Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hop to it! The Sweetwater Brewery awaits!

Welcome to Sweetwater Brewery
It is no secret that while I have disdained all alcoholic libations during my investigative career while domiciled at 221-B Baker St., London, preferring a nice cup of ....well never mind that, I HAVE begun to enjoy a sip or three of certain intoxicants in my retirement here in the States. The cases I have been involved in since arriving in the US have had me involved in all manner of spirits....all in the name of investigation of course! 

From fine and smoky Scotches, distinct Artisinal Whiskeys, and Bluegrass Bourbon's of Kentucky, to more festive traipses towards the clearer spirits of Vodka, Rum, and my own predisposition with the Gins of Devon, England. (Gin itself also piques a particular garboil of mine for any elixir derived from a poisonous berry - juniper in this case, is one that certainly commands respect and stirs the soul!)

There is also an adopted penchant towards the wide variety of Blue Agave Tequila's sometimes located within my brim, but the overwhelming favorite libation in my bailiwick remains to be that intoxicating Mesopotamian Mead.......Beer.

Beer, taken from the Latin 'bibere' or 'to drink', is commonly referred to as the third most popular beverage in the world behind water and tea yet I would certainly challenge that statistic during any World Cup Championship weekend! The earliest recorded versions (10,000 BC) moved from the Sumerian region of what is now Iran and Iraq and on into Europe traveling via English and Celtic tribes before ultimately finding their way to the America's with the founding of this fine republic mid-century. It was thought that beer was first 'discovered' with the fermentation of grains set aside to make bread but common wisdom also acknowledges the inherent desire to sit and do nothing once imbibed which begat the yeasty chicken and egg debate: Was it early 'laziness' in the making of bread that caused the sitting (wet) grains to ferment or once fermented (and tasted) laziness itself was invented as well! Regardless of the genesis of either, they have become intertwined for all of history since!

A Kayak trip down nearby Sweetwater Creek became the genesis for the name
Once this fine craft was brought to North America, rumored to have been on the Christopher Columbus vessel 'Le Pinta' (from where we get 'The Pint'), the continued experimentation of Eastern European recipes and stout English brews proliferated in the US on and well into the mid 20th century. It was thus that centuries later, in the mid-1900's, we found there to be roughly 45 breweries in the U.S. at that time, most regional in nature yet three of them, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing, and Schlitz, representing 60% of all sales stateside.

Four deep at the bar for their Taste Testers
Of course, alongside these three behemoths of brewing sat smaller domestic brewers like Ballantine, Schmidts, Strohs, Genesee, Utica, Blatz, Ranier, Olympia, Coors, Pabst, Heileman's, Rolling Rock, Carling, Yuengling, Tivoli, and hundreds and hundreds of others. It was the natural progression of this liquid pastime that watching sports and drinking beer also achieved it's rightful nexus. One can easily reference the onset of 'the beer jingle' with samples such as the 'Official Beer of the New York Yankee's' (at the time - Shaeffer) ...Schaeffer/ is the/ one beer to have when you're/ having more than one, and their crosstown rivals the New York Mets (not to be outdone) with their pretzel twisting Rheingold ( beer is Rheingold the dry beer...) For added reference, Don Draper was not involved in either of these ditties.

However, with such sports team associations and the ribald accompanying increase in television and advertising exposure, the dynamic of 'The big get bigger and the small get smaller,' eventually saw the demise of many of the regional brewers thereby leaving in its wake mostly mass produced brews and bromides - with European origins for certain but also with their heavy marketing towards lighter lagers and pilsners. This was Darwinian brewmaster capitalism at it's very finest.....

Breathing room is found upstairs vs. downstairs
Thus we found in the late '70's and early '80's (the 1970's and 1980's that is.......) we were left with very little in the way of true variety save for perhaps that from Guinness Brewing of Ireland, a pint of which is in itself an acquired tho lifelong taste. To a beer aficionado however, it became apparent that if you wanted a brew with more specific and distinctive tastes and flavors you had to take matters into your own hands (or paddle up Schlitz Creek as it was oft opined at the time.)

