Good Beer Hunting

Going Through Changes — Sabbath Brewing Combines Metal, Nihilism, and Saisons in Atlanta

Photo by Austin L. Ray

Photo by Austin L. Ray

Georgia has long enforced some of the strictest beer laws in the United States, which have since loosened to allow direct-to-consumer sales by breweries. This change was at the core of Jeffrey Oparnica’s business plan: make niche beers and sell them across the bar to his customers.

But he hadn’t planned for the tattoo parlour situation.

It started in 2012, when an Atlanta tattooer wanted to put a bar in their shop. ”The city said, ‘No, you can’t do that, definitely not,’” Oparnica says. He’s sitting in his 3,000-square-foot cave of a space in a highly foot-trafficked part of Georgia’s capital called East Atlanta Village (EAV). “And the tattoo shop’s lawyer said, ‘Well, why not? It doesn’t say you can’t do this anywhere.’ So then, the mayor, Kasim Reed, specifically added it to the city code [that you couldn’t open a business that sells alcohol] within 300 feet of a tattoo shop.”

Luckily for that particular tattoo parlour, a Fulton County judge saw fit to overturn Reed’s pushback. But the ordinance still stands for the City of Atlanta to this day. And unfortunately for Oparnica, the space he’s been renting and building out for months happens to be about 200 feet from a tattoo shop in EAV. Had they not run into this roadblock, Oparnica says, he’d be open now and serving beer to East Atlanta residents. As it stands, he, his lawyer, the neighborhood association, and a local councilwoman are working to propose an exemption to the distance requirement for their particular area of the city.

Oparnica, who spent four years working at one of Georgia’s smallest beer makers (The Burnt Hickory Brewery in Kennesaw) and more than a year at one of the country’s biggest (SweetWater, the 15th largest craft brewery in the U.S. by volume), will open Sabbath Brewing in EAV in February—if all goes well in the coming months.

The heavy metal-themed operation, which is self-funded by Oparnica and will be one of the first own-premise breweries in Georgia, will specialize in lower-ABV beers like Saisons and Grisettes fermented in oak, and will sell everything across its bar on draft or out the door in growlers. Brewing on a 3.5-barrel system and fermenting in barrels instead of stainless steel, Oparnica estimates he’ll make 500-1,000 BBLs in his first year.

While this kind of business model wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in many states, it’s unique in Georgia, where businesses have heavily relied on distribution to drive sales. Until recently, going big was what made Peach State breweries viable. Now, new breweries like Halfway Crooks Brewing and Blending are opening in Atlanta with the intention of staying small. Other, more established beer makers like Three Taverns Craft Brewery, are opening second locations that will serve primarily as retail hubs in new “live-work-play” developments. Sabbath will be among the early adopters of a model that has driven success across the country. It will also likely be the first brewery in Georgia to open without a distributor.

“I definitely could not have done this at this scale without direct sales,” he says. “Which is what I wanted to do—I don’t want to be a big, giant brewery. I want to be a niche place where it’s exciting to come and try things here. Every time you come here, there’s going to be a new beer and a new experience.”

Photo by Tripp Housley

Photo by Tripp Housley

Oparnica says he plans to open with six taps: two IPAs, a Saison, a Grisette, a Raw Ale, and one beer that’s yet to be decided.

“In the last two or three years, I’ve gone so far away from what’s popular,” he says of his preferred styles. “I really don’t like adjunct-heavy Stouts and fruity IPAs and stuff like that. I gravitate toward a nice, clean beer like a Saison Dupont. I love Jester King. One of my favorites right now is Ale Apothecary out of Oregon.”

Because of Georgia’s strict franchise laws, Oparnica says he won’t sign with a wholesaler before opening. State regulations are such that a brewery that wants to end a relationship with a distributor must not distribute at all for five years, which could almost certainly mean death for a small business. Oparnica isn’t against the idea of distribution in the future, and hopes to expand his business in the first couple years, possibly evolving the original space into a brewpub—including, potentially, coffee roasting—and eventually build a production space in a cheaper location outside EAV.

