The State of Beer in Georgia, According to Wild Heaven's Nick Purdy

The brewery's president talks legislation, their West End rendition and the next big beer craze

On Sept. 1, Senate Bill 85 goes into effect, marking a huge shift in laws for breweries and distilleries in the state of Georgia. The results are more hours of operation and the ability to sell by the pint directly to customers rather than the previous ticketed touring model—and a cause for celebration. 

In fact, Wild Heaven Beer president Nick Purdy has been hopeful for this change since he and co-founder Eric Johnson opened their Avondale Estates brewery in 2010. As beer lovers count down the days for the big moment, Where Atlanta editor Colleen Ann McNally asked Purdy about the effects of the new legislation, Wild Heaven's second location and the next big beer craze.

How did you and Johnson meet?

We go back to the early '90s with a bunch of my friends that went to [University of Georgia]. He was in their friend group and I got to know him with a good group of friends in Athens.

What does the law change mean for the Wild Heaven team?

What it means is that we can now prioritize that opportunity to really engage with the people that want to come visit us—some of who are fans, some of who are tourists, some of who are just curious about beer, some of them just looking for an easy, fun thing to do for a day. But that interaction at breweries around the country has been a really profitable and in Georgia, we had been so limited to what we could do in that context.

Now, we're really able to spread our wings a bit more. We can make more interesting, creative, risky beers that wouldn't be ones that we are trying to send out in any significant amount to the grocery stores or the package stores, but to have a little in the brewery for those that are interested in new and different things.

Typically at breweries, we wouldn't charge any less for our beers than you would pay at retail, and the purpose of that is we don't ever undercut any of our retail partners out there selling most of our beer.

For us, we're expanding our hours by nearly three times. Right now, we're open 13 hours over four days and starting Sept. 1, we'll be open 35 hours over five days. So that's a big expansion because when you come to a brewery, rather than feeling like, 'Well, I have to stay for a couple hours and use all of my beer tickets,' you can just come and have a pint on your way home if you'd like and see what's new...or you can make a bigger day of it.

(©Wild Heaven Beer)

Will there be any other changes to the brewery or taproom to accommodate for that?   

Like most breweries in Georgia, and this is boring stuff, but we all had to implement a new point-of-sales (POS) system because [after the change] you run a tab and let people order as many individual items as they'd like. In the past, we really just had the one transaction, so most people would just do that at the door on the way in and that was it. 

We've added another taproom manager, we've added a new POS system, we've invested about $8,000 to enhance our patio with a new grove of trees and it's beautiful. We have a whole new series of beers planned that will be brewery-only, special wild ales—tentatively calling the series 'Wild Wild Heaven'—and the first bottle of that will be available on Sept. 1. That's because of the law, for sure.

What can you tell us about the second outpost of Wild Heaven? As you're planning for that, will those models look similar or are you anticipating differences? 

[Our West End facility] is going to be in a much higher traffic, consumer area being on the Atlanta Beltline. We are imaging [it] being open more often—maybe six, maybe seven days a week—more traditional hours. We’ll be serving food out of a kitchen there—another new privilege the law allows.

We’re not adding a restaurant in Avondale, it’s not feasible with this location. We’ll do some interesting food things, but we won’t be adding a kitchen like the West End facility will definitely have.

Will the second location still be called ‘Wild Heaven’?

It’s definitely going to be Wild Heaven, but we’ll need to come up with some sort of nomenclature to know which brewery you’re talking about. It may end up being as simple as Wild Heaven East and Wild Heaven West, but that’s a creative project that has not yet been completed.

Two guys in jeans
Changes in state legislation encouraged Johnson and Purdy to expand their business. (©Wild Heaven Beer)

Is there a timeline in place when that might open?

Yes, we are targeting no later than Memorial Day [2018].

When you’re not working, where do you like to go out around town for a pint?

I’m pretty agnostic about that because I just love to go where I can find good beer. There are so many good places. I am a long-time resident of the Decatur area, so all the usual suspects over in our part of town.

