In the early ’90s, two University of Colorado buddies, Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney, began washing kegs for extra money and their love for beer grew even more. Then, Freddy came to Atlanta for the Olympics in 1996 and decided that their dream for a brewery should start here. Today, SweetWater Brewery is among the nation's 20 biggest craft breweries (19th out of 3,200, to be exact). Here, Bensch tells why SweetWater and Atlanta have been such a good fit.
Let’s talk beer. You’ve been doing this for 17 years?
We started building the business in 1996 and we sold our first beer in 1997 so yes, we’ve been selling beer a little over 17 years.
Did you always know you wanted to drink beer for a living?
So that’s what you dreamed of when you were a kid?
Laser focus, absolutely [laughs].
You’re using your degree though, right?
More or less. I actually went to school for environmental conservation and started brewing beer while I was going to school so they kind of went hand in hand.
So tell me what was it about Atlanta that made it a good fit for Sweetwater?
I came to Atlanta very haphazardly during the Olympics and I just saw the energy that was going on. I tried a lot of the beers that were being made here already; I just thought we could bring West Coast-style beers to Atlanta and it would do really well. They had a lot of mainstream products at that point, but they didn’t really have anything that was too aggressive flavor-wise, or even from a brewery-wise perspective. Not only that, we were 23 years old, and Atlanta was just a phenomenal time back then. It still is and we sort of laid it out.
You mention West Coast-style. Is that how you describe your beers?
We came out of Boulder, Colorado, and the beers were very flavorful, much more aggressively hopped, even higher alcohol than what we sampled in Atlanta back then. So we thought we could do something completely different than what was getting done. Everything else was pretty mainstream that we tried way back then.
I know you come out with new beers and seasonal beers all the time. Are there any new styles you still want to try?
Absolutely. I like that phrase, “If you’re not evolving, you’re dying.”
So what’s next in the pipeline?
We’re working on a couple different things. Number one, we just launched a new pilsner, which is called Take Two Pils. It came out literally about two weeks ago and it’s going to be our first year-round beer that we’ve released in the last year and half, so we’re really excited about that. Then on top of that, we’re going to start doing another high, high-end line of beers which are going to be sours and barrel-aged. And we just bought a property around the corner from us where we’re going to be housing those barrels and a new bottle filler and all of that. So it’s going to be fun starting that whole new beer line.
The last couple years have been busy. You’ve been expanding, going into new markets ... how far do you want to take it?
We really don’t look at it like that. We look at what intrigues us, what keeps us burning, what keeps us up at night, what makes us excited. For us, we really don’t have anybody to answer to; it’s just what do we want to do as individuals to keep running this business. We’re in nine cities right now and just went through that big expansion. So we’ve got some capacity now and we are going to stretch our legs. We’re going into Ohio and Texas this year and we’ll just see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and just sort of go from there.
Your beer isn’t pasteurized so shelf life is a concern. So can go out much farther or is geography an issue?
Well, it’s been a capacity issue for us. Since we opened 18 years ago, we’ve never had capacity. We’re putting some new tanks in, which should give us more capacity. But it’s always been about the beer and since we don’t pasteurize it, we gave our beer 90 days. But within the last four, six weeks, we’re doing bottle conditioning, which is secondary fermentation inside the bottle or can.
So, in layman’s terms ...
Most people will just pasteurize their beer and can it or bottle it as it comes out of the tank and sell it to the market directly from there. What we’re going to do is bottle or can the beer, then as it’s bottled or canned there’s going to be a little more yeast or fermentable sugar. Then those cans or bottles will be allowed to have a secondary fermentation inside of the can or bottle. It ferments again inside of the package.
So you can push that distribution out farther?
Yep. It makes a much more sustainable package and allows us to send the beers out farther.
And you just started bottling cans—is that something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
We’ve been planning that for quite a while but unfortunately we never had capacity, i.e. beer to put in a can since we’ve been so slammed. But with the expansion, we put the can line in and boy, it’s been fantastic.
So how many barrels will you brew this year?
We think we’ll do about 190,000 barrels.
So what’s capacity?
When we get these new tanks in, we should be able to do about 300,000 barrels.
I know you’ve grown enormously. Is it true you’re one of the 20 biggest craft breweries in the country?
Out of how many?
