On one fateful day in 2009, a rundown, graffiti-covered, weed-surrounded mansion on the edge of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood went into foreclosure. Many had seen it as an unruly eyesore for some time, but Bob Sandage saw potential. He’d been homebrewing for more than 15 years, had written a business plan for a brewpub seven years previous, and, as it turned out, was three days away from selling off his engineering company to start making that brewpub a reality. “It must have been meant to be!” Sandage says. He’d end up purchasing the property in March 2010.
Built in 1900, the 18,000-square-foot property—including the warehouse behind it, which would soon fill up with brewing equipment—boasts a domed roof and stately columns. When Sandage bought it, the Victorian home’s elegance was counterbalanced by broken windows, chunks of missing ceiling, and all manner of disrepair. While it took some work to get the place inhabitable, the buy-in from locals was immediate. Almost a year before even opening, Wrecking Bar had 1,200 Facebook fans.
While Sandage’s business certainly wasn’t Georgia's first brewpub, it would go on to pave quite a bit of new ground in just a few years, raising money to affect legislative change in one of the country's worst states for beer laws, shining a light on innovative beer styles, and doing things no other Georgia beer maker has done before.
Indeed, the Wrecking Bar team would go on to turn that old mansion into one of ATL’s finest food and drink destinations, but it wouldn’t happen overnight.
“When the Wrecking Bar first opened, the most impressive thing about it was the space itself,” Mary Fiorello says. “The food and the beer were good, but not amazing. Neighbors would tell me the beers at the brewpub weren't as good as Bob's homebrew that he had been sharing at parties. There was a reason for that: the first brewmaster wasn't making Bob's beers.”
Fiorello, a passionate, 20-year fixture of Georgia’s beer scene who lives up the street from Wrecking Bar, knows a few things about quality beer. As Wrecking Bar improved, she became a regular. Today, she handles their social media and email marketing.
“Wrecking Bar went from serving spinach and artichoke dip to veal brains and being featured on the Food Network,” she continues. “When it opened, they had five beers: a Golden Nelson, an English Mild, an IPA, a Stout, and a Wit. Today, they have 11-15 beers on tap and special release kegs of the Mexican Siberius Maximus kick [in] 20 minutes.”
When Wrecking Bar first opened on July 2, 2011, the brewpub experienced a lot of the early jitters prevalent in the food and drink industry—inconsistent beers, mediocre food, rough-around-the-edges service. Some early Atlanta media reactions were not kind, one local writer using words like “thin,” “watery,” and “flavorless” to describe everything from the beers to the beer cheese soup. Others were kinder, but it was clear that Wrecking Bar was a good-not-great place to eat and drink.
That would change. Four months in, Sandage had to make the difficult-but-unavoidable decision to let go of his initial brewmaster in the wake of rather reprehensible charges. Left with no other choice, Sandage decided to serve as owner and brewer.
“We had been having our challenges building up business just like any new restaurant, so it made most sense for me to take the reins as brewmaster,” he remembers, though he knew it wouldn’t be feasible for long. “From day one, I had assistants working with me. I knew there was enough on my plate with the business that I would need help and might want to pass the torch on someday.”
Shortly after taking over the beer program, he brought on a pair of assistants from his front-of-house team. Neal Engleman and Tim Schiavone were pals, Wrecking Bar servers from the brewpub’s initial group of hires, and homebrewing buddies of around three years at that point. They took quickly to a professional brewing opportunity, and when Schiavone decided to apprentice under another Georgia brewpub owner and local beer veteran, John “J.R.” Roberts, at Max Lager’s, Engleman and Sandage ran the show.
“Within a year of opening, we had a modest barrel-aging and sour program,” Engleman says. “We had several batches brewed intended for barrel aging so we could move towards keeping a style like that on tap at least once a week. This slowly became more popular as beer nerds grew to enjoy styles other than IPA. We began a weekly tapping of some type of wood-aged beer every Wednesday.”
Those “Wood-Aged Wednesdays,” as they’d come to be called, were one of ways Wrecking Bar started getting the beer geeks in the door. And as Engleman found his brewing voice and Sandage took a step back as Brewmaster Emeritus so he could deal with other parts of the business, the beer menu continued to get more adventurous.
A glance at one of their recent lists reveals more than 15 beers, and it's a diverse lineup: an English Mild, a Lager, a Kolsch, a Gose, three Pale Ales, two Stouts, an Oatmeal Porter, an Oktoberfest. A testament to the crew’s relentless innovation, they created 122 distinct beers in their first two years—an average of 1.17 new beers each week. You figure out what works and what doesn’t when making that many styles at a rather small—850 barrels/year—operation.
