Atlanta loves its SweetWater

Considering how pervasive SweetWater 420 is around here, I was surprised to learn, during a recent tour of the Atlanta brewery, the company doesn't do any advertising.

Instead, it relies on positive word-of-mouth to attract drinkers to its line of beers, which includes the ubiquitous 420 extra pale ale and five others, as well as seasonal brews. I could have sworn I'd seen SweetWater beer commercials and magazine ads, but when I thought back on it, I guess I did learn about SweetWater through word of mouth.

When I first moved to Georgia, it seemed like everyone I met ordered 420 at restaurants and bars. After I dared to ask what, exactly, 420 was, I was met with incredulous looks. The SweetWater beers are so popular here, I think a lot of people forget they're not available in most of the rest of the country.

In fact, because the beers aren't pasteurized when they're brewed, their shelf life is a relatively short 90 days, and they're distributed only in the Southeast. It's nice to see such devotion to a local brew, especially in the South, which isn't exactly known for its microbrews.

Even so, I was amazed to see how crowded the brewery was during a recent tour, despite a torrential rain storm moving through the city.

Little did I know, the brewery is a popular hangout spot for young beer-lovers, and it's no mystery why. For $8, you get a pint glass you can take home, as well as six tickets, good for a half-glass of each of the six beers on tap.

The beers served are straight from the brewery's taps, the freshest you can get, and they taste unbelievably good. It's sort of akin to drinking milk fresh from the farm.

My personal favorite is the Hummer, formerly a seasonal brew known as Summer Hummer. The Belgian white ale brewed with coriander and orange peel has become so popular it's now available year-round. I still think it tastes best on a steamy summer night.

SweetWater Brewing Company, founded by college roommates Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney, has gotten recognition outside of Atlanta, too. In 2002, it was named Small Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival, held each year in Denver. SweetWater still holds the distinction of being the only brewery east of the Mississippi to earn that title.

Besides the great taste, my personal theory on why SweetWater beers are so popular is the packaging. The six-packs are practically small pieces of art, featuring a colorful fish and soothing, river-like hues, and they always catch my eye at the grocery store. Packages of the cinnamon-and-mace flavored Festive Ale have become my go-to Christmas present for family and friends in other parts of the country.

If you have yet to discover the wonders of SweetWater beers, what are you waiting for? The brewery's tasting room, located at 195 Ottley Drive in Atlanta, is open from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.