All photos by Ale Sharpton (@AleSharpton)

The South has been cast as craft beer’s new frontier in recent years, with serious breweries gaining ground all over the region. And just as producers are striving to keep pace with with Stones and Dogfish Heads of the world, there are Southern cities making moves to compete with O.G. brew hubs like San Diego, Chicago, and Portland.

Asheville, NC, has been widely lauded as the new brewing capital of the South thanks to tax breaks that attracted major brands like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues to set up East Coast operations there—they joined an already thriving local scene to create the combination of clout and upstart energy that marks the country’s best beer towns.

But the big question is, who’s got next?

We’d put our money on Athens, GA, which complements Atlanta’s burgeoning scene (it’s only an hour away) with its own trifecta of sold-out brewfests, standout craft breweries (including the regional powerhouse Terrapin Beer Co.), and new-school gastropubs. This week marks the annual Athens Beer Week (April 7–16), so we thought there was no better time to turn our attention to this breakout beer town.

Here’s what you need to know to plan a suds-fueled trip to the home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

The Background

Exactly 19 years ago, a pioneer of Georgia’s craft-beer movement—Owen Ogletree—launched the Classic City Beer Fest (April 13) to offer an alternative to the watered-down, adjunct lagers that dominated the college town’s taps. Today, he remains the beer don of Athens, and he’s played a crucial role in the city’s brew awakening.

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Owen Ogletree and the Beer Wench

“Athens has always laid claim to a vibe and personality much bigger than the actual size of the small town,” says Ogletree. “People in Athens love to try new things—food, music, bars and beer. Like the Pacific Northwest, Athens houses people who have bold tastes and open minds, so craft beer is a perfect fit.”

His renowned festival is still going strong, featuring nearly 400 of the world’s best ales and lagers, plus an “Ale Pavilion” showcasing 20-plus unfiltered beers—what Ogletree describes as “living ales aged in small English casks to naturally carbonate and develop elegant flavors and aromas.”


The Pubs

The city’s original craft-beer bar, Trappeze, is well worth a visit, as is the the cozy Aromas and the European-inspired Copper Creek microbrewery. But if you really want to be wowed, hit up Richard Miley’s Catch 22 gastropub, just minutes from downtown Athens, where you’ll find a deep stash of rarities (Cigar City Hunahpu’s Double Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, anyone?) and the chef’s notorious “$22 Burger.”

Craft 22 $22 Burger - Ale Sharpton Dot Com

“My $22 Burger is, in my opinion, the best burger in Athens and top five in Georgia,” he says proudly. “I’m that confident in it. It has Dijon, arugula, special grind ground beef, Marissa cheese—specifically, a cave-aged sheep’s-milk cheese—plus bacon mayo, foie gras, and a housemade popcorn bun. It is a thing of beauty.”

For a more upscale dining and drinking experience, Miley’s Chops & Hops restaurant just down the road is equally celebrated.


Bottle Shops

If you want to kill an hour gawking at coolers and shelves loaded with hard-to-find beers from all over the world, hit up the Five Points Bottle Shop, which also has a growler station attached to it for those staying in the area. ABC Package is also a solid place to pick up local brews to take home.

Five Points Bottle Shop - Ale Sharpton

Five Points Bottle Shop

Terrapin Beer Co.

After jumping through endless hoops to get their brewery off the ground, John Cochran and Brian “Spike” Buckowski poured their first Terrapin beer—the Rye Pale Ale—in 2002. These days, they host hundreds of visitors regularly at their 45,000-square-foot brewing headquarters, where brewhounds can dig into the constantly evolving catalog of top-notch beers, including the Hopsecutioner IPA; Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout; the Side Project series (Pineapple Express); and many more.

The brewery is open to the public for tours and tastings Wednesday-Saturday from 5:30–7:30pm.

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The Future: Creature Comforts and Southern Brewing Co.

Southern beer geeks are anxiously awaiting the launch of two more breweries—Creature Comforts and Southern Brewing Company—opening this spring and midsummer, respectively.

Adam Beauchamp and David Stein are the co-founders and co-brewmasters of Creature Comforts, which plans to hit the ground running with an eclectic introductory lineup.

“Our initial line up will be a pilsner; an IPA brewed with Citra, Galaxy, and Centennial hops; a rye amber aged with a bit of French oak; and a Berliner Weisse,” says Stein. “After a rigorous first week of brewing, we now have all of our year-round beers fermenting away. Classic City Brewfest will be the first chance for the public to try our beers, and then look for our brewery doors to open the week of the Twilight Criterium [a pro cycling event] on April 25th, with beer hitting the market then as well.”

Brian Roth - Southern Brewing Company - Ale Sharpton

Brian Roth of Southern Brewing Company

Meanwhile, co-founders Brian Roth, Rick Goddard, and brewer Mark Mooney have their highly anticipated Southern Brewing Company on deck for a late summer launch. Roth has already gained legions of fans at beer events across Georgia, where he’s previewed funky creations like Vlad Moon Rising Imperial Beet Kölsch and Pumpkin Goze, brewed with roasted pumpkin seeds. There’s no telling what will come out of SBC’s 10,000-square-foot brewery once the doors open.