Food & Drink

The Truth Behind the SweetWater and Terrapin Rivalry

My fellow Georgians, lend me your ears. Believe it or not, there are people who think that ill will exists between Georgia’s two major craft brewers -- Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Company and Athens’ Terrapin Beer Company. I’ve heard people argue over it with that same misguided train of thought that makes people with iPhones ridicule Android users, or fans of that other Michael Jordan take worship of LeBron James as sacrilege to MJ’s legacy. But unfortunately, folks just make up reasons to argue sometimes. And though that’s often due to beer -- in an ironic way -- those kind of antagonistic stances are inappropriate as they pertain to arguing over which locally made beer is good, and which one sucks. The answer is both, and neither.

It’s time to put the rumors to bed. There is no SweetWater/Terrapin rivalry. Quite the contrary: the two breweries have nothing but good words for each other, and they each truly appreciate the fine work being done on either side of the figurative battle lines.  

Terrapin Brewing
Michael Jordan/Thrillist

Dustin Watts -- the VP of Sales and Marketing at Terrapin -- can quickly name his favorite SweetWater brew. “I really like the Hop Hash, a lot,” he admits, “but the IPA is probably what I would just reach for." That’s not something you’d expect a real world rival to willingly say on record. But you can tell Watts has never seen SweetWater as an enemy during his 13 years as a member of “the Terrapin Tribe.” From his perspective, Terrapin and SweetWater are more like siblings. They both grew up, and matured, in Georgia during a time when things weren’t so easy or convenient for a start-up brewery.

“I would never say we’re rivals by any means. There are a lot of great people there, and there's competition in the marketplace that makes both brands better and stronger. I think that throughout the years of coexisting -- not just in the market but in the same distributor’s house in Atlanta -- we’ve definitely pushed each other to be better, to create more unique beers, and push the envelope. I think we’ve helped develop and grow the southeastern culture strongly as regional breweries.” Watts says Terrapin sees the relationship between the two as not only neighborly, but friendly. “It’s very open. It’s like when you move into a new neighborhood, meet the neighbors and say, ‘Hey, I need a cup of sugar,’ so you just knock on the door. The same kind of thing, except it’s, ‘Hey, do you need some hops?’”

"Friends with benefits" is the term SweetWater “Minister of Propaganda” Steve Farace uses when he talks about the relationship with Terrapin. He’s not as expressive as Watts, and tends to communicate with shorter, quick-witted answers, such as “Nope,” in response to the question of whether there’s ever been a time when the relationship was hostile. However, just because he has less to say doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect what Terrapin does, as well as admit that SweetWater is fond of the Athens brewing company’s product with a quick: “We like Wake-n-Bake!”

Farace also agrees that -- when it comes to their mutual hard-knock origins as Georgia brewing companies -- neither had it easy. However, he does like playfully tossing a few friendly jabs Terrapin’s way: “I’d probably say that SweetWater is one of the bigger breweries in the craft industry, who still deeply cares about its roots and community. And that Terrapin has done wonders for tortoise awareness.” And when asked what he admires most about Terrapin, Farace says “their dad-bods.” He doesn’t leave SweetWater unscathed though. Especially when he says “male pattern baldness” is a challenge both brewing companies have in common.

Jabs aside, his respect is unambiguous. He salutes Terrapin’s early days, when they both pushed hard to be successful in an industry indifferent to their struggles. Now, at a time when Georgia’s beer industry had an economic impact of over $1 billion in 2014, he looks back on how they not only hustled individually, but helped support a brewing community that owe both companies a sudsy standing ovation. “We were two of the only few breweries in Georgia, trying to educate folks about what craft beer is all about,” Farace states. “Same guys running the show, figuring it out as we go, and having a kick ass time along the way.”

They used creativity rather than shortcuts or cutthroat tactics to differentiate themselves

Early adopters like Watts and Farace can appreciate each other, but naturally want their individual brewing companies to be successful for years to come. Both went about chasing their dreams with the same urgency someone with indifferent tastes towards beer might have swigging a Corona after a shot of cheap tequila. But they used creativity rather than shortcuts or cutthroat tactics to differentiate themselves while building.

To qualify a conflict, one might look at challenges beer companies face in Georgia. It’s hard out here for an entrepreneurial hop-head, especially if you’re not global brand that can survive or influence sweeping changes, as well as make investments that go far beyond Terrapin's or SweetWater’s budget. Only recently have the laws in Georgia loosened up a bit to make it easier for beer-drinkers... as well as local beer-makers.

“Most of it cranked up when the ABV laws changed back in 2004 [when Georgia raised the ABV limit from 6% to 14%]," Watts admits, "We were relatively young, and we created the Monster Beer Tour [high-ABV seasonals] with a high-gravity series of beers. Watching all that evolve over the years, with outside projects and their Dank Tank series, it kind of pushed the envelope on style. I think that we’ve always had a very similar approach that we don’t take it too seriously. It’s just beer. And that’s important. It’s not brain surgery; it’s just beer. I think both brands have never taken themselves too seriously."

Watts says Terrapin is proud to see growth in the state and region, and sees competition as healthy for the local industry, though he sometimes wonders if the easier road that newer brewers have could be a hindrance to long-term stability.

