The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

Thirsty South has been covering the Atlanta drinking scene for a year now, and we must say that the state of the Atlanta sipping scene is STRONG. Whether you care about coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails, the past year has seen many good things. Here’s our take on the latest and greatest, with as many bad puns as we can fit in.

Coffee Is Roasting Hot, Percolating Wildly, Brewing Beautifully

If you need proof of how good, serious coffee is taking hold of this city, just consider that this past week Octane opened up the latest addition to its expanding empire: a new shop in Grant Park (check out their awesome espresso machine), joining the flagship Octane on the Westside and the mini-Octane “Pocket Bar” at the Bank of America Plaza as beacons of light in the haze of not-receding-fast-enough Starbucks-induced coffee coma. Meanwhile, Steady Hand Pour House is rocking and rolling and settling in nicely over in Emory Village. Empire State South is kicking what has to be the best coffee-bar-inside-an-award-winning-restaurant this side of the Mississippi. And Jason Dominy over at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters is emerging as one of craft coffee’s leading evangelists, with “coffee ambushes” all over town converting unsuspecting onlookers into Clever Coffee Dripping devotees. All praise the bean. On the downside? Why can’t there be at least one great coffee bar in Buckhead? (Octane, here’s your neighborhood for store number four)

Beer Is Hoppin’ and Growling Ferociously

The beer scene, even more than coffee, has truly gone insane (in a good way) over the past year. No one would have guessed a year ago that fresh growler fills would be available all over Atlanta, from Whole Foods to Hop City to Ale Yeah! to The Beer Growler and what seems like another new place every other week or so. The Beer Growler got growlers going in Athens last December and Hop City led the charge here in Atlanta, and there’s no stopping the trend now. It seems inconceivable that Ale Yeah! wasn’t even around this time last year, but now Atlanta has multiple world class beer shops (Ale Yeah! and Hop City in particular) to join its world class beer bars (The Brickstore and The Porter in particular). ¬†And places like Tower and Green’s have continued to step up with great selections of their own. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bars and restaurants are putting more effort into their beer lists and supporting our local brewers more than ever. Speaking of… Jailhouse, Red Hare, O’Dempsey’s, Wild Heaven, Monday Night Brewing all hopped heavily onto the scene in the past year. Are you serious?!? This is crazy growth, and thankfully a lot of great beer is being churned out by these local upstarts who are standing proud next to stalwarts like Terrapin¬†and¬†SweetWater.¬†Wild Heaven probably made the biggest splash, and their Avondale Estates brewery will be a welcome addition once they get it up and running, but Jailhouse is showing that they can also play with the big boys and make some of Georgia’s most adventurous beers.

GA Wine Is Winning, Atlanta Wine Shops (& Lists) Are Bubbly & Sparkling

The past year has seen some of Georgia’s wineries continue to impress in competitions and tastings, gaining broader awareness for their quality. Yonah Mountain got some great press for kicking Napa butt in a blind tasting. Wolf Mountain and Frogtown picked up a bunch of gold medals in Los Angeles and from the Tasters Guild International competitions, among many others. Closer to home, on the retail front, exciting boutique wine shops seem to be sprouting up all over town. Perrine’s, Le Caveau and H&F Bottle Shop all opened up in the past year, and all offer passionate perspectives and impeccable selections. They are everything that Total Wine is not, thank goodness. On the wine list side of things, Empire State South (again!?) introduced one of Atlanta’s most exciting lists, full of impressive Burgundy, Riesling¬†and grower Champagne. Who could ask for anything more?

Cocktail Culture Is Strong, the Competition Is Stiff & Spirited

Getting a well made drink around town is easier than ever. Again, restaurants have shown that a bit of attention to their bar program can really pay off. And a spirited community of barkeeps (AKA mixologists) is stoking the collective talent and enthusiasm all around town. ¬†H. Harper Station is our pick for the most noteworthy newcomer on the cocktail front, thanks to Jerry Slater and crew’s purposeful punch bowls and bourbon bravado. Barrel-aged cocktails hit the scene at Iberian Pig and Double Zero. And while Greg Best and team continue to set Holeman & Finch apart from the rest, Miller Union, Cakes & Ale,¬†Abattoir, Leon’s, 4th & Swift, The Sound Table and Pura Vida all continue to churn out serious stuff from behind the bar. It’s a great list, but we could probably name ten more right behind them. Oh, and best use of shochu in a cocktail? Miso Izakaya, hands down. The only regret? That Pappy Van Winkle is just too damn hard to keep in stock.