Yet Anchor Brewing Company, brew-meisters in San Francisco with origins dating back to the Gold Rush of 1849, after bouts involving the San Francisco Eartquake in 1906, Prohibition from 1920-1933, and near-bankruptcy in 1965, began a mini-resurgence in the yet uncoined and nascent 'Craft Brewing' Industry. Bottling their Anchor Steam in 1971, Anchor Brewing almost single handedly began a slow but sure resurgence in this fine art and the resulting growth experienced from the ten craft brewers still in business in 1980 (Anchor Brewing, Albion,  Sierra Nevada, River City, Placer, and DeBakker, all in California, Boulder Beer in Colorado, Prinz Brau of Alaska, and Cartwright Brewing of Oregon), soon ballooned to the over 2400 brewers today - including one hugely popular Atlanta, Georgia delight: The Sweetwater Brewing Company.

Now, it is not my intent here to unearth and aerate within this particular investigative diatribe (the above historical perspective notwithstanding) the very beginnings of Sweetwater Brewing it their Boulder, Colorado connections or their subsequent San Francisco sojourns. No, I shall leave that to beer archivists or the brewers themselves and their own website for it is a fine story told exceptionally well. 

No, the analysis herein will simply be a look at what has become a near ritual for lucky Atlantan's every week - as well as for Watson and myself one lucky Friday afternoon - The Sweetwater Brewery Tasting Tours!

The first challenge in this case is GETTING to the Sweetwater Brewery location, a task unto itself as our guide Prince Michael himself (perhaps not as well versed in the backcountry passages of Hot 'Lanta as he had let on), took one turn too early from Monroe to Ottley south of the highway and we found ourselves on Interstate 85 for a mile or so before having the joyous yet thirsty opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the immediate area and try again.

Upon arrival the parking situation also appeared a bit adventurous as we were situated on what appeared to be a service road or side road one block from the brewery and thus parked along this side road and gallivanted thru what appeared to be the lot for another business (beer drinkers themselves we would surely hope!) [Aside: a 'Service Road', as one might call it, is referred to by many different colloquiallisms and I might invite you to to take this 25 question dialect quiz which will not only introduce you to such regional phrases but will also likely (and confoundedly) pinpoint your own speech patterns to within a few miles of it's derivation. A truly astounding bit of sleuth work indeed and with a trained ear proves quite useful in our own casework!)

Positing ourselves on the fairly long and vibrant patron queue already in place, three to four deep mind you, had us slowly but assuredly advancing the 60-70 meters to find there were actually two queues at the front: CASH and CREDIT. Lucky for us that my vast experience always has me laden with bills of all denominations for just such episodes. Tip of the day - Bring the $10 cash fee and vault forward on the cash queue for the credit card queue was demonstrably 10x longer.

The Downstairs bar is quite a bit more popular
But OH what one receives for this $10! This is not simply the two free cup dispensary of (say) a Busch Gardens (with it's perfectly fine light pilsners and such) NO! The proffered $10 gains one six Willy Wonka-like 'red tickets' which avails you the opportunity to 'test' six of Sweetwater's finest.

With entry gained and the long upstairs bar and resident keep before us, your first choice is poured into nicely coifed Sweetwater pint glasses which you are free to take home as well. Fret not a wit when your pint is not filled fully for these are 'taste testers' and are only near-filled 2/3rds or so of the way to the glass rim. Ones initial disappointment at this test-level fullness and not getting (music queued here) 6 FULL PINTS of beer for $10, and a FREE Sweetwater Pint Glass, PLUS a tour of the premises AND Free Music from a live house band no less is oh-so-quickly dissipated when your first quaffs are taken.

