When the COVID-19 pandemic first triggered an initial wave of shortages in hand sanitizer and other essential goods, people panicked. Grocery stores and other retailers could barely seem to keep toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other necessary household goods in stock. And while the severity of the virus may have initially felt unclear, one thing was certain: state and local governments needed help.
That’s when Old 4th Distillery co-founders and brothers Jeff and Craig Moore stepped in, shifting their production of bourbon, gin, and vodka on Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta to instead produce more than 300,000 gallons of hand sanitizer that they then donated and sold to various frontline workers and general consumers. The move garnered state- and nation-wide recognition. Georgia governor Brian Kemp would eventually refer to their actions as a success story of local organizing.
Months later, the Moores and countless others in Georgia’s beverage industry are struggling to stay afloat as policymakers debate making changes to outdated liquor laws that could decide whether breweries and distilleries across the state survive the pandemic. But understanding the future of Georgia’s beverage industry requires understanding the long and convoluted policies of its past.
In August, Gov. Kemp signed House Bill 879 into law, allowing a number of food and beverage businesses the option to deliver beer, wine, and liquor to homes across the state. Now, as some businesses begin delivering, questions of delivery zones, liability, and more are being raised by owners and consumers — including the biggest one of all: why are gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, brewpubs, wine shops, and package stores allowed to offer home delivery, but not breweries and distilleries?
Georgia’s alcohol wholesaler lobby maintains a vise-like grip on how alcohol is regulated in the state. The current governmental interpretation of the three-tiered distribution system is an interesting one. The nationwide post-Prohibition legislation splits the alcohol industry into three parts: manufacturing (the people who make the product); distribution (the people who take it to retailers); and retail (the people who sell it). The intent of the three-tier system initially was the distribution of power and control over the flow of spirits. But in practice, the scales are tipped in favor of the distributor.
Until 2004, Georgia law did not allow for the production or purchase of beer containing more than six percent alcohol by volume (ABV.) Growlers only became legal in 2010. (Brewpubs, but not breweries, were allowed to start selling them in 2016.) Retailers weren’t allowed to sell alcohol on Sundays until 2011. In 2015, a bastardization of direct sales became legal for breweries and distilleries, wherein if people purchased a tour from a producer, they were allowed to take home free “souvenir” beer and spirits.
Finally, in 2017, Georgia became the 50th (and final state) to allow direct sales for its breweries and distilleries. Even then, the law, which has remained unchanged to this day, allowed Georgia beer drinkers to purchase unlimited beer on-premise and take home up to a case worth (288 ounces) of beer per day.
But the process of untangling breweries and distilleries from the convoluted legalities of Georgia’s three-tier distribution system will take time. However, the new alcohol delivery law leaves both out in the cold by cutting off a direct-to-consumer revenue stream that could have a profound effect on the bottom line. Now, the question is whether or not that’s time the beverage industry has to spare.
Confusion over delivery zones
Hop City Craft Beer and Wine owner Kraig Torres called the new alcohol delivery law “a huge win for the consumer” when his Krog Street Market and West End stores began delivering beer and wine in October. People can order from Hop City online for same-day delivery via Zifty. Hop City charges $8 for deliveries within three miles and $10 for deliveries three to five miles from either shop. Delivery is free for orders over $100.
But Hop City’s delivery radius doesn’t tell the whole story. When the company made the delivery announcement on the Atlanta beer subreddit, some eastside Atlanta residents asked why they couldn’t get the store’s delivery website to work. Hop City marketing director Aaron Williams wrote, “We can only deliver within the Atlanta city limits in Fulton County. All apologies to East Atlanta residents, but those are currently the laws on the books.”
According to local attorneys and other retail businesses, Williams’ interpretation of the law is incorrect. Taylor Harper has worked in regulatory compliance and litigation in Georgia’s food and beverage industry for a decade. “My understanding is that Hop City (a retail alcohol establishment located in the City of Atlanta) may deliver alcohol to consumers within the boundaries of the City of Atlanta, irrespective of whether the part of the city in which the delivery is to be made lies in Fulton County or DeKalb County,” he says. “Hop City, however, is not allowed to deliver alcohol outside the boundaries of Atlanta, [like] unincorporated Fulton County or unincorporated DeKalb County.”
Eater reached out to other retailers located near the Fulton-DeKalb line in the city, such as Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Little Five Points and Elemental Spirits in Poncey-Highland. Representatives for both businesses confirm speaking with attorneys who say it is legal to deliver to City of Atlanta residents in both counties.
When asked for clarification on why Hop City at Krog Street Market will not deliver to DeKalb residents within the City of Atlanta, Williams says the shop is “being overly cautious” with deliveries right now so as not to inadvertently violate the new law until it is better understood. It’s one of a handful of ways that Georgia authorities are failing to provide clarity and guidance for the new law.
Brewpubs versus breweries
Understanding the nuances of the delivery law seems to be at the center of the confusion. It’s perhaps more confusing for consumers why a brewpub like Wrecking Bar can deliver, but a brewery such as Halfway Crooks Beer in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood cannot. Both produce beer. Both serve some form of food. But regulatory law says a Georgia brewpub must make 50 percent of its revenue through food sales in order to be allowed to deliver alcohol. While not required, breweries can serve food, but cannot deliver alcohol as defined by the law.