In summary, it’s easy to see that the sipping scene is sizzling in Atlanta. The public is thirsty for excellence in all its forms, and thankfully we have purveyors, brewers, baristas and more ready to quench that thirst. We’ll drink to that.

Monday Night Brewing Goin Crazy

Cheers to Atlanta’s own Monday Night Brewing for rolling out their first big time batches of Eye Patch Ale and Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale NEXT WEEK. These guys have been building up to this day for a while now, chronicling the process for public consumption, and you can be among the first to taste these new beers from the keg. Hop City (a Thirsty South favorite) will kick it off on August 8 with growler fills at 5:30PM. Leon’s Full Service in Decatur (another Thirsty South favorite) jumps in the following night, August 9, behind the bar at 6pm. Best wishes to Monday Night Brewing as they take another step towards beer greatness. Check their website for other launch events, or follow them on Twitter.

The Best Miller High Life I’ve Ever Had

First off, I must admit, I detest most mass produced American beer. I’d rather go thirsty than drink a Budweiser or Miller Lite. But sometimes, the forces of the universe come together in a way that can make even a crappy bottle of beer taste like liquid gold from heaven. On this particular night, in this particular place, my bottle of Miller High Life rivaled the finest champagne. What!? How? Why?¬†The reasons are many. But let me set the scene…

The place – Earnestine & Hazel’s Bar in Memphis, Tennessee. It was HOT out, and hot in the bar, as well. Memphis heat in the summertime somehow feels exponentially hotter than it should due to some insane screwup in the Lord’s system for maintaining a proper humidity level in the atmosphere. Sweat is a constant companion. All attempts to escape it are futile. Earnestine & Hazel’s probably has some form of air conditioning, I’m not sure. I do know that the warren of decrepit rooms upstairs is kept company by a single floor fan in the hallway, a floor fan that feels great if you’re one foot away from it, but is¬†maddeningly¬†ineffective at any other distance. Does it sound like a crappy place to be? It’s not. It’s a run down mess of an amazing place, seeped in soul, awash in memories, sweating out years of alcohol and dancing and music and ghosts and sex (Disclaimer: the building is a former brothel, no sex took place at the establishment on this particular night, at least none that I’m aware of).

This particular night was a Sunday night, which is jazz night at Earnestine & Hazel’s. The scene is straight out of a Treme episode (if Treme were set in Memphis rather than New Orleans), musicians hanging out loosely at the bar and at tables around the small area set aside for the band, alternately drinking beers and standing up for effortlessly enthusiastic solos. The band was on, coming together in waves, improvising, coming back to the melody, darting off again. They added to the heat in the air, the sticky humidity.

So we’ve got a hot Memphis night, a hot old dive of a bar, a hot jazz jam, and… oh, yeah, the main accompaniment to that Miller High Life – a hot “Soul Burger.” There is no menu at Earnestine & Hazel’s, unless you consider that taped-on sign above the flat top grill to be a menu. The Soul Burger does indeed have soul, thin patties pounded down, chopped onions and pickles, mustard, a crisped bun, all crunched together into a moment of burger righteousness. So now the setting is complete. Hot night in Memphis, hot dive bar, hot music, hot burger – the conditions are right to elevate just about any beer to¬†savior-status. While Earnestine & Hazel’s is light on air conditioning, their beer fridge works very, very well. So this particular beer, an ice cold Miller High Life, “the champagne of beers” (of course!), was given every benefit in life, every opportunity to make his momma proud, and he delivered. This was the Miller High Life to beat all Miller High Lifes. Liquid gold from heaven, with a side of soul.

(Speaking of soul, check out my post on seeking soul in the Memphis dining scene, over at Creative Loafing’s Omnivore blog)

Growlers Grow on Atlanta

Fresh filled growlers (64 oz. jugs, pictured above) are now firmly established in the Atlanta beer scene, with the area’s two preeminent beer shops – Ale Yeah! out east in Decatur and Hop City on the Westside – happily updating fans as they kick kegs practically daily and replace them with something new. We picked up growlers at each of these two fine shops last week and had a good Saturday night with some La Trappe witte (a stellar summer-friendly Trappist ale) and some Phillips Amber Ale (solid stuff, brewed to go well with seafood).

Growlers offer a fresh, economical and¬†environmentally¬†friendly way to pick up good beer, and are downright fun to share with friends. Here’s a quick look at the growler sections of Atlanta’s two retail beer stalwarts.

