Paul Skinner and Mark Johnson are trying to figure out a way to lift two refrigerator crates into their facility without tracking any more mud inside. A patch of red sludge lays ahead of them, and they must cross a makeshift bridge of other upturned crates to hit the front door.
Rain might be the number-one enemy of Athentic Brewing Company. If the weather is poor, concrete cannot be poured. If concrete cannot be poured, the parking lot, curbing and sidewalks cannot go in. Without the concrete, the business cannot acquire an occupancy permit. It’s a waiting game.
Athentic is poised to become the first brewery in Normaltown and the first in Athens with a self-serve taproom. The brain-child of industrial microbiologists Skinner and Johnson, the Park Avenue microbrewery has delayed its opening from a tentative date in fall 2019 to the foreseeable future — though “March is not unrealistic at all,” Skinner said.
The main factors in its delay are coordination challenges for the completion of its parking lot. The Athentic storefront is part of the Park & Prince redevelopment project spearheaded by JOMA Construction and Smith Planning Group, which will encompass preserving the Walgreen's on Prince Avenue, adding new ground for retail or restaurant spaces and adding a parking lot for the brewery.
“We’re not the only construction project in town,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to go very far down Prince Avenue to find more construction, and so there’s only a finite number of people who can do this work. If they’re not here, you can bet, if it’s a nice day, they’re somewhere else.”
The construction delay is a factor of deciding to open up a brewery in Normaltown, which both Skinner and Johnson do not regret. The owners pride themselves on the location — the Normaltown storefront was the key to their strategy of “being a local hangout, a local community-focused brewery,” Skinner said. The location also allowed for on-site parking, which was a huge selling point.
In the meantime, Athentic is keeping busy. The team has installed the Table Tap technology necessary for the self-serve model, recently completed the first round of hiring for taproom staff, added a small stage to the back of the event space and are “trying to keep our name involved in conversations with other organizations in town,” said marketing and events coordinator Kimberly Wise.
The inside of the brewery is immaculate and new — a large lobby space stocked with merchandise opens up into a bright, industrially-lit taproom with high tables, benches and a red couch. Three televisions covered in plastic hang above the 12-tap self-serve wall, with enough space for 12 additional taps the team anticipates adding after its initial opening. A garage door adjacent to the stage opens up to a handicap-accessible patio space “wide enough to accommodate a food truck,” Skinner said.
The space is designed to be as streamlined and accessible as possible. Skinner and Johnson chose the self-serve technology to eliminate the long lines they observed forming at other breweries and provide customers an increased sense of autonomy with what brews they choose to taste.
“We talk a lot about the beer, but the experience is what we’re really trying to sell,” Skinner said. The beer is part of that, but the venue is what we’re really hoping will bring in people.”
There are four other breweries up and running in Athens: Southern Brewing Company, Creature Comforts Brewing Company, Akademia Brewing Company and Terrapin Beer Co., the last of which currently maintains the widest distribution. Another microbrewery — Normaltown Brewing Company, which has secured a storefront on Oneta Street — is in its early stages of development.
Though the craft beer industry is booming, there really isn’t a bubble of competition, Johnson said. The staggered additions of breweries only benefit Athens’ craft beer scene and drive up brewery tourism. Johnson notes the irony of thinking five breweries is “a lot” when other large Southern cities such as Asheville, North Carolina or Knoxville, Tennessee currently sustain around 30.
The breweries in Athens all operate on different models and each has its niche market — from large-scale distribution efforts at Terrapin to Akademia’s smaller brewpub-focused model. One can go into Athens and experience all different scales across craft brewing, Skinner said.
Early on, Athentic shared a close relationship with Akademia: as a part of Athentic’s prize package for winning the 2017 Athens Homebrew Classic, Akademia provided some of its space for Athentic to brew its first commercial beer, Bold-Faced Rye. The space grew into a collaborative environment for “talking about beer, making beer, thinking about beer. Everything was beer,” Skinner said.
“I know that once we open, [other breweries] will be our biggest fans,” Wise said. “There’s really no animosity and no competition — it’s all about growing and enjoying the product.”
In terms of community support, Athentic wants to pay-it-forward: the brewery envisions itself collaborating with other homebrewers or interested groups (Skinner mentions the possibility of “brew days” for bachelor or bachelorette parties) to put guest brews on tap and supporting other breweries in any capacity they can.
Though hyper-focused on opening, the Athentic team is looking toward future involvement and collaboration with local art and music communities and charitable organizations. The brewery partnered with Historic Athens to serve as a sponsor for the 2019 PorchFest and announced it will sponsor the Storage Squad Racing bicycle collective for its upcoming race season. In the brewery itself, a broad wall connecting the lobby to the taproom was left purposefully blank to fill with local art, and the interior stage was implemented to attract performers in the area.
Skinner and Johnson plan on representing the brand at the 25th Annual Classic City Brewfest in April, but they don’t want to get ahead of themselves. After all, it’s a waiting game: “I have a hard time seeing past the next day, the next week,” Skinner said.