Wrecking Bar plans to take advantage of the delivery law soon, thanks to the Georgia Department of Revenue’s classification of brewpubs as retail businesses. For owner Stevenson Rosslow, the quandary over how to offer beer delivery from the brewpub has more to do with quality assurance. However, he believes the new law affords Wrecking Bar the ability to sell its beers directly to people who are staying home more during the pandemic.
Despite Wrecking Bar being allowed to deliver its beers, Rosslow believes the law’s exclusion of breweries and distilleries is unfair. “I think it is a raw deal. I believe all of our craft brethren should be able to take advantage of delivery. You would think our Georgia [politicians] would have sought to take care of these homegrown Georgia businesses, versus passing a bill that largely benefits big-box grocery stores.”
Using third-party delivery services
Another local brewpub considering delivery is Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur. General manager Ben Horgan says Twain’s is hesitant to start delivering based on the tricky regulatory concerns of using third-party delivery services like UberEats. According to the DoR, delivery drivers under the new law must be 21 years of age or older, and while Twain’s has been working with ChowNow and DoorDash for its food deliveries, Horgan says he’s been unable to get those companies to guarantee drivers would be of age to deliver beer from the brewpub. It’s a reasonable concern, too, considering that current DoR regulations state that delivery is “deemed to be an act taken by the retailer” regardless of whether or not a third-party service is used, putting the responsibility of compliance directly on the business that sold the booze.
At least one homegrown third-party app is finding new business because of the alcohol delivery law. My Panda, a two-year-old, “hyper-local gig economy” app based in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood, has focused mainly on performing household chores and services for its customers. Now, My Panda is adding alcohol delivery to the mix. Brand ambassador Mary Huff has reached out to alcohol retailers throughout the Atlanta area offering the company’s delivery services. Huff says businesses like Decatur-based Wahoo Wine & Provisions and Beer Girl, Growlers & Bottleshop in Hapeville are currently on board.
Perrine Prieur Gallardo, the owner of Perrine’s Wine Shop on Atlanta’s westside, says she was initially using My Panda, but decided to bring deliveries in-house for greater flexibility. She’s even purchased a temperature-controlled van. While a big investment, Prieur Gallardo wants to ensure her wines are delivered at the proper temperatures, especially during Georgia’s hot summers.
“I’ve wanted to offer this service for 10 years,” she says. “So now that I can offer it, I’m on it.” According to Prieur Gallardo, the shop gets between 10 and 15 delivery orders per day.
While alcohol retailers and third-party delivery services will likely benefit in sales from the convenience of the new law, where does this currently leave breweries and distilleries in the state? Producers may see a small uptick in sales through retailer partners offering delivery, but not enough to turn a serious profit.
The future of booze delivery in Georgia
“Breweries and distilleries definitely would like to take advantage of delivery, and they feel that it is unfair that they were specifically excluded,” Harper says of the law. “Discussions are ongoing about how to address this issue. For now, I think we have to let the current framework play out a bit, let regulators and folks get used to delivery, show the world that the sky isn’t falling. Then we can really push to add breweries and distilleries.”
Georgia Craft Brewers Guild executive director Joseph Cortes, who was appointed to the position in February 2020, believes breweries and distilleries should be and will eventually be added to the new delivery law.
“Our organization thinks that all of our independent craft breweries should have the opportunity to deliver, especially during this time when they are fighting for their very survival and ability to thrive as small businesses. Being able to deliver would benefit our breweries,” Cortes says. “Many other states have given breweries the freedom to provide beer direct to the consumer in a variety of ways. It’s time Georgia caught up.”
Cortes says that while adding breweries to the delivery bill is definitely being considered, he and the brewers guild are presently working through a list of more pressing legislative priorities for breweries in the state.
Nick Purdy opened Wild Heaven Beer in Avondale Estates six years ago, gradually building up the brand to the point that a second location was warranted in Atlanta’s Historic West End neighborhood. The second location opened just off of the Westside Beltline trail in 2019. Purdy, an outsized voice in Georgia’s craft beer scene in recent years, waited to sign the letter of intent on the West End location until he could be sure his company would be able to sell some of its product directly to consumers. He’s hopeful this new delivery law will evolve in time like Georgia’s other alcohol-related regulations have over the last decade.
“Breweries, like other consumer-facing businesses, rely on free and open access to the market to survive and compete,” he says. “It’s disappointing in ‘business-friendly’ Georgia that, yet again, breweries have been left behind. Hopefully, this was an oversight and will be corrected in the next session.”
Still, the Moores and others in the beverage industry can’t help but feel ignored by the state government at this moment; especially after the industry’s efforts to step up at the beginning of the pandemic to produce 300,000 gallons of hand sanitizer.
“As an industry, we answered the call to produce PPE for frontline workers. Governor Kemp referred to our pivot as a success story of local initiative,” Moore says. “It just seemed like we were front and center on the minds of legislators when we stepped up to provide desperately needed supplies, but forgotten when this bill was passed. Now, more than ever, we need support from lawmakers to help us make it through these difficult times.”
Austin L. Ray is an award-winning journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Good Beer Hunting, Creative Loafing (RIP), The Outline, The A.V. Club, Atlanta magazine, Vulture, Oxford American, First We Feast, more than a few places he’s forgotten over the years, and one terrible gas station periodical. He loves gardening, making people laugh, listening to rap music, hoodie weather, and Twitter. Zach Galifianakis once screamed in his face.