In fact, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote its first proper review of the establishment in April 2013, the headline said it all: “At Wrecking Bar, now it’s not just beer that’s good.” While the newspaper focused on the brewpub’s new chef and his exciting new menu, it was understood at that point that Wrecking Bar was a known quantity in the Atlanta beer scene. But about that chef:
“In 15 years of owning my engineering company, it took me too many of those years to figure out that you need to surround yourself with good people, and you can't do everything yourself as an owner,” Sandage says. “The kitchen and menu were the hardest parts. We cycled through a few chefs—good, talented people, but not a great fit. Then we found Terry Koval, and we hope he stays here forever.”
A rising star of Atlanta’s food scene before he joined Sandage’s team, Koval’s come into his own at Wrecking Bar. He made a name for himself slinging seasonal, grass-fed burgers at local chain Farm Burger. He then brought his formidable knowledge of sustainable food to everything from fries-and-sauce to an impressive burger to Georgia-raised pastured chicken from Grassroots Farms. It’s not all meat, either. His Tuesday vegetarian specials attract one of the biggest weekly dinner rushes for the brewpub. And his corn pups were recently featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Better food, it turns out, leads to better beer.
“It’s an invigorating work environment,” Engleman says. “There’s a healthy internal competition between all phases of the restaurant. The kitchen will come out with something crazy, and I immediately feel as though I need to one-up them with a new batch, all while the bartenders are stealing the show. I’m always on my toes to get better at my craft.”
Inspired by several trips to Pizza Port’s Strong Ale Festival, Sandage decided to bring the idea home. In late 2013, Wrecking Bar hosted Georgia’s inaugural Strong Beer Fest, which sold out quickly that year and the two since.
"Georgia's citizens are ready to see Georgia's craft brewers catch up with the rest of the free world," Moon River owner/brewmaster and then-Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild president John Pinkerton said in the weeks leading up to that first Strong Beer Fest. "These kind of events are a great opportunity to rally our supporters and further broadcast our message."
It was the first Peach State festival to cater to high-ABV beers (nothing poured at the fest has clocked in under 8%), but it was also one of the first festivals in the state to focus solely on Georgia beers. (A year later, the annual Georgia Craft Beer Fest launched, and events in far-flung Atlanta suburbs are now wholeheartedly embracing the locals-only approach to beer culture.) The Strong Beer Fest also ended up raising $8,400 for the GCBG, quadrupling what the organization had in the bank at the time and setting a new standard for beer makers and event organizers in the state.
Georgia has some of the most restrictive beer laws in the country. Breweries can’t sell directly to customers, for starters. No draft in-house, and no growlers, six packs, or bombers to go. No anything. The Georgia legislature passed Senate Bill 63 this summer, which granted Peach State breweries the privilege to sell tours at different price levels, including different amounts of “souvenir” take-home beer. But even that was thwarted recently by a thoroughly dubious Department of Revenue policy bulletin, the consequences of which are still being sorted out.
Georgia breweries only have one customer (their distributor), and they’re completely at that customer's mercy. Thanks to onerous franchise laws, if a Georgia distributor is doing a bad job, the brewery’s only recourse is to pull out of distribution for five years before signing with a new one. When you can’t sell your own beer, that’s not a viable business option, which means that a Georgia brewery’s deal with a distributor is a deal for life.
Direct sales and distributor woes are a couple of the biggest difficulties facing Georgia breweries, but when you consider that many basic rights most of the country takes for granted (growlers were legalized in Georgia in 2010, retailers were allowed to start selling beer on Sundays in 2011) are absent in the Peach State, the frustration down here starts to make more sense. And when you consider that the ABV limit in the state was only raised above 6% in 2004, and that it’s still capped at 14%, the idea of a Georgia-only Strong Beer Fest starts to make a lot of sense.
“Wrecking Bar was started at the beginning of the craft beer renaissance in Georgia,” Engleman says. At the end of 2011, there were 20 breweries and brewpubs in Georgia. The five that opened that year marked the biggest year in Georgia history. But the boom has only accelerated since, with several opening each subsequent year. Currently, Georgia has 45 breweries and brewpubs.
More breweries means more competition. If you’re going to stand out from an ever-increasing pack, you need to make and do things that no one else is making or doing. Inspired by a tasting of Westbrook's Mexican Cake Imperial Stout at the 2014 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, the Wrecking Bar brew team decided to put a spicy spin on their Siberius Maximus Imperial Stout. The result was Mexican Siberius Maximus, a monster beer made with cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon bark, and chipotle and smoked serrano peppers. It proved so popular on its initial test batches, they christened the fifth of every month Cinco de Siberius—the only time you can drink the stuff. The pours at the October 2015 edition lasted 25 minutes.
