Three years ago, the 1,000-square foot Oneta Street space where Normaltown Brewing Company now operates was a woodwork shop. There was no air-conditioning or central power. The floor was half-dirt, half-asphalt, and the only furnishings to the bare-bones space were two-by-fours screwed into the wall and international flags that hung from the ceiling.
It’s still pretty bare-bones — clean and empty, with 80-gallon beer fermenters from China to the left and a 14-seat bar to the right — but it’s exactly what the brewing team envisioned for their first space.
After nearly a year of supplying kegs to restaurants in and around Athens, brothers Phil Fortson and Scott Fortson, along with Athens transplant Heath Yarbrough, opened up the doors to Normaltown Brewing on Feb. 8. The brewery, adjacent to the Athens Cotton Press, is the fifth to open in Athens, the first in the Normaltown neighborhood and the smallest in the city.
Specializing in small-batch, $6-a-pint New England-style brews, the brewery is not trying to operate on a large-scale; it has 14 seats at the bar, four tap lines installed and operating hours only on the weekends. They did so intentionally — the smaller facility allows them to brew bigger batches for distribution without having to invest a significant amount of money in new equipment, brewmaster Phil Fortson said.
“At 80 gallons of beer, we’re not super committed in terms of the cash situation, so we can play around and have fun with making a lot of different styles,” Phil Fortson said. “It’s not far-removed from homebrewing; it’s just with expensive equipment, business licenses, and the expense of putting in renovations.”
It’s not the team’s first foray into brewing. Naturally fascinated with beer, Phil Fortson began homebrewing in the 1990s as a hobby. He had no intentions of making anything of it until he began “waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it.” Homebrewing overtook him.
Yarbrough, a childhood friend he grew up with in Elberton, asked Phil to teach him how to homebrew around three years ago. They drank beer, brewed beer and dreamed about beer. Phil and Yarbrough wondered if they could do it professionally.
“We talked about it, but I never thought we’d do it, and it just sort of happened,” Yarbrough said. “We found ourselves buying equipment from China and realized ‘Well, shit. It’s real now.’”
Scott Fortson, his younger brother and independent financial advisor, was looped into the mix when “we needed someone who was smart,” Phil Fortson said. After Yarbrough, who served as a general contractor for the project, went on a “mad hunt all over Athens” to find a space, Scott Fortson was recruited to handle the “shoestring budget” the team set for itself. He has nothing to do with the brewing operation.
The team secured its location from a Craigslist ad in November 2017 and spent more time than they had hoped renovating the space and subcontracting plumbers, electricians and other repairmen to get the building up to code. All three men were maintaining full-time jobs while trying to get the brewery off the ground, and they were staunch in sticking to their tight budget — they wanted to take their time and complete the space without loans from banks or owing anyone money.
After a soft opening in January, the team received a notice from the county stating that additional work needed to be done to the space. A month later, the team received its occupancy permit in the mail on Feb. 7 and, amid Athens’ first snowfall of the season, officially opened its doors the next day. They had only one brew on tap — Normaltown’s second commercial beer, a 7.9 ABV hazy New England IPA called “Summon the Fog.”
The team will organize a “grander grand opening” once the space is perfected and has the “best choice of beers on tap,” Phil Fortson said, but they’re just happy to be off the ground for now. Both Phil and Scott Fortson maintain full-time jobs in Lawrenceville, so with only Yarbrough in town, they envision the space to be a “weekend thing” for the foreseeable future.
They plan to install four more tap lines by the end of this month, collaborate with local food vendors to sell bar snacks and will represent the brand at Atlanta’s Day of the Juice beer festival and the 25th annual Classic City Brewfest in April.
“We just want to have some fun. None of us are young anymore,” Phil Fortson said. “We want this to be a successful business, but at the same time, we don’t want it to be stressful. If we make money, great, if we break even, great. None of us are going to die if this place went the other direction.”