Georgia’s three-tiered beer distribution system will potentially have a huge negative impact on downtown Athens. Creature Comforts Brewery will soon occupy the corner of Hancock and Pulaski, the former home of Snow Tire. This is great news for beer-lovers, but somewhat disappointing news for fans of pedestrian-friendly urban planning. An establishment catering to automobiles is certainly not a great use for a part of downtown Athens that desperately needs more pedestrian activity, but a brewery will only be marginally better. Georgia law forbids a beer manufacturer from selling food on the premises and prohibits the selling of beer without going through a distributor. This means Creature Comforts can only offer tours and tastings, which limits the flow of people going in and out of the building throughout the day and consequently limits the pedestrian activity on the block.
The three-tiered system was created after prohibition was lifted to protect distributors and maintain control over alcohol sales. It is an antiquated form of regulation that is not needed. The State makes an unnecessary distinction between brewpubs and breweries. Brewpubs are allowed to manufacture and sell their beer and food on the premises, but they are limited in the amount of beer they can manufacture and are not allowed to bottle and sell it off the premises. Breweries are allowed to manufacture as much beer as they want, but cannot sell the beer or food on the premises. This distinction serves no purpose. A brewery that sells beer on the premises is still going to need a distributor, so claiming that the rule protects distributors makes little sense. If the rule is meant to just control alcohol, this makes little sense as well. We already allow bars and brewpubs, why can’t a brewery be treated the same? Many counties in Georgia recently voted to allow Sunday sales of alcohol with those counties voting overwhelmingly in favor of Sunday sales. People do not want stricter alcohol regulation. This antiquated regulation of beer has few, if any benefits, and only serves to prevent economic growth and neighborhood redevelopment.
Under the current law a brewery will not promote as much economic activity or walkability in the neighborhood as it could under an amended law. Sure a brewery will generate foot traffic, but only during the times it offers tours and tastings. Currently Terrapin Brewery only offers this Wednesday through Saturday for two hours each night. This limits the number of people frequenting the building and directly reduces the flow of money for the neighborhood. In states that allow breweries to sell directly to the customer, a brewery could generate the same level of foot traffic and direct sales as any bar or restaurant. People won’t be able to easily stop by Creature Comforts during the day for a drink and at night it won’t be a convenient bar-hopping destination. The lack of food and a tour or cover charge for tastings is simply not as convenient as a bar or restaurant. The corner of Hancock and Pulaski is a relatively quiet area that could use much more pedestrian activity than a brewery is currently able to generate.
Breweries can become vital sources of urban revitalization, but Georgia must amend its law. Creature Comforts wants to be downtown to be a part of the community, but there is only so much it can do to create a vibrant streetscape when the law places heavy restrictions on sales and distribution. Breweries should be allowed to create the same type of localized economic development as any bar or restaurant. People take pride in their local brewery. The bond created among residents is similar to that of a local sports team. Amending the law to allow the direct sale of beer would allow breweries to generate much more foot traffic and truly revitalize neighborhoods and blocks.
While we wait for the state to take action, Athens should update its zoning code to discourage such uses downtown. Unlike an auto-oriented establishment, a brewery does not inherently discourage pedestrian activity so it is definitely an improvement for the block. A brewery is just not the best use for this location. I am not entirely sure how Athens classifies a brewery, but the only permitted uses downtown that could possibly include a brewery are light manufacturing and bottling plants. Light manufacturing is only allowed if sales are made on the premises, so this automatically excludes a brewery. If the object of zoning downtown is to encourage walkability and consistent interactions between people and buildings then bottling plants and breweries that will make very few sales should not be allowed downtown. I’m sure very few manufacturing or bottling plants have proposed projects downtown of late because these two uses have little use for the advantages of being located downtown. They have little need to be close to campus and do not benefit greatly from pedestrian activity or centralized location for consumers. This is likely a zoning issue that has just been overlooked, but now is the time to make the necessary changes.
Discouraging breweries downtown could 1.) encourage brewpubs 2.) encourage breweries outside of downtown, or 3.) discourage breweries throughout Athens. Obviously the last option is the least desirable, so to avoid this Athens should adopt a plan that allows breweries downtown with a special permit. A brewpub is the best option, but perhaps a proprietor intent on building a brewery could get a special use permit if it meets certain criteria designed to generate more customer visits throughout the day. The same rule could be use for light manufacturing. Bottling plants should probably just be prohibited downtown as there is little likelihood of the use generating any pedestrian activity. The zoning code must be updated to reflect the current needs of downtown if we want to continue the great revitalization that has already occurred.
Update Jan 25, 2015: Please see an updated article discussing the possibility of the Georgia Legislature introducing a bill that would allow breweries and brewpubs to serve beer on-premises and to-go.