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Beer Talk With Hop City's Kraig Torres

Torres has been a beer nerd since his high school days.

Kraig Torres.
Kraig Torres.
Brian Gassel/Eater Atlanta

Hop City was founded in 2009 by Kraig Torres, who opened the first outpost in what was then a yet to be fully realized dining and drinking scene in Atlanta's Westside. Since then, Hop City has opened two additional shops, one in Birmingham, Ala., and its newest venture at Krog Street Market.

Torres has been at the forefront of Georgia's craft beer scene since Hop City was the first retailer in the metro area to fill growlers, as well as the first to specialize specifically in craft beer. Eater spoke to Torres about craft beer today, where the craft beer industry is going, and how things are better than ever for craft beer brewers and drinkers in Georgia.

Tell us a little bit about your background and your interest in beer.

I really started liking beer in high school, when I wasn't supposed to be liking beer. I went into the Coast Guard right out of high school, and that really gave me a chance to travel the world and realize that there was a lot more to beer than what I was drinking at home. So, I'm in the Coast Guard and I start drinking Pete's Wicked Ale out of Boston and I'm thinking, "This is really good." Then I went to Europe and I realized, "Hmm, maybe Pete's isn't so good after all." It opened my mind to how wonderful craft beer is and I've been a fan ever since. I used to be the nerd on the ship who kept a journal of all the beers that I drank. This was pre-Internet and for a long time, everything was on paper. Before I knew it, I was at 500 and then 1,000 beers I'd tasted. That was part of the fun. I was trying to track down new beers before it was even cool to do that.

What led you to open the original Hop City in 2009?

My career prior to Hop City was not beer-related at all. I owned body shops. After I sold my body shops I really wanted to own another business, and I was still paying a lot of attention to craft beer. I'd go to shop for beer at Green's, and I'd end up spending 20 or 30 minutes, not necessarily shopping for myself, but answering other people's questions. It made me realize that Atlanta should be like other cities that had craft beer-specific stores. I looked at Bruisin' Ales, up in Asheville, as a great example of that. Small town, and yet that had a great store devoted to craft beer. I was wondering why Atlanta couldn't or didn't have something similar. I realized there was a niche to build. I think that part of what makes Hop City exciting is that all three of our stores are located in town. I want to be part of that in-town community, that urban community. The original location on the Westside was part of an emerging market, and I saw an up-and-coming wave of both culinary and professional excitement on that side of town and I really wanted to be part of it.

How have you gone about building a customer base to support what is now three successful retail craft beer shops?

We just celebrated our sixth anniversary last week. I'm honored, thrilled, and grateful that Atlanta, and Alabama, has supported us. That first year, I won't lie, that first year was rough. I opened with three employees, and if the store was open, I was there. It was a grind. Three or four months in, I was sure this was a terrible idea. It was all word of mouth and social media-driven in those early days. But again, I'm grateful. Here we are, six years later, and we have 45 employees and three stores in two states. I'm so humbled, and can't thank Atlanta and my customers enough.

Can you reflect a little on the changes you've seen with craft beer since you opened Hop City in 2009?

If you look at the micro- part of the industry, craft beer is literally as exciting as it has even been in the history of craft beer. There are more craft breweries today — we just hit the number, per capita, that there were just prior to prohibition. We are just shy of 3,500 breweries in this country. So that's exciting. It's been fueled largely by the West Coast boom and some of those early breweries like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing. They were trailblazers 30 years ago. Craft beer has seen double-digit growth for 12 straight years. The overall beer market is down, but craft beer is up. People are simply losing interest in the macro-beers and are migrating to beers that are better made and more interesting. Locally, the change in the high gravity law [in 2004] was what really opened the doors to Georgia's interest in craft beer. Back in the day when 6 percent alcohol was the maximum allowed in Georgia, there was a limit to the fun craft beer we could get. That changed things, not only for consumer's tastes, but it also created the ability for local breweries to do more exciting beers. Previously, there was no incentive for a brewery to make anything beyond a 6 percent beer because they couldn't sell it in state.

What do you see in the future for craft beer in Georgia?

In Georgia we're starting to see niche beers the way we see them in other parts of the country. You can go to Denver, or Portland, or other big cities and find breweries that do nothing but sour beers. And that's their shtick, that's all you get when you go there. And you have other breweries that do nothing but massive India Pale Ales, and that's all they do. I think you are going to see increased specialization in the beer world as well as an increased emphasis on local. Atlanta is a funny market. Because the laws in Georgia just aren't that conducive to new breweries, we've never been so local-centric. Our store in Alabama is hyper-local. They drink local beer, and they love local beer. I'd say 40 percent of the sales at our store in Alabama are local. We've always been spoiled in Atlanta and diffuse in terms of our beer needs. We might buy a West Coast beer, we might buy a Northeast beer; we're easy. I think you're going to see an increased focus on local beers in Georgia. Five years from now, you're going to see 10 to 15 more breweries opened, and you might be in the southwest part of Atlanta drinking a local beer that is different than the beer someone is drinking in Buckhead. It's good for the beer community and it's good for creating that sense of local pride.

Do you have any favorite beers, or any beers on your have-to-try list?

The best part of my job, in all seriousness, is that I try a different beer every day. I've had over 8,600 beers now. Every day I find beers that I've never heard of, and there are new breweries opening every day. I always say my favorite beer is the one I'm drinking now. But, sure, there have been some favorites along the way. Allagash is definitely one my favorite breweries. Rob Tod was a visionary, not the very first guy to brew Belgian-style craft beer in this country, but perhaps the most successful. The Allagash Curieux, a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian Tripel, remains one of my favorite beers of all time. Period. Locally, I see a lot of excitement from the people like Three Taverns, Orpheus, and Wild Heaven, doing these really cool, funky and sour, barrel-aged Belgian-style beers right here in Georgia. I'm so proud of my local partners.

Tell us a little about current events/tastings going on at Hop City.

We've committed, since day one, to giving away beer ever Wednesday so people can come and try a different brewery every week. The free tastings are every Wednesday from 5:30-7:00 on the Westside and Thursdays from 5:30-7:00 at Krog Street Market.

What are you drinking these days when not drinking beer?

Beer. I'm a beer guy. I occasionally drink wine as well because Hop City also carries wine. So, I'm reasonably well-versed in wine. I will occasionally drink wine for fun, too, but nine times out of 10, I reach for beer. I practice what I preach. I'm passionate about beer, it's what I do.

Eater Atlanta contributor Dennis Attick