Whiskey Kegs are used for One-Off Seasonal Brews and special runs
On this day we delightfully had 6 brews to choose from, these being: Sweetwater Georgia Brown - Smoother than a Bill Clinton Apology they say; 420 Extra Pale Ale - their most popular brew; Sweetwater Blue - with a slight blueberry lilt; Sweetwater IPA - a classic; Low-RYE-der IPA - a RYE based brew; and Road Trip- one of their 'Catch and Release' Seasonal Brews.

With the plan to 'taste-test' all six brews in their entirety, we began with their best-selling and multiple award winning Sweetwater 420, an Extra Pale Ale with an inherent crispness that lets you know immediately what you are in for with all of their resident choices. 

Upon a first taste the deliciousness was evident and the freshness palpable. However, despite that initial delight I also quickly learned that this Extra Pale Ale had an immediate effect on my faculties and seemingly vacuumed liters and liters of oxygen from my heat-oppressed brain thus rapidly causing a loss of my usually reliable logic inducing skills. 
Part of The Dank Tank Series

Reasoning that this particular bebiere might be the sole culprit I moved to a 'lighter' brew and chose the Sweetwater Blue, which gave me a welcomed yet brief respite while I re-oxygenated my brain cells. By the time I'd moved to the third taster I had deduced that 6 tickets might be too MANY tickets to hand out. Peering at Watson my hunch was confirmed as I was handed a fistful of the Dr's. unused tickets as well.

"Mr. Holmes, I seem to have reached my limit I'm afraid....", my friend exclaimed,  notwithstanding that the Doctors' pint was only half filled - and still from the first pour.

Glancing askew at Prince William and Lord Stanton, fine young emissaries of brew and the promulgators of today's festivities (along with the beauteous accompaniment of Lady Elizabeth and Lady Jessica) I was chagrined to find that no such ailment had befallen these young and vibrant souls, in fact they looked longingly at the unused tickets within my grasp.

Still unconvinced that my years and years of loving this luscious liquid would fail me at such a critical juncture, I returned to my friendly barkeep and tactfully demanded (pleaded) for something I could drink....uhm, responsibly, where I was lead to the 'Catch and Release' Seasonal Brew called 'Road Trip' with it's ale-like recipe. Yet this too I found to contain an altogether un-Holmesian level of hoppiness, a flavor that in many others might rightly bring happiness and frivolity but in me brings only ruin. With a strong reliance on Cascadian hops I found that my voluminous drinking history was easily cut short.

Kismet chanced upon me with the announcement of the last brewery tour downstairs which allowed me to make a graceful exit and occupy my focus with the inner workings of this fine enterprise! However imagine my surprise when our first exposure on this tour was to a seemingly deranged, sex-addled, bound and leather clad figure strapped to the brewers tower.......only to find this to be the inspiration for one of Sweetwater's Dank Tank Series, brews from the darkest parts of the brewMaster's soul (with seemingly no connection to a 'Chamber' of any sort either.)

All in all the entire operation was a fascinating expose of what started from the desire of a couple of University of Colorado roommates to their product now being available in markets all throughout the Southeast U.S. as well as on all flights of fellow Atlanta Plc Delta Airlines.
A Healthy Plethora at a local Publix Supermarket

The Tours themselves, 5:30-7:30 Wed-Fri and 2:30-4:30 Sat-Sun, top out at 1000 people which is a level sometimes attained very quickly, especially on a Friday afternoon like the one we had participated in. 

And as a final aside, the Sweetwater Gift Shoppe certainly has great schwag (their own term mind you) and my chapeau is duly tipped towards the vibrant and colorful designs of all the brewer's garb made available but the wares viewed this day were not fully stocked ..... or had been thoroughly and previously picked clean while I was  still regaining my investigative faculties upstairs. What was also apparent within said Shoppe was that the growing beer belly of America had caused a dirth of XL sizes on shelves everywhere while S and M (not to be confused with the Dank Tank S&M) remained in plentiful quantities. This likely a testament to the quantities of brew enjoyed by long as their wits are kept about them (and their Pale Ale levels held in check!)

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