Lately though, I can tell you that sitting on the roof at Nine Mile Station at Ponce City Market has been a real treat. Love it up there.

I’ll tell you a new place I’m going to be excited about going is called Gamechanger. It’s Kevin Gillespie’s new restaurant in Mercedes-Benz Stadium that will be featuring [Wild Heaven’s] Emergency Drinking Beer. Looking forward to my first chance to go there.

What are you drinking this month?

A lot of Bestie! That beer is just such an easy one to drink, and so fun.

I could also say that I’m drinking the coconut double IPA we made called ‘To Dan!’... [The late] Dan Rosen was working on starting a brewery called Mazurt and he put some beers out. He was a real beloved member of the beer community and very supportive of everyone else in the scene. He was the kind of guy that everyone loved, and he loved to serve his imperial stouts out of coconuts. In tribute to him, we made an IPA with coconut.

How did the Bestie collaboration get off the ground?

Arundel Brewery—we had built a relationship with them via mutual friends. A few years back, they had been energized by the American craft beer scene and had interest in one of our beers called Let There Be Light, which we actually don’t make anymore. We gave them permission to make a version of that beer, which they call Wild Heaven and package and sell on draft in England. So there’s a beer over there called Wild Heaven.

That developed a friendship and collaboration, and when it came time for us to think about an English beer or a beer with a sort of English style to it, we naturally reached out to Arundel to get some wisdom and advice. They actually sent their head brewer over, who actually brewed our first batch with us, which is shipping to market in cans for the first time [as I speak].

Are there any other collaborations like that in the works?

Yes, there is a pretty major one that is coming this fall. The beer will be called 'Southern Symphony,' and it’s a collaboration with Wayne Wambles, the brewmaster of Cigar City in Tampa, [Florida] and us. That’s going to be a very complex, barrel-aged, sour, wild ale. It’s got scuppernong and muscadine grapes, hence the ‘Southern Symphony’ idea.

We don’t have a date for that one yet—just sometime this fall—but that’s going to be one of the more ambitious beers we’ve ever put out. It’s got three different kinds of barrels, two different kinds of yeast—it’s a whole symphony.

Lately, there have been a lot of barrel-aged beers, tropical IPAs, sours and goses. Do you have a theory about what big beer craze is next?

That’s a great question. We put out Bestie because we felt like it was time for a more traditional beer to be a part of the mix. We’re always interested in the innovation happening in IPAs, like our Goodvice Double IPA is really pushing the envelope in what you can do there. We’re obviously interested in barrel aging and sour beers.

At the same time, one of the reasons our Emergency Drinking Beer has been so successful is because it’s easy and it’s simple, and it’s crisp and it’s light. For most any beer drinker, that’s what they want most of the time. As we keep trying to take craft beer out to a wider audience, beers that are approachable and understandable and not too complicated have a real big place.

Bestie, our pub ale, has complexity and depth to it, but it’s also just what you would get if you flew to England, got on the Tube, went out in downtown London, went to the nearest pub and said, ‘I’d like a beer, please.’ What they slide across the bar to you should taste a lot like Bestie.

What is a little-known fact about Wild Heaven Beer?

Eric and I are both lifelong Georgians. He’s from Athens and is a musician. I’m not from Athens, but I did start Paste Magazine, so have a pretty long history and love with music—and Georgia music, in particular.

Our brewery is named after a R.E.M. song, which is called ‘Near Wild Heaven’ on their 1990 album Out of Time which had ‘Losing My Religion’ on it...Wild and Heaven are two words you don’t expect to be juxtaposed.

What has surprised you most along this journey since then?

When we got our permit in 2010, we were like the 1,460th or so brewery [in the country]. There are now over 6,000 permits, or active breweries. We knew craft beer was growing really fast, that was one of the reasons we wanted to do it.

If you asked me in 2010, ‘In 2017, how many breweries do you think there will be?,’ being optimistic, I might have said ‘Oh, it might double from where we are now. Maybe 3,000 or something.' And it’s double that.

And no sign of slowing down?

It's still growing, with thousands more breweries in planning.