Earlier this year, Sandage & Co. hosted Georgia’s first all-sours festival. The Wrecking Bar’s Wild, Wild Beer Fest sported tart, funky entries from local breweries like Burnt Hickory, Creature Comforts, Three Taverns, SweetWater, and Orpheus, but also a host of known national (Bell’s, Crooked Stave, New Belgium, Prairie) and international (Hanssen’s, Orval, Rodenbach, Verhaeghe) beer makers. At $50/ticket with only 300 sold, it was a pretty acceptable way to spend a Saturday afternoon in May.
Being first is sometimes an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s not as important as being best. That’s where Sandage’s competitive edge comes in. His focus on becoming one of the best brewpubs in the country is fair, balanced, and nothing short of obsessive.
“I do a U.S. brewpub rankings list each year,” he says. “It’s easy to find all ‘world class’ brewpubs on RateBeer. Then, go to BeerAdvocate and see if [they’re] ‘world class’ on both sites. From there, factor in the Untappd score, and the beer and place ratings for RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, and you have an ordered list of all world class U.S. brewpubs. My stated goal before we opened was to be a top five brewpub within three years of opening. We have hovered between 6th and 8th for the past three years, so we are just out of that top five, but I couldn't be more happy or proud.”
Wrecking Bar is working on its next first.
“Early in 2014, I traveled extensively and decided I wanted to jump into something more,” Sandage remembers. “I didn't want to open Wrecking Bar II, and didn't want just a brewery. Part of my travels had been to Jester King near Austin. I talked with Stevenson [Rosslow, Wrecking Bar's general manager] when I got back and he said, ‘Why don't we start a farm brewery?’”
The project moved quickly from there. “I spent a weekend in Athens and saw the amazing beer, food, and music culture that’s only getting better,” Sandage says. “I see the trend increasing for traffic between Atlanta and Athens. Stevenson and I talked about it, and the very first place I came across was a great fit.”
On April 20, Sandage and Rosslow (with a little financial help from Rosslow’s mom) purchased 62 acres of farmland in Loganville, Ga. Dillwood Farms, which they renamed Wrecking Barn, is equidistant between Atlanta and Athens, meaning Sandage’s bet could pay off big in the years ahead. In the meantime, they’ve quickly set to work, hiring a few folks, including local star farmer Rachel Hennon.
The list of food they’ve already got in the ground is staggering: cucumbers, heirloom melons, lunch box peppers, fingerling and sweet potatoes, green beans, heirloom corn, arugula, bok choy, chard, mustard and collard greens, beets, radishes, carrots, figs, pears, muscadines, black walnuts, two types of okra, three types of eggplant, four types of basil, and more than 200 blueberry bushes. All of that produce is going into Wrecking Bar dishes, but they’ve also started a modest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program which will expand with the farm’s production.
They’ve currently planted five of 12 usable acres. The other 50 will be filled with any number of developments. Rosslow and Sandage talk of a production brewery, a barrel facility, an events space, a restaurant. Nothing’s really off limits if the state of Georgia will let them do it. And that, of course, is the big question.
“We’d like to open a general store/BBQ restaurant in an old gas station along [U.S. Route] 78,” Rosslow says. “Kind of in the vein of Joe’s in Kansas City, but also selling our pickled and canned goods, charcuterie, pies, etc. This would be a good pit stop for those Atlanta-Athens commuters. I envision a giant billboard above the store with an arrow pointing in the direction of the farm, with the sign saying ‘Free Beer this Way.’ As long as the state of Georgia continues to prevent us from selling beer, we’ll just have to make it work any way we can.”
For now, Rosslow hopes for the farm to hit profitability in early 2016. Then it’ll be time to work on building out a barrel facility to encourage Wrecking Bar’s sour program. He says they hope to be filling barrels by summer.
“It’s important to have a separate facility for our sour beer operation,” he says. “We’ve utilized every nook and cranny at the pub to stash barrels to ferment all kinds of fun stuff. Currently, we have four separate batches of Sour Stout finishing this month. One with coffee beans, one with wild blackberries from the farm, one with sour cherries and one plain. The fun part will be the blending to try and make something greater than its parts.”
When Rosslow lets his mind wander on the topic of the farm, it seems like the kind of thing that could keep him busy until the end of his days. He happily refers to the property as a “lifetime project,” and while he’s fantasizing about what’s next, it’s no surprise that he mentions another first they hope to accomplish.
“We envision the Wrecking Barn to be a fully integrated farmstead with produce, livestock, a brewery, an event facility, cottages and tree houses for overnight stays,” he says. “We’ve even been approached by a local malting start-up to potentially have their operation on premise as well. Can you imagine making beer from freshly malted Georgia-grown grains? So fresh they merely move a few hundred feet from the malting floor to the mash tun? It’s our goal to make a beer that’s 100% Georgia grown—grains, hops, well water from the property, yeast propagated from the estate.”