Burnt Hickory Brewery

From the Source by | Jul 2014 | Issue #90

Photo by Jason Travis

At Burnt Hickory Brewery’s second anniversary party in April, 500 people turned up in the first hour. Almost as notable as the attendance was the Misfits cover band and the terrifying clown, two things you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a relatively small town (Kennesaw, Ga.) in a historically conservative county (Cobb).

Such is the magic of this little brewery that could. Since starting in 2012, Scott Hedeen’s passion project—a nanobrewery tucked into a small industrial park in northern Georgia—has been invited to events like Chicago Beer Week and Hunahpu’s Day at Cigar City. This fall, Burnt Hickory will expand from a 2-barrel brewhouse to 20. But for Hedeen, who won an Emmy award as a TV cameraman, the slow growth has been deliberate.

“I started small because I wanted to be able to work out my brands and my recipes, and maintain control,” he says. “I didn’t want to take a bunch of loans and sell myself out to other people and then not be able to make the beer that I wanted. I’m not into brewing for the business, per se. I’m more into it because I really like beer. I’ve been a craft beer fan for 25 years. I’ve suffered through one career already, so I want to do this on my terms.”

That fandom has led to Hedeen’s modus operandi of sorts: “a small brewery with big beers.” These include Ezekiel’s Wheel (regulars call it “Zeke”), an American Pale Ale, a red velvet Porter dubbed Courageous Conductor, Fighting Bishop, a Belgian-style Tripel with green peppercorns, and Cannon Dragger, a much loved IPA.

And while Georgia breweries aren’t typically known for boundary-pushing beers, Hedeen says things are changing. “A lot more brewers in [Atlanta] are taking more chances,” he says. “We’re trying to break away from the Pale Ale and the Porter, or the Amber and the Wheat. I think that maybe Georgians didn’t think they were ready for a red velvet cake Porter, but once they have it, they like it. We’re gonna start seeing a trend where if the best beer in your stable is an ordinary Wheat beer, you may not stand out.”

“Especially in a market like Atlanta where you’ve got so many breweries opening quickly,” Burnt Hickory brewer Will Avery adds. “Somebody has to do something different. If you look at our lineup, we’ve come out with Wheats and Ambers, but we turn them on their head. We try to do something that inspires us.”

A dedication to quality also explains the brewery’s slow, steady growth. Rather than taking a bunch of money up front, Hedeen—who personally financed Burnt Hickory with his brother—focused on fine-tuning recipes on a smaller level. This, in turn, has helped him make smart choices with his money.

“We talked to a bunch of investors but did not like the idea of someone down the road with a piece of our pie,” he says. “One of the hardships of that is that we’re on a very tight budget.” As a result, Hedeen has to invest his funds wisely. “[Early on,] I had to be the brewer, the designer and the guy who writes the checks. So every time I wrote a check, I made sure it was the best price and prioritized what we really needed. We’ve had people complain we don’t have enough glasses or T-shirts or swag. But I’d rather concentrate on buying hops. T-shirts will come. It’s the beer we need to impress people with.”

Burnt Hickory does have some swag though, like limited-edition T-shirts designed as homages to Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath and the Wu-Tang Clan. The shirts are an expression of Hedeen’s other passion: music. He’s a bit of a fanatic. Over the years, he’s made beers in honor of bands like The Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney, The Germs and Killdozer. Burnt Hickory’s slogan—”Free your mind and your glass will follow”—is a riff on a Funkadelic song, and he even sold a Nirvana set list to buy his first fermentation tank.

Regarding his big expansion (the brewery’s current production capacity will grow tenfold in August), Hedeen equates it to a rock band going “from garage gigging to small clubs.” He’s concerned with the jump in scale, but realizes it needs to happen. After all, this is what he’s been preparing for these past two years. “We’re going from very small to large for us, but in the grand scheme of things, a 20-barrel system is pretty much a minor microbrewery,” he says. “Are we gonna lose some of the glimmer we have? I doubt it. We’re still going to be a very small brewery.”

Avery thinks that the expansion will actually improve the beer. “Once we learn the ropes of the new system, the quality should go up,” he says. “We’ll have more control over variables, especially temperature control. Once we learn the system, everything should be better. If not, we’re in the wrong career.”

A punk rock ethos, bringing weirdness to the suburbs and gunning for stylistic diversity: Burnt Hickory can come off a little contrarian, a little rebellious, but that’s kind of the point. In a growing craft beer scene, one that includes hundreds of breweries in progress across the US, brands need something special to stand out. For his part, Hedeen embraces his outsider status. “I’m kinda glad I’m out in my own little world,” he says. “I’ve always compared myself to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. You’ve got to come up the Cambodian River of I-75 to come visit me. I’m trying to make it so we’re a destination. It’s like how Three Floyds is away from downtown Chicago, away from the city.”

At the same time, he wonders about Georgia’s future. Given its number of breweries and the laws prohibiting them from selling on-site, this southern state isn’t a particularly magnetic destination among beer geeks, but with an ever-increasing field (at press time, more than a dozen Atlanta-area breweries and brewpubs were in the works), folks like Hedeen are looking to change that.

And there’s reason for some optimism. “Georgia craft beer has a long way to go, and we have to work together to make it work,” he says. “My competition at the Taco Mac is not Three Taverns or SweetWater, it’s Dogfish Head, Bell’s, Founders—breweries from other states. You see people freak out about Hopslam or Kentucky Breakfast Stout, but it was kinda cool to see people freaking out about Terrapin. That’s the only way we’re really gonna change things here, is people really getting behind Georgia brewers. We have to work together and help each other, because we all have the same interests in common.”

20-barrel brewing system
4 40-barrel fermentors

What’s on Tap
White Flag Apricot Wit: Namechecking the California punk band whose singer, Pat Fear, died last year, this fruity, flavorful Imperial Apricot Saison is perfect for summer drinking. 8% ABV
Ezekiel’s Wheel Pale Ale: A well regarded Pale Ale in Georgia, this dry, drinkable beer is known as “Zeke” by regulars. 6.5% ABV
Moon Station Bitter: This sessionable ESB is one of the few lower-alcohol Burnt Hickory beers. 4.7% ABV
Fighting Bishop Belgian-Style Trippel: This complex, spicy Tripel packs green peppercorn heat. 9.5% ABV
Cannon Dragger IPA: A big, citrusy hop bomb, this borderline DIPA is becoming one of Burnt Hickory’s most-favored selections. 8.5% ABV
Die Kreuzen Imperial Pumpkin Porter: A spiced fall offering named after the Wisconsin rock band. 8% ABV