Hop City was Atlanta’s first entry into fresh filled growlers. Kraig and company have established a true beer destination for Atlanta’s beer lovers, and their sixteen tap growler section is no exception. Kraig explained their approach, “for our growler choices, we want to make sure we cover as many tastes as possible. You will always find at least one¬†wheat beer, one dark (porter or stout), an IPA/Pale or three, a Belgian-style, a brown, a brown/amber, and alager/pilsner. During the summer¬†months we will lean toward the lighter stuff. During the winter we will be more likely to break out the barleywine.” They also try to maintain a wide range of price options, from the almost always present¬†Sweetwater IPA at $6.99 per fill, to super rare beers like¬†de Struise Outblack which runs $49 for a growler fill, but they¬†focus on beers under $20/fill. Watch out for¬†rare beer releases each Thursday¬†night,¬†and special “tap takeovers” as well – Stone is next on their list with eight beers from the highly regarded brewer coming in to “Growler Town” at once.

Ale Yeah! in Decatur followed in the footsteps of Hop City, setting up shop across town in Decatur. They focus more exclusively on beer (no wine section), and their growler station is comprised of eight taps at the back of the store. Eddie at Ale Yeah! is highly knowledgable, and can point you in the right direction no matter what your tastes are. He explained that they seek a balance of styles in their growler lineup, saying, “our philosophy for growler fills is primarily to maintain a good cross-section of styles: IPA, wheat, funky/sour, lager/pils, stout, brown/red, etc…” In general, IPA’s and local beers such as Wild Heaven‘s Ode to Mercy have been very popular for them.¬†Their¬†most expensive growler thus far was Rodenbach Grand Cru, a fabulous Flanders red ale, at $30.99 for the fill. Ale Yeah! is constantly adding new and interesting beers to their growler lineup, and keeping Decatur beer lovers happy in the process.

Meanwhile,¬†The Beer Growler, a shop that opened in Athens last year and paved the way for Hop City and Ale Yeah!, plans to open their own Atlanta area outpost next month in Avondale Estates. We’ll soon find out exactly what they have in store for Avondale, but expect a strong presence for Terrapin and Wild Heaven beers given the Athens and Avondale connections. Cheers to more growlers for everyone.

UPDATE: Just read about ANOTHER growler stop in the Atlanta area: “Beer growlers are now being filled in Roswell, Ga.!!! All Y’alls Wine & Gourmet Market is the first and only place north of ATL to fill and retail beer growlers. We currently have 5 awesome beers on draft anxiously waiting your consumption. For more details, call All Y’alls and ask for Kevin a.k.a. ” Beer Pimp” at 678-226-9464″

UPDATE 2: Now Whole Foods on Ponce in Atlanta is also selling a small selection of beers by the growler, yeehaw!

UPDATE 3: The Beer Growler opens in Avondale Estates on August 12. And Whole Foods Merchants Walk (Marietta) is also now selling growlers.

Thirsty Scenes from the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

The inaugural Atlanta Food and Wine Festival has been so expansive, so broad ranging, so diverse, that to even attempt to capture the totality of this festival in photos, words, video, memories is an overwhelming challenge. There has been an overflow of bourbon, cocktails, wine and beer, mostly with a focus on the very best of what the South has to offer. There has been a multitude of bites of food, whole hog goodness, pickled veggies, comfort food and creative craziness. Above all, there have been lots of fine folks who care passionately about the food and drink of the South. That was the reason for the festival.

My friend Broderick at captured some of the amazing faces of the festival. I tended to focus on the bottles, glasses, and plates, so here, in some small way, is a very minor taste of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival through the lens of my camera.

First up, the ridiculous bounty of fine things to drink. Our favorite bourbon – Pappy Van Winkle – was well represented. There was an amazing array of Madeira dating back to 1875 that simply blew my mind. “Moonshine” in many varieties made an appearance. And some Corsair experimental “cocoa hull bourbon” knocked my socks off.

Food “trucks” had their own dedicated area. Gotta love the old Airstream trailers. And the “legalize it” message takes on new meaning when it comes to the street food scene.

The stars inside the seminars included Kevin Gillespie (photo below: “Kevin Gillespie in 3 Variations”), Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, Tyler Brown, and a poor little piggie.

And the tastes. Oh, the tastes. A few favorites hailed from the whole hog tent, but you can’t have a Southern food festival without pimento cheese and pickled eggs. Good stuff, y’all!

After all that, we’re already eager for what they can do with a second annual Atlanta Food and Wine Festival next year. Though first I need to recuperate from the past few days of over-abundant Southern goodness. While it was worth it, I think I need a vacation…