Happy February The Beer Thrillers readers. Time for another guest post from Let Us Drink Beer Blog. Compared to many areas of the country, Atlanta’s craft beer scene is just in its infancy and it’s a cool thing to be around to watch new breweries open and start to carve out their niche in the market place. For this edition, I will give you a sneak peak at one of the hidden gems of the Atlanta craft beer scene – Variant Brewing Co. of Roswell, GA.
Variant Brewing is located about 20 miles north of downtown Atlanta, just outside the perimeter (OTP as the locals say) in the heart of the Roswell Historical District. Opened in late 2017, it has quickly become one of the more popular craft beer breweries in the area, which is remarkable both considering its short tenure and the fact that their beers are not in distribution. Nationally syndicated Beer Guys Radio broadcasts out of Atlanta and annually present their Reader’s Choice Awards. This year, Variant Brewing Company was selected as Best Georgia Brewery/Brewpub. On any given day they are open, you will find sixteen or so beers on tap; five year round, nine seasonal, and a couple of variants. The current year round beers are Lumen Helles, Raspberry Lemon Gose, Cashmere Double New England IPA, Norcross St. IPA, and Dark Alchemy Oatmeal Stout. Seasonals will include everything from English Barleywine, Imperial Stout, and fruited Gose to Czech and Vienna Lager.
Variant’s facility is quite different than many breweries – warm and inviting. Upon entering you will quickly note the high ceilings, polished concrete floors and wood accents throughout the industrial, warehouse-like interior. Along one wall is a lengthy, wood top bar with plenty of seating. All through the main room is plenty of table top seating. All the seating has backs, which is always a plus. There is an outdoor patio with tables and umbrellas to keep the sun off during the hotter Georgia months. My favorite feature, besides the beers of course, is the amount of natural light that reaches the interior through the large windows throughout the building and what the architects describe as celestory windows in the ceiling . We’ve all been to those cozy, dark taprooms, which certainly have their charms; but I love a taproom that allows plenty of natural light to filter in to provide a nice bright, cheery atmosphere. Variant has this in spades. Because it is in the heart of the Roswell Historic District, parking can be a bit of challenge; however, you park less than a half block away at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center and make the short stroll over to the brewery.
Then there is the beer. I tend to gravitate toward the lagers, stouts and porters; but their most popular offerings have been variations on fruited gose. Splodey Fruited Gose has been by far their most popular. There are multiple variations on this beer infused with strawberry, blueberry, rhubarb, and cherries. Among the popular offerings are Cashmere, an exceptional 8% ABV Double New England IPA with, you guessed it, Cashmere hops. Canton Street IPA, a 6.5% ABV American IPA that is one my favorites. It is brewed with Cascade and Mosaic hops giving it nice citrus and tropical fruit notes and a moderate bitterness that does not linger. Another wildly popular offering is Good S’Morning Imperial Stout. This delicious 10% ABV stout is made with lactose, smores coffee beans, and cacao nibs; making it a great option for the occasional breakfast stout.
Knowing Variant makes some wonderful IPAs, Stouts and Goses, I decided to test out their prowess in lager making. In my book, how well a brewery does lager determines just how good the brewery is overall. First up is Lumen (4.2% ABV). This lager was an enjoyable beer; but missed the mark a bit for Helles. It has a nice medium body to it; but head retention was short to moderate. Hops aroma and flavors presented spicy/herbal German noble hops and a grainy malt sweetness; but its bitterness leaned more toward the moderate side than the restrained level you expect from Helles. They could call this more of German Pils than a Helles; but it was satisfying none the less.
