As a high school AP Biology teacher in Walton County, Ga., Owen Ogletree often spent his summers off traveling Europe. There he visited pubs and grew curious. “I wondered about the history of beer styles and how beer was brewed,” he tells Creative Loafing. “I began to read and research, and home brewing followed. I got so into home brewing that I opened a shop [Brewtopia in Athens, which closed in 1999].”
Following a trip to the 1994 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., Ogletree decided to start his own annual beer event, Classic City Brew Fest in Athens. The event will celebrate its 20th anniversary next April.
Ogletree’s website — Brewtopia.info — also hits the 20-year mark in September, and his Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting festival — held annually at 5 Seasons Brewing in Sandy Springs and Taco Mac Prado — celebrates 11 years in January. Now that Ogletree has retired from teaching, he’ll have more time to organize beer trips, write about beer, try new beer, expand on his festivals, and continue immersing himself in, wait for it, all things beer. He took a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk to CL about what it’s been like to devote himself to the topic for more than two decades now.
Describe your first beer.
I was 21 years old and eating ribs at [a rib shack] in Norcross, Ga. I really had no interest in beer at all, and a friend bought me a Michelob Light. I thought it was very refreshing and was a great palate cleanser for the ribs — much more drinkable than sugary soft drinks. I went to the store the next week and bought a sampler of other American standard lagers — all of which tasted the same. It wasn’t until I tried Guinness and Sam Adams that I realized that beers could be more than fizzy and yellow.
After seeing so much change in 20 years, what are you most excited about now?
I’m just excited that craft beer has become so popular and has taken on a life of its own. Back in the mid-1990s, when I started the Brewtopia website and homebrew shop, it seemed that the only craft beer events happening in the area were the ones that I would put on. I had to beg people to show up. Now there’s a beer event every day and a beer festival almost every weekend, it seems. Craft beer is selling itself these days.
What’s your desert island Georgia beer?
I would have to choose Yes Face IPA, an English-style, hoppy golden ale made by Mark Broe as a guest brewer at JailHouse Brewing in Hampton. Mark owned the wonderful Eagle & Lion Brew Pub in Griffin a couple of years back where he made some amazing English-style session cask ales. I could drink those beers all day. Alas, Griffin couldn’t support the pub, but now Mark is making some of this beer at JailHouse. His IPA reminds me of great ales I’ve enjoyed in the UK. When served on cask, the beer is has a mild, soft carbonation and is so drinkable and delicious.
You hold a unique position that very few others can relate to so far as you were one of the first people to really focus on beer in Georgia. What is your place in the scene today?
I’m getting to be kind of the lovable grandpa. It’s so nice that everywhere I go around the state, people treat me … so well and enjoy talking to me about all aspects of craft beer. In a modern world, where young beer fans seems fixated on extreme beer styles like barrel-aged imperial stouts and new-fangled styles like the modern sour beers and hybrid styles like black IPAs, I find pleasure in reminding people about historical, classic styles of beers that tend to be overlooked these days. This is my favorite part of taking people on group beer trips to Europe. Seeing the satisfaction on their faces when they revisit a super fresh English cask bitter in London or an amazing hefeweizen or helles lager in Munich is priceless. In today’s crazy beer world, we can’t lose an appreciation for the roots and origins of craft beer. I never will.