillery will produce 400 cases and has just started bottling and barreling its first batches.
Lazy Guy Distillery produces 80-proof bourbon, aged for about two years in new American white oak barrels, as well as “young products,” such as the clear, 100 proof traditional corn-based moonshine, the 120 proof “Cold Heart” unaged bourbon and 30-day-aged white whiskey.
“Strange enough, I am not a big drinker,” said Allen, who has owned a technology consulting business in Cobb since 2001.
Allen said he started the distillery because of “how much money is in the alcohol business.”
Compared to gin or vodka, Allen said whiskey has loyal fans, with a growing following of young, urban drinkers who want liquor that is crafted locally in small batches.
“It’s not just for cowboys and old guys anymore,” Allen said.
Unmarked bottles gathering dust
Lazy Guy Distillery was licensed at the end of December 2012, with equipment arriving in July and the first batches made for testing at the end of last year.
Yet, rows of clear bottles filled with moonshine sit sealed with corks inside the main house.
Allen is waiting for the first three labels to be approved by the federal government, before the product can be loaded onto distribution trucks and hauled to bars in the metro Atlanta area.
Allen said he hopes the approval process is done by mid-April, when he also plans to play host to an open house at the distillery.
“It depends on the government,” Allen said. “Trust me, no one is more anxious to get this open than me.”
Lazy Guy Distillery will play host to tours of the production line in the barn that dates back to the 1830s and tastings in the house’s front room with stained-glass windows and a copper bar.
Even then, Allen said he can only give each customer one 0.5-ounce sample a day, which barely fills the clear plastic cups used for communion in some churches.
Allen said the state law on liquor tasting has existed since Prohibition ended in 1933. This year, Allen pushed for a legislative change as part of the Georgia Distillers Association.
“We have raised enough eyebrows,” Allen said, to get the law changed in the next few years to match other states, such as South Carolina, that allow multiple 1.5-ounce samples with customers able to purchase up to two bottles before leaving a distillery.
“And it works beautifully, and everybody makes money,” Allen said.
For now, Allen said he will start the niche business by using bartenders as “sales advocates,” building the brand before placing bottles on the shelves of retail stores by the end of the year.