Somewhere in the curious art of artisanal brewing lies true magic. Something few people can find, but which if skillfully deployed creates stunning results. Recently I was fortunate to spend time with some folks who have found this magic and are using it to fantastic effect: the staff of Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens GA.
Creature Comforts was started by David Stein and Adam Beauchamp, two passionate and skilled brewers working in metro Atlanta who shared a dream to make the very best beer they could, but who knew little about managing a business. Through happenstance and serendipity they were introduced to Chris Herron, a business-savvy ex-colleague of mine at Diageo, who was himself making plans to start a brewery “somewhere near Atlanta”, but who knew little about how to brew at scale.
The three immediately hit it off, and between them felt they had the toolkit to create something special. All three are Georgia natives, and they landed on energetic college town Athens as the place to cast their sudsy spells.
In October last year Chris had become famous in the Diageo office when word spread that his brewery had won a bronze medal at 2014’s Great American Beer Festival – remarkable given the brewery only opened in April. I was in Atlanta to visit SweetWater, and wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about.
A little of the fraternal magic of the craft scene helped me get there, as I had managed to leave my driver’s license in NYC (don’t ask), but was rescued by Brian Diggelmann, Sweetwater’s own Director of Digital Dank, who offered to drive me out so he could get some snaps with the Creature Comforts crew to support #GABeerJobs. (See link here to learn more of this worthy cause). With a ride and a couple GA beer experts in tow I hit Athens late morning to meet with Chris and his team.
(For the record SweetWater HR Manager and rustic rock expert Joe Simmons tagged along, just ‘cos he too wanted to see the magic being made.)
There’s no disputing the beauty of the brewery. Housed in a 1940s industrial building that has been a car dealership and a tire shop, the brewery has open spaces framed by clean lines and plenty of raw industrial chic. The operational brewery is essentially in the same room as the two tasting bars, so you’re able to see the beer being brewed while you drink it. Which is always cool.
Then there’s the beer. It’s mind-blowing stuff. Chris took me through the permanent range on tap, starting with the clean, bright Bibo pilsner, moving through the two best sellers – the aptly-named Athena, a tart Berliner Weisse, and Tropicalia, a dry, intensely aromatic IPA – and onto Reclaimed Rye, a rich, lusty rye named after the use of reclaimed wood throughout the brewery.
The seasonals they had on tap were really something else. Koko Buni is the freshest, most aromatic “mocha” milk porter I have ever tasted, and the collaboration with Florida’s Seventh Sun, a wild ale called Southerly Love, is already famous for its smoky, fruity aroma and fascinatingly funky taste. I was also lucky enough to try a version of Athena that has been dry-hopped with Galaxy hops, which is a wonderfully unique combination of green and tropical fruits and grassy, piney hoppiness.
No offence to anyone else’s beers that I love, but I’m declaring the Creature Comforts range the most complete, rounded work of brewing art I have yet come across. Simply no weak spots, and some of their beers are genuinely breath-taking. When word gets out, this place will become a mecca for beer geek tourists from all across the States.
But the best thing about Creature Comforts to me is the atmosphere. It’s familial, and the enthusiasm and passion are almost tangible. Meeting the team provides the rare thrill of seeing people visibly in love with what they do for a living.
Along with Chris and Adam, we met Katie Beauchamp who manages the office, Shannon Vinson who runs the burgeoning events business, and the multi-talented Blake Tyers who works with Adam and David on the brewing side and also photographs and helps bring the Creature Comforts “brand” to life.
And as he showed me around, Chris was at pains to point out that Drew and Jamie who manage cellaring and packaging are as responsible as anyone for their success to date.
Driving out of Athens we visited Kroger to pick up some Creature Comforts beer, because I knew that one taste wouldn’t be enough, and there’s no way it will be on sale in New York any time soon. We snapped up some cans of Athena and a couple of bottles of Southerly Love, but had no joy finding Tropicalia.
We sought out the manager, who looked exasperated as he answered a question he had clearly been asked several times already: where’s the Tropicalia? “Getting some in the next week or two. I got 40 cases last week but they didn’t last me the weekend. I’m chasing it hard – it’s my best seller these days.”
A start up brewery that can sell 40 cases in a large grocery store in two days? Something tells me the magical formula behind Creature Comforts will spell success for quite some time.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes, with Chris Herron, CEO Creature Comforts Brewing Co.
- Can you describe what your company does in one sentence?
Make finely balanced artisanal beers intended to satisfy a vast palate of tastes.
- How long have you worked here?
I started here in March 2014 and we opened our doors in April.
- How and why did you come to be here?
It’s been a long journey. I started out at Miller Brewing Company and worked for Diageo for nine years – both very big companies that gave me plenty of great training and experience. When I started at Diageo I worked in sales for Guinness and their message of beer quality got me into better-made beers. I started homebrewing and actually won the inaugural DIAGEO – Guinness USA home brew contest, which must have been a sign!
I moved up to Norwalk CT to Diageo head office and worked in a number of Finance roles, but all the while I was working on a business plan for my own brewery. It started as a dream but became more of an obsession, and after I got to probably the 20th iteration of my plan I knew I had to make it happen.
