Moon River Brewing Company

From the Source by | Mar 2012 | Issue #62

Some of the regulars at Moon River Brewing Company are greatly appreciated. But some simply won’t go away. These customers throw bottles at bar staff and move objects around the dining room … despite the fact that they have been dead for decades.

The Savannah, Ga., brewpub has a reputation as one of the more haunted locales in a town known for its ghost stories. Like those who fill the bar and dining room every week, they must like the beer.

Shut Up and Drink
Savannah does little to discourage the tales that have made the city something of a tourist destination, and Moon River has its fair share of stories to add to the mix.

The notorious drunk and violent soul of James Jones Stark gets credit for much of the mischief, and there are many accounts of finely garbed women descending and ascending staircases before vanishing like a head of foam into an IPA. However, brewmaster and co-owner John Pinkerton prefers to keep his attention on the living patrons.

“With all these ghost shows that have popped up over the past couple of years, Savannah has stamped its identity in the media as being a fairly haunted place,” Pinkerton says. “With my ego being wrapped up in the beer side of things, I have largely been the voice of skepticism on that front. But you’ve got to admit at some point that it’s great for business.” Pinkerton adds that perhaps Savannah gained a reputation as a haunted town because it has long had a reputation as a drinking town—it’s no secret that things become a little unclear after a few beers and a few more glasses of rum.

“I personally cannot claim any experiences that I call paranormal. What I often point out is that the scariest things on this planet are living people. I don’t worry about the spirits of dead people. I worry about living people, and in particular, drunk living people.”

If Savannah is indeed a good drinking town, then perhaps the best place to have a pint is at Moon River—specifically, at 6 p.m. on a Friday evening.

Every Friday night, the bar quiets down and samples of whatever Pinkerton feels like sharing are passed around the bar as one of the locals stands up and prepares the crowd with a traditional “wind-up,” inviting everyone in the bar to get ready to welcome in the weekend. It’s usually followed by a recap of the week’s events and news, sometimes a clever limerick (although Pinkerton notes that it’s a family establishment and the toasters are encouraged to keep that in mind), or a dedication to a friend. They all end the same with a resounding cry to “shut up and drink your beer!”

“That’s the salutation,” Pinkerton says. “It’s been a very lively part of our Friday tradition. Even so many years later, when you stand up for the toast. Being the owner, I’m always keen to what people’s reactions are. Everybody kind of gets into it.”

It’s Not What You Know
After years of brewery jobs—some bad, some good—Pinkerton and his wife, Connie, began considering opening an establishment of their own. It was 1998, and they were living in Maryland at the time, but Connie enrolled in the historic preservation program at Savannah College of Art & Design, so they moved. Pinkerton was considering opening a brewpub and had “heard through the grapevine” that John Hickenlooper was looking to do the same, also in Savannah.

Coloradans may recognize Hickenlooper as their current governor, but at the time, he was just a businessman looking to establish a brewpub in Georgia. However, the state of Georgia wouldn’t allow Hickenlooper to have a controlling interest in a brewery due to a conflict of interest, so instead of going into business with Pinkerton, Hickenlooper introduced him to now-current Moon River co-owner Gene Beeco. From there, the two partners, along with a silent partner, signed a lease for the old Oglethorp Brewing Company space, which closed in 1998. Then they got to work establishing a new Savannah landmark.

But before that could happen, Moon River had to endure trying times.

“After the initial rush of our grand opening, we found that our business was considerably slower than the volume we had estimated,” Pinkerton says. “Though our silent partner had initially trusted Gene and I to grow his investment, it didn’t take long before he began to exercise a heavy hand in the operation of Moon River.”

The partner’s idea was to liquidate the business and move on, but Pinkerton and Beeco weren’t ready to abandon a project in which they still believed. So rather than follow his advice, they came up with a plan and the funding to buy out his stake and began righting the business.

“Almost as soon as we penned that deal, it was like the clouds parted and beams of sunshine came through,” Pinkerton says. “It was like our customers and employees knew everything was going to be fine. From that point on, it’s been spectacular things. And just in the past year, we’ve finally kind of leveled off.”

Since that time, Pinkerton has been deeply involved with improving the beer community and knowledge on both the local and national levels. He is currently the president of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, and was just elected to his second term on the board of directors for the Brewers Association, serving as chairperson of the brewpub committee.

“We want to connect better with the [brewpub] owners … to identify ways to serve them better,” he says. “That’s been a process that’s coming along. We have monthly meetings and dialogues online.”

Pinkerton Style
The ghosts may draw the tourists, and Pinkerton’s connections might earn him clout in the brewing community, but none of them would matter much if the locals didn’t drink the beer. To keep things interesting, Pinkerton has avoided falling into the trap of producing predictable brewpub ales that fit nicely into a handful of categories.

“What I really like to do is make sure I’m covering a wide breadth of variety. Each beer is distinctive. I always find it sad when you go into a brewpub, and there are six to eight beers that all taste like lighter or darker versions of each other,” he says. “Sometimes, that’s hard because you’re dealing with the same yeast strain or some corporate overlay. … I want to make sure there’s enough contrast in the lineup.”

He makes that contrast happen by keeping different strains of yeast on hand at all times, but also approaches brewing with that he calls “Pinkerton Style.”

“Any style of beer I make is John Pinkerton Style,” he says. “I do, on occasion, make beers to style because I want it to be traditional and meet expectations of a traditional style … but by and large, it just drives me insane to listen to the banter about whether something is to style and everybody’s opinions on it. I usually start with the caveat that this is a Pinkerton Style beer, and you can judge it on its own. Don’t box me in.”

Beers like Swamp Fox IPA, a West Coast IPA that is a favorite amongst the regulars, are a mainstay on tap, as is the sweet and roasty Captain’s Porter, which has essentially remained the same since Pinkerton created the recipe during the pub’s early years. Then there are cult hits like Rosemary Swamp Fox, which is in “sporadic” rotation at the brewery and claimed a gold in the Herb and Spice or Chocolate Beer category at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival.

Whether they are to style or not, the beers keep the regulars coming back every week to toast the weekend with a couple pints of Pinkerton’s beers—some of the regulars have just been coming in much, much longer than others.

Look for more on Savannah’s beer culture in issue #63’s Destinations column.

15-bbl BME system
Three 15-bbl fermentation vessels

What’s on tap
Swamp Fox India Pale Ale: A West-Coast IPA with a copious amount of hops – 6.5% ABV
Captain’s Porter: A sweet Porter that relies heavily on roasted malts for its flavor – 6% ABV
Apparition Ale: A classic English-style Pale Ale made with Maris Otter malt and Sovereign hops – 4.8% ABV
Road Trip Hard Cider: made from over 500 gallons of fresh-pressed varietal apple juice from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Ga. – between 5 and 6% ABV
Rosemary Swamp Fox: Gold medal winner at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival in the Herb and Spice or Chocolate Beer category – 6.5% ABV
Slo-vannah Pale: Super-sessionable but heavily dry-hopped, it’s a juicy citrus bomb – 4% ABV
Six Degrees Golden Ale: Crisp and malty with the clean bitterness of a Pils, but fermented with a spicy, fruity Belgian yeast strain – 4.6%

What He Said
“I like to make beers that are well balanced and represent a good point in the spectrum. I like, from start to finish, for it to be an ‘EKG effect,’ is how I like to describe it. I like there to be spikes and dips in the flavor as opposed to knocking you over the head in the front and then falling flat.” —Moon River Brewing Company co-owner and brewmaster John Pinkerton