“I probably will [distribute] eventually,” he says. “But I wanna have that brand when it gets to that point. When you sign with a distributor now [in Georgia], it’s for life. Basically, you’re at their mercy. I want to build a brand that someone would want to work with.”

Sabbath is a rare thing for Georgia. While plenty of Peach State beer makers produce seasonal Saisons and Grisettes, there are very few indeed that prioritize these as core selections the way Oparnica says he will with Sabbath. And despite a thriving metal scene that’s produced bands like Mastodon, Baroness, Torche, Kylesa, and countless others, Georgia, unlike places like Colorado (TRVE), Indiana (3 Floyds), and Washington (Holy Mountain), doesn’t have any metal-themed breweries. It doesn’t have many beer makers located in packed food and drink districts, either. Sabbath’s next door neighbor is a bar. Across the street is a bar. Walk for a couple minutes in just about any direction, and there’s a bar. Indeed, EAV is one of Atlanta’s liveliest nightlife scenes, with establishments ranging from dives to gastropubs to increasingly higher-end food offerings.  But Oparnica doesn’t see these establishments as competition.

“That’s the only reason I can do this,” he says of his neighboring businesses. “I couldn’t open up this kind of project in an industrial park. It’s great, because I’ll have 200 people out here on a Saturday night already standing on the street at 529, Midway, and Flatiron, that can roll right into here.”

When Oparnica left Burnt Hickory in 2017, he knew he wanted to open his own place. “I’ve always been an independent person who didn’t like having to do things someone else’s way,” he says. “I saw the way craft beer was headed and the tendency for craft breweries to follow trends instead of brewing beer that was what they wanted to brew.”

A brush with death via a devastating car wreck—including a brief coma and lengthy hospital stay—in 2014 made him realize “that this short life I have is not to be wasted on someone else’s dream. Brewing beer is very laborious work. If the end result of that hard work is not something I’m fully proud of, then what’s the point?”

He wasn’t ready to make the financial commitment yet, though, knowing he’d only worked at one relatively small beer maker and having no experience with a larger-scale experience. He’d accepted a job at Alaskan Brewing in Juneau, but when he got an offer from SweetWater, a place he’d wanted to work for years, it was too good of a deal to pass up.

“It’s like the university for Georgia breweries,” he says. “You look at almost all breweries around here, and they have someone who worked at SweetWater. The scale was insane. My first day, I was so intimidated. I’m going from 40-barrel fermenters to 1,400-barrel fermenters, a 20-barrel brewhouse to a 340-barrel brewhouse. I learned so much about process and doing things right.”

Discussing his future business from a couch on top of a stage in the front corner of his proposed brewery space, Oparnica talks about the building which has played host to a headline-making, anti-police gym and a motorcycle/coffee shop. The small stage area currently serving as an ad hoc lounge is where he plans to host bands a couple times a week.

“It won’t be just metal, but it’ll be very heavy metal-influenced,” he says of the type of acts he’ll book. “That’s what I like, that’s what the neighborhood is into, so it fits.”

That metal vibe goes beyond the occasional musical performances and the obvious homage of the brewery’s moniker. Oparnica cites North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co., another heavy-music-loving brewery, as an aesthetic inspiration. There are psychedelic posters of doom metal legends Sleep on Sabbath’s otherwise barren walls. And what little marketing he’s done so far may as well have been bookended with devil horns.

“The tagline for Sabbath is ‘Worship yourself,’” Oparnica says. “I like to think of this as a place where you come, kick back, and enjoy the things you like. I’m kind of a nihilist. I don’t think you should really care about anything except the things you care about. So if you like to drink good beer, come here, drink good beer, and worship yourself… Satanism isn’t really based on worshipping Satan, it’s about worshipping yourself. The only thing that matters is yourself because you are you.”

—Austin L. Ray