Next up was Hand Hug Czech Pilsner (4.2% ABV). This is a seasonal offering, but should be a year round one. Variant was on point with this Czech style pilsner. It has a clean lager profile that allows the spicy/herbal notes of Saaz hops to shine. My only criticism of it, and it is a very minor one at that, is the relatively short head retention; however, it can be hard to judge most of the time due to the manner in which most bar staff pour beers. (Side note: properly poured beer is a quirky pet peeve of mine. The head on a beer is part of the experience and serves some practical functions such as releasing carbonation and enhancing the aromatics from the beer. It has been my experience that few bar staff give you a properly poured beer with a head on it). Most bar staff try to fill the glass too close to the rim, rather than pour to produce a proper head, so it can make judging head retention difficult. I attribute this to not wanting customers to feel like they got a short pour because of head foam. A proper pour of most styles will always have a nice head on it. At any rate, Hand Hug produces a thin, white fluffy head exhibiting a short to moderate length head retention. I would like to see a bit lengthier retention on it; but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the beer itself. It has a restrained bitterness and finishes crisp and clean. Hand Hug is a simple, enjoyable drinking beer in the Czech style.
Variant’s Vienna Lager is their best lager to date, in my opinion. This style is always interesting to me from a historical stand point. If you want to read more, check out my piece Vienna Lager – A Tale of Divergent Styles. If you’ll humor me for minute, let me expound a bit. This beer style almost disappeared, even in its country of origin Austria. Austrian brewer Anton Dreher invented this “pale” lager in 1841 and it quickly became a hit. Austrian immigrants to Mexico in the 1860’s brought their brewing techniques and continued the Vienna Lager tradition via beers like Victoria and Dos Equis Ambar; however, many of the Mexican versions have diverged from the original brew by Anton Dreher by adding other adjunct products and darkening the color. By the early 1900’s, Vienna Lager’s popularity was already being supplanted by Pilsner and Helles. World War I almost finished it off in its home country. But the style lived on in Mexico and has experienced a bit of a resurgence via the craft beer industry in the United States. Today there has been a bit of a tug of war over what defines Vienna Lager. Is it the historical version, a lighter colored lager or a slightly darker colored one? Most modern versions we are familiar with, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Eliot Ness and Devils Backbone, for example, either don’t use Vienna Malt or are bit more dark than the original because of small amounts of dark specialty malts added to them. I’ve had some great communications with K.C. Bier Co. founder Steve Holle, whom is considered well versed on Vienna Lager, and he believes the historical style, a lighter colored beer should define it; thus their Festbier represents the closest approximation I am aware of. So when I am reviewing Vienna Lagers, I am looking for something close to the authentic style. That doesn’t mean other representations are bad beers; quite the contrary, most of these are fantastic and are some of my favorites. I am just very interested in trying to preserve the historic style.
Enough of the history lesson, back to Variant’s version. I asked Owner and Brewmaster of Variant Matt Curling what he was targeting for his Vienna Lager. He stated he was wanting to make one with both historical and modern characteristics. Checking in at a 5.5% ABV, this lager is made with over 90% Vienna malt, with some Munich and Honey malt added, giving it a gold color with an orange tint. Malt forward, you will find hints of bread and caramel in the aroma. Flavors are bready with caramel and faint sweet honey-like. Fuggle hops is used for bittering and aroma, which give a bitterness that is very mild. The Fuggle hops is a different spin that I have never had in a Vienna Lager and it works well. The beer has nice body to it and is malt forward with enough bitterness to provide some balance without being harsh. All in all, a fine Vienna Lager style beer.
The last beer I sampled was Dark Alchemy, a 5.2% Oatmeal Stout. This has been a very popular offering at the brewery. It is jet black and produces a frothy tan head with moderate retention. Made with flaked oats, this stout is full bodied with coffee, toffee, dark roasted malt and cocoa notes. Drinkable all year, but particularly satisfying in the winter months. The brewery has used it to make several variants including Coffee Dark Alchemy, Nitro Dark Alchemy and Snickerdoodle Dark Alchemy.
In less than three years, Variant Brewing Company has vaulted to the list of top craft beer breweries in the Atlanta area. If your in ever in the Atlanta area near Dunwoody, Sandy Springs or Apharetta, it is well worth the short trip over to Roswell to check them out. There is a little something for everyone there and a friendly, inviting atmosphere.
Thanks for reading and until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!
And remember to drink responsibly!