Northwest Georgia brewpub Phantom Horse Brewery sits in a back corner of Pie Slingers Pizzeria, a sit-down, New York-style pizzeria in a long red building along U.S. Highway 27 in Rock Spring, Georgia.
The amber liquids, with names that hearken back to the history and lore of the area, ferment and carbonate in two stainless-steel barrels.
On June 13, Pie Slingers owner Skip Welsh and Phantom Horse co-founder Jason Randles pulled the brewery’s first draft. The response since then, Welsh said, has been overwhelming.
In the six months since opening, they’ve started a mug club, overcome some of the challenges of launching a brewery and served up stouts, IPAs and white pale ales in a community largely unfamiliar with craft beer.
An extraction kit
Welsh used to sell beer at Pie Slingers, a business he started in 2009. He stopped at the end of 2013 but kept the equipment.
The idea for Phantom Horse Brewery started in 2014 when Welsh received an extraction brewing kit for Father’s Day. That kit became his training wheels of the beer brewing world.
The hobby grew, and soon Welsh was making too much beer for him to drink himself. He considered adding beer back to Pie Slingers’ offering.
But he didn’t have the funds to buy the commercial equipment and launch a brewery on his own.
Enter Randles. Randles had been brewing beer since he was 22. He works for the company that provides the arcade games at Pie Slingers.
The partners joined to fund the venture 50-50.
A license to brew
The first step was permitting.
“You don’t move without a federal permit to brew beer,” Welsh said.
Getting a federal license took nine months. Then, it was more waiting for the state and local licenses.
Heading into the local process, Randles and Welsh thought they would face strong resistance and protests to the idea of making beer in Walker County, a place with nary a liquor store and blue laws.
But to their surprise, it was a simple process at the local level.
A six-month learning curve
In the months since Phantom Horse has been open, Randles and Welsh have encountered and overcome challenges.
Drought caused the county to increase the chlorine in the local drinking water.
The move to promote public health also created a medicinal aftertaste in the finished beer, Welsh said. So Phantom Horse started to filter its water.
They’ve built their own grain mill, installed their own tap lines and created a board to hang the earthenware mugs of their mug club members above the counter.
Members of the club receive a T-shirt and a mug Phantom Horse keeps on location. When members visit, they receive a few extra ounces of pour, discounts on food and merchandise, and first access to any new beer Phantom Horse rolls out.
Craft beer in a light beer community
Randles and Welsh mostly brew on the weekends.
Being small allows Phantom Horse to adapt quickly and also try new things.
Currently, the two are experimenting with souring a batch of beer and aging it for four weeks in oak barrels.
Phantom Horse’s most popular brew is “Working Girl,” a beer that people who are used to tipping back Budweiser and Miller Lite find similar to the beer they know. Working Girl is a gateway beer to the world of craft beer, they said.
“We’ve converted a lot of people to craft beer,” Randles said. “We’re working them in and changing their palate.”
And setting up the brewpub in the restaurant helps both pizza and beer sales.
“They come for one; they stay for the other,” Randles said.
But they don’t want to be seen as a bar, Welsh said. It’s a place for the whole family.
“Family is by far the most important thing to us here,” he said.
A dream of expanding northward
Randles and Welsh see Chattanooga as an untapped market to distribute their beer.
“I need that Chattanooga market; I need it bad,” Welsh said.
But for that, Phantom Horse needs to clear a regulatory hurdle: Georgia law mandates brewpubs must go through a distributor to sell beer in a place other than their location.
The distributors they’ve talked to have said if Phantom Horse were bigger, they would pick it up and Phantom Horse might be able to enter the Chattanooga food scene.
Expanding means building out a refrigeration space and hiring a driver.
Pretty soon, Welsh said, there could be 10 employees working at the brewery.
But that takes time.
“[The] first rule in brewing beer is patience,” he said.
Daniel Jackson is a contributing writer.