I didn’t know enough about the technical side of setting up a brewery, so I reached out to a consultant in Canada who helps start-up breweries about how I could hire a brewing partner. By sheer co-incidence he was in touch with David and Adam who were looking for someone to help set up their brewery in Athens.
It turns out we all grew up within five miles of each other, and it was a perfect fit. We essentially merged our two business plans.
When we had it all set in February last year I turned in my notice, flew down to Atlanta and moved in with my parents, as every good entrepreneur should. (It’s a little trickier with two kids and a wife who’s seven months pregnant, trust me!) But by April we were able to set up in Athens and it’s been all go since then.
It’s really been amazing, and two things have made it possible, which is my incredibly supportive wife and the family atmosphere we have created at Creature Comforts. You could call it serendipitous, and I’m extremely grateful for the way it’s all fallen into place.
- What is your daily routine?
Haha – for which day? I mean at this stage in our development you do everything. A few months back an old friend came to visit, and no one could find me because I was out back watering the plants! No matter what part of the business you focus on, when you work at a small craft brewery you need to get involved in every aspect of making it run, and that means your routine varies a lot.
Typically I’m in the office in the mornings doing book-keeping, emailing vendors, working on branding aspects, managing our production forecast and doing admin. In the afternoon I’ll try to get out in Athens and Atlanta and visit accounts, and then in the evenings I’ll often attend an event somewhere.
But you know, a few days back I was manning the canning line, and yesterday I spent all afternoon driving pallets of stock around to load trucks up – anything could come up and whoever is around to deal with it deals with it.
I believe in balance and I have a young family, so I try not to work weekends, at least not the more operational stuff. I’ll do brewery tours and events, and we have a load of beer festivals and promotional events to go to on weekends, but that’s fine.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Managing growth. We’re lucky in that we’re running at capacity, but that in itself causes problems. In our first month we sold 50 barrels and last month we sold 350 barrels, so we need to invest in additional capacity well before we were planning to.
This means we have to find cash, and the cash lifecycle in a brewery is long. Our payment terms are longer than our supply terms, so our success is paradoxically creating a cash shortage. My biggest problem right now is planning out our supply without restraining our growth, and working with banks to plan capital investment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have that problem than not be selling well in the market, but with a business so young so many things are balanced precariously and I don’t want anything to fall down.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Amazing beer. It’s that simple. And you need to be able to run a business, especially in the state of Georgia where your ability to generate revenue is limited because you can’t retail your own beer. But at its core you need a beer that is good enough to get people to love you, and I’m fortunate to be working with some guys who are able to make really phenomenal beer.
If you had to decide between great business abilities – great marketing, great wholesaler relationships, the ability to manage finances well – and truly exceptional beer, you should go with the beer because there’s just no way around it. Not these days.
- What is success for you?
You’re looking at it!
The philosophy of this brewery is that you need to follow your passion to be happy, and when you’re happy you have your creature comforts. This brewery is my creature comfort, as it is to everyone who works here. Our slogan is “crave curiosity” which we think is the root of it all – it’s what happened to us – and honestly I couldn’t be happier than I am now. We were all curious to see what we could do, and we want to inspire others to do the same.
Our mission is three-pronged: we want to be industry respected, consumer loved, and commercially viable. And we think that those things follow each other. We want to learn from the industry how to do everything the best we possibly can, which obviously leads to great beer and a great brand, and if you’ve got those things consumers will react positively, and that’s what makes you commercially successful.
I don’t think a brewery will work in the long term if they focus too much on the commercial side – you need to approach it from a different angle.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
We’re already working hard on that, which is altering Georgia state legislation to allow breweries to retail their own beers on their premises. There are only five states that do not allow this – Hawaii, North Dakota, Mississippi and West Virginia are the others – and it really hurts our competitiveness as a state. I’d change it in the other four states too. I believe in the three tier system, and I think the intent behind it is right, but I do believe in this day-and-age breweries should be able to sell to consumers who visit. It would create great experiences for consumers, and it would create jobs and prosperity for the state.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- I’m a big fan of everything coming out of Seventh Sun in Dunedin Florida. We worked with them on Southerly Love, and really enjoyed the experience. Of their range, I was probably most blown away by their cucumber Gose, Or It Gets The Gose Again.
- North Coast Old Rasputin is an extremely well-made stout. Near perfect.
- I’ve long been in love with New Belgium’s Le Terroir. That balanced, hoppy sourness is very hard to achieve, and it’s amazing to experience.
- Apart from this tap room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Athens?
Let me say upfront that Athens is a great town. I believe that people move to Athens because they want to live here, then they find a job – not the other way round. And that’s because it’s got an amazing vibe, and so naturally it has a lot of great bars. And lots of them support us, which I’m tremendously appreciative of.
Unfortunately I cannot name any accounts specifically, as currently the DOR views that as a violation of our strictly enforced three tier system, and it is perceived as adding value to an account, and we would be at risk of receiving a citation. With that said, we have a large number of great on-premise retail accounts in downtown, Normaltown, and Five Points areas in particular.
I guess my favorite spot for a drink though is still at home on the deck with my wife!