This past weekend, Sandy Springs-based Pontoon Brewing celebrated its 2nd Anniversary of operations at their physical brewery. Pastry stouts flowed like water as Georgia started to feel winter weather for the time this season.
Years ago in 2014, brewery founders Eddie Serrine and Eric Lemus were standing in my kitchen holding bottles of what would be Pontoon Brewing’s flagship beers – an IPA and a Kolsch. One of the guys had broken his leg but despite crutches and a cast, he insisted on standing up and drinking as we talked. I respected the commitment.
Back in 2014, Georgia laws surrounding breweries were pretty strict. It was illegal to sell pints directly to customers, which basically forced Georgia’s breweries to drag visitors through a tour just to give them free beer samples. Not to mention, an expensive multi-barrel volume production operating model was your business’s only option to survive. Any brewery opening in Georgia was big news because you had to go pretty big to make it.
Pontoon Brewing, with its warm weather, outdoor lake life vibe was going to be a great fit for Georgia’s hot climate, but these introductory beers in front of me that day in 2014 sadly underwhelming. True, this sounds a little harsh even as I mention it in hindsight but these beers weren’t going to compete with the south’s burgeoning IPA scene. Despite that negative opinion, it was best kept to myself. Congratulations were in order and the brewery is young.
Within a few weeks, Pontoon Brewing hit distribution and shortly after that, seemingly vanished from beer conversation.
Fast forward to a warm day in the summer of 2016 during a collaboration brew day at Wild Heaven. Sean O’Keefe walks into the brewhouse holding 6-packs of Pontoon Brewing’s upcoming canned beers. Laying eyes on them was shocking to say the least, as I had all but thought the brand was basically defunct. Yet here is Sean, cans in hand, with a date his new brewery and taproom would be completed in Sandy Springs.
Pontoon’s return to the spotlight had already started.
It’s 2020 and a lot has changed in at Pontoon and in Georgia. The temperature is barely 40 degrees and the wind is whipping through the parking lot gale-force speeds. Despite this cold snap, Pontoon is quite busy on this second birthday of the brewery build. Any memory of those two underwhelming beers are a distant memory.
It’s barely 1 pm on a Sunday and hundreds are kicking back pastry stouts, hazy IPAs, and thick fruited Berliner beers one after the other. Inside there’s animal caretaker playing with rescued river otters (the brewery’s signature animal) and South American armadillos. At one point I found myself drinking a beer inspired by Samoa Girl Scout cookies snapping pictures of an otter eating a piece of fish. This is craft beer these days, not a weird dream.
Since 2014, Eddie and Eric each started families with months of each other and tapping Sean O’Keefe to run point for Pontoon. Sean has taken Pontoon in the hazy/milkshake/pastry direction which not only carved out a decadent niche for the brewery, but built a loyal following that has fallen in love with beers like Brownie Batter, and Snozzberries Taste Like Snozzberries. The stouts are sweet and boozy, the fruited beers are so thick they sometimes leave chunks on the glass.
This might be a complete departure from clear beers and big west coast imperial IPAs from 6-7 years ago. Industry veterans might wonder how craft beer got here. As for Pontoon’s fans this afternoon, every sweet sip is why they are here. “I know (our beers) can get a little weird,” says O’Keefe, “using things cookies, vanilla beans, fresh fruit, coconut and candy bars,” he adds. ‘I just think if you are going to do it, we are going to do it well.”
From kitchen to the taproom, Sean, Eddie, Eric, Earnest and the crew at Pontoon have defined their style and love of their fans. Shades on, Bottoms Up. Happy 2, Pontooners.