“I think it’s awesome to see all the breweries opening. It’s huge for the state of Georgia and the southeast. Everything we talked about happening for over a decade is happening,” Watts states. “But it’s kind of one of those things where it’s like there’s a new brewery opening down the street, and they’ll automatically have two tap handles [at a local bar] that’s never even tried their beer. To me, that’s a totally different spot for the folks opening breweries today. They’re accepted quicker, but I think to create longevity and a legacy is going to be a little bit more of a challenge. People are expanding very quickly without a lot of battle scars... We’ve been around for a while. We’ve certainly messed up a hundred times over in growing our business but we’re excited to be where we’re at, and we’re excited to see the scene where it’s at today.”

Both of these brands are a huge source of pride for the cities they call home

If it sounds like there could be a separate battle brewing between adolescent and elder brewing companies, think again. Nancy Palmer, executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild (of which SweetWater and Terrapin are both members), knows firsthand how fatuous the idea of a rivalry between SweetWater and Terrapin would be.

“Both of these brands are a huge source of pride for the cities they call home,” she says. “Their innovation, unwavering passion, and consistency have put Georgia on the map as a place where excellent craft beer is made. They've invested in urban manufacturing and caused ripples throughout the industry -- beer wholesalers, bars, restaurants, convention centers, etc. have all reaped the benefits of the craft brewing energy created by these companies.”

Noted beer writer Dennis Byron, aka “Ale Sharpton,” agrees. “I don't see gang signs just yet. Every event I hit up has brew reps trying each other's brews and commenting on how the industry can grow collectively. Everyone is very down-to-earth and they love their communities with the various charitable causes they support year-round. With two enterprising breweries that bring so much presence, I think they have a lot in common -- the humor of their campaigns, the love for their communities, and the kickass parties they throw throughout the year. No one really shits on each other... no ‘he said, she said’ bullshit.”

If there needs to be a villain in this scenario, one that two potential rivals could bond together to fight against, it'd be Georgia law. Particularly a law that restricts craft and microbreweries from selling their own beers -- and other ways they might promote themselves.

“Unfortunately, we are limited greatly by Georgia’s antiquated laws and we are not able to serve our communities in the way they desire,” says Nick Purdy, cofounder of Paste magazine and founding partner of Avondale Estates-based Wild Heaven Craft Beers, one of Atlanta’s recent brewing success stories. “Voter desires are being ignored by politicians, but we do the best we can to create spaces where our friends and neighbors can come together to share a beer. Regionally, craft beer is growing very fast, in part to catch up with the rest of the country. The South has been behind, but a lot of good stuff is happening. From new breweries, to better laws in most states, and an understanding that our businesses are the best kind. We create manufacturing jobs. [We] pay excise taxes and generate tourism.”

Terrapin Can Car
Michael Jordan

Jonathan Baker, one of the three founders of Monday Night Brewing, which began from a bible study group before going big in 2010 and becoming an instant ATL favorite, knows his westside-based company owes a lot to SweetWater and Terrapin. In particular, he appreciates the early assistance Monday Night received back when they were getting started. “The bigger breweries like SweetWater and Terrapin have been around longer and have more resources and experience than the rest of us, and I’m grateful they’ve shared that with us, whether it’s information, equipment, or ingredients. Both have been incredibly generous to us as we were starting up -- they’ve even loaned us hops when we ran out and needed to finish brewing a batch of beer.” Rather than trying to create competing rickety towers out of frail toothpicks, both breweries have decided instead to become concrete pillars that support the foundation for Georgia brewing.

If they did quarrel, it'd crumble everything they've worked to build, and we’d all be drinking hard lemonade

So, is there actual beef happening in the Georgia beer community? Maybe. But it’s not between our two craft brewing champions, and nothing would be sillier than if such a rivalry were ever to come about. They’re both bastions of the Georgia beer scene. They created an enduring substratum based on great beer, consistency, and hard work, upon which others were able to grow their own beer brands. If they did quarrel, it'd crumble everything they've worked to build, and we’d all be drinking hard lemonade, apple-flavored lagers, Clamato Chelada, and white lightning mixed with sweet tea.  

The more we all support Georgia craft beer, the more we increase its strength -- not necessarily in terms of ABV (that’s fine too though), but as consumers and brewers. Just as it would be ill-advised for SweetWater and Terrapin to be enemies, so would it be for them to throw shade towards Creature Comforts, Red Hare, Orpheus, or all the other great brewing noobs who are crushing a lot more than beer cans when it comes to earning fans and cash flow.

Georgia is behind on so much that matters a lot more than petty perceived rivalries. The last thing anybody needs is to think that we can’t drink the same damn beer together. If you're still not sold, listen to Dustin Watts one last time... and please, enjoy responsibly: “It’s hard for me to speak on SweetWater’s behalf. Obviously we both operate as breweries and have similar challenges and growth on the production side of things. But from Terrapin’s standpoint, there’s a massive amount of respect for SweetWater, for what they’ve done and created in the SE. Which is awesome. We’re proud to be in the same state as them, and to have done a whole lot for craft beer.”


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Mike Jordan will drink Terrapin and SweetWater with any human being with an open mind. He’s on Twitter at @michaelbjordan. Hit him up and invite him to 5 Seasons or Taco Mac -- he’ll meet you there.
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