If you’ve never heard of Friends Brewing or Helenboch Brewery, you’ve missed an important, if obscure bit of Georgia craft beer history.
Opened in Helen in 1990, Helenboch was Georgia’s first craft brewery and craft beer. And from the beginning, it was successful, at least in terms of the fledgling microbrewery and brewpub scene of the day.
The Friends Brewing team won a silver medal for its Helenboch helles at the 1989 Great American Beer Festival, and a gold medal two years later for Helenboch Oktoberfest.
In 1990, British author Michael Jackson, arguably the most important beer writer of that time or any time, visited the brewery, and in thanks, the crew took him to Waffle House.
I heard all those fun stories and many more, recently, at Max Lager’s Brewpub in Atlanta, where brewmaster John “JR” Roberts had just put his resurrected version of Helenboch on tap.
Roberts brewed the German-style lager in celebration of the new Helenback Race Series in Helen, and a group of runners and beer drinkers were gathered to get a taste and reminisce about the early days of brewing in Georgia.
Among them were Dow Scoggins, Rick Roberts and Frank Cronin, the homebrewers who founded Friends and Helenboch, and Dan Wilkins, the marathon runner who founded Helenback.
As it turns out, the first Friends beers were made under contract at the August Schell Brewing Co. in Minnesota and sold in the North Georgia market. But the Helenboch Brewery kept going until 1997, and found many fans.
“What’s interesting about this whole thing is that Dan sent me a note about starting the Helenback races, and thought