That’s huge! Congratulations. I know Atlanta has a bunch of new places opening. So what advice would you give these guys starting out?
My best advice would be to be true to who you are. Let your business be an extension of your personality. And make great beer and do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it for the money. Make sure your beer is at the forefront of what you want to accomplish. And then let it evolve from there.
Is Atlanta a tight-knit beer community?
It’s kind of tight-knit. But you know it’s kind of a community of chefs. Everybody kind of wants to do their own thing. The individualistic aspect of what we’re doing is as important as the beer. If we’re all making Budweiser, then what’s the point? Everyone wants to do something different that’s really an extension of who they are as individuals.
So who you are at SweetWater is “The Big Kahuna.” How did you get that name?
We’re not big on titles at SweetWater and I had to put something on my card. Everything rolls through the top and that’s what I got stuck with. And I like to surf and fish so it kind of works a little bit in that direction.
I hear you’re a big fisherman. What are some of your favorite fishing spots?
Well, I can’t tell you all of them because otherwise they probably wouldn’t be my favorite anymore because everyone would be there. But this time of year, I love to go fish on the Hooch [the Chattahoochee River]. I put in right on the 41 Bridge and float down to Canoe. We fish for striped bass on fly rods. It’s usually hot as crap. We’ll throw a 12-pack in the boat, float down, catch some fish (hopefully) and then get out at Canoe. They’ve got a wonderful bar right there on the side of the river. So we’ll put our shirts back on, put our fishing rods down and have a little appetizer and a couple IPAs and call it a great day.
Any other favorite restaurants around town?
I’ve got a million. I do business with all of them.
Where else do like to hang out around town?
If we’re not on the river, we’ll go to Piedmont Park, play Frisbee. I spend a lot of time at the brewery hanging out at the patio, which is not to be missed. We do a lot of the festivals around town—hit a lot of the music fests and that sort of thing. Any live music and beer-drinking opportunity, you can usually find us at.
So where do you like to go on vacation?
In four weeks we’re going to Bolivia to fish for golden dorado.
Do you have an annual guys trip?
Yeah, we usually try to fit one in. We went to Argentina the year before. We also go to the Bahamas and fish a bit. We go surfing in Nicaragua. Outside of hitting Bolivia, I want to hit Seychelles at some point.
So you like the sun?
I like the sun. Surfing fishing, skiing, mountain biking. We do Montana quite a bit, too.
What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
Wow. I would have to say ... about six years ago we went to Argentina and that would probably have to take it. We did so many wild, crazy things there that it was just mind-boggling. We went all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and then almost up to Chile. It’s just a really lax environment there in terms of what you can and cannot do. And we just had a ball. It’s just a cool spot for sure.
What do you never leave home without when you go on a trip?
Interesting. My Bose headphones, usually my fishing rod or my surf board, my sunglasses, my iPad, hopefully not my rain jacket.
Do you collect anything on your travels?
I’m not a big collector, but I always bring back beers or alcohol from wherever I am. Whether it’s the local beer of spirit, I bring them back and let all our friends and family try those.
Any good ones you’ve discovered that you didn’t know about?
Some I wish I never knew about. We got a bottle of this stuff called Under the Counter down in the Caribbean. These guys were taking white rum and then they’d put all their own spices and herbs and all sorts of weird, crazy stuff and let it soak. I’ll tell you what—that stuff would put a waxing on you. The locals wouldn’t even drink it!
My Perfect Day
8 am, Up and At ‘Em
Walk with my wife and kids up to Virginia Highlands farmer market to pick up breakfast and some fresh produce.
10 am, Get Active
Head over to Sidney Marcus Park on the way home, then grab my clubs to hit some golf balls while the kids cool off in the pool at Ansley.
2 pm, Hang on the Hooch
Fly-fish for stripers down the Hooch while drinking a few SweetWater brews for some cool relief. Catch about a dozen fish, and then get out of the river at Canoe Atlanta where a bunch of friends are gathered for some IPAs and 420s at the SweetWater River Bar.
6 pm, Time to Feast
Get cleaned up for dinner with my wife at Chops Lobster Bar where the stone crabs are piled high and the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is flowing.
9 pm, A Show and a Nightcap
Off to The Fox Theatre to catch a Widespread Panic show. Finish off the evening with a little nightcap at the Clermont Lounge.