Eagle Creek Brewing Co., the microbrewery on Savannah Avenue in Statesboro, last week started up an automated canning line, packaging two of its beer varieties in cleverly illustrated, high-graphic aluminum cans.
Until now, Eagle Creek packaged its beer only in kegs. It was served from taps at restaurants, bars and growlers stations. Conceived from a chat two local men had over homebrewed beers at a party in the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2012, Eagle Creek sold its first beer less than a year ago, on July 23, to be exact. When 2014 began the brewery was working through just one distributor, and its flavors could be found in Savannah, Vidalia, Brunswick, Augusta and Valdosta.
Recently Eagle Creek brews have appeared in Columbus; LaGrange is probably next. By late summer, if all goes as planned, the Statesboro-born brews will be handled by eight distribution companies, including the three major ones that distribute beer across northern Georgia, reaching potentially millions of thirsty customers in metro Atlanta, as well as the craft beer savvy denizens of Athens.
"We will cover Georgia like a doughnut," quipped Eagle Creek Brewing Co. owner Franklin Dismuke.
The hole in the middle represents the absence, so far, of a Macon distributor. But late summer should hear Eagle Creek's suds flowing to all boundaries of Georgia, plus a splash into South Carolina around North Augusta.
The move into metro-Atlanta comes faster than the little team that makes Eagle Creek had expected.
"We were a little frightened about going into Atlanta because Atlanta has roughly 5 to 6 million people in it right now, a large craft market, and we were worried that if we could not supply enough beer it would put us out of business," Dismuke said.
So Eagle Creek had been avoiding the metro area. But seeing potential for its beers, distributors suggested a gradual roll-out into northern Georgia.
"They actually approached us with a slow roll, in essence, starting in major craft beer areas and then slowly expanding from there as we get additional fermentation space," Dismuke said.
Eagle Creek found its headwaters in two separate adventures by ambitious home-brewers.
Adventure one: Daniel Long had been making beer at home for some time when he hosted that New Year's Eve party attended by Franklin Dismuke.
"At about 4 a.m., when we'd solved all the world's other problems, the question came up, why doesn't Statesboro have a brewery," Dismuke said.
So they became the founders. They knew that licensing would be a hurdle.
The obtained the federal license first. Then, they faced what they thought would be the greatest challenge, local licensing.
"But we found it to be the exact opposite," Dismuke said. "The city was no problem whatsoever."
Statesboro quickly adopted rules for beer manufacturing, which he says were based on those of Athens, where Terrapin Beer is based.
However, the state licensing took about 18 months. Georgia has complex laws over beer production and sales. A tier system keeps the ownership of manufacturing, distributing and retailing separate.
As a production brewery, Eagle Creek is prohibited from selling beer directly to consumers. But if the founders had made it a brewpub instead, distribution would have been severely restricted.
So Eagle Creek uses its picturesque brick building, the former French Quarter restaurant and decades before that a Cadillac showroom, to host "Georgia tastings" each Friday and Saturday evening. Instead of buying beer, visitors buy a souvenir pint glass and receive tickets for up to six complimentary five-ounce samples during a two-hour tour.
Young brew master
Adventure two: A young Georgia Southern University student, Cole Brown, was making some beer of his own.
"From the first batch I started reading and researching and just trying to do things at a professional level," Brown said. "So I started entering competitions, started doing pretty well, won some awards."
Brown even automated his homebrew system, using plastic tubing, pumps and controllers to fashion a truly "micro" brewery, a miniature of the equipment he now controls at Eagle Creek. He also worked at Red Hare Brewing Co. in Marietta as a summer job.
When Dismuke and Long hired him last year, Brown, at 22, became the youngest head brewer in the country.
Now 23, he has been ramping up production so that the brewery's tanks, which hold up to 30 barrels of beer, will be used to capacity. He previously made 15 barrels at a batch. A barrel equals 31 gallons. The brewery, as currently set up, could produce 4,500 barrels a year, Brown and Dismuke say.
While serving Eagle Creek beer at a U.S. House of Representatives event in December, Dismuke met key people from Washington brewery DC Brau, which was upgrading its canning line. So Eagle Creek purchased DC Brau's 2-year-old equipment at a substantial savings. It can fill 24 cans a minute.
Eagle Creek produces four beers. For now, only two of them, Spot Tail Blonde Ale and Grass Roots Lemon Lime Hefeweizen, are being canned. The detailed graphics on the Spot Tail can suggest a fishing trip. The Grass Roots can design includes a lawnmower and a number of "Easter egg" images associated with the Statesboro area for consumers to discover while drinking the citrus-flavored brew, perhaps on a summer day after mowing the lawn.
Brown and another GSU student, J.J. Mercurio, also 23, who does marketing for the brewery, are its full-time employees right now. But Eagle Creek employs nine people, the rest part-time. Dismuke expects to expand the workforce and eventually need more space as production increases.
He foresees adding another facility within a couple of years but not abandoning the one downtown.
"Our goal is to keep this one as a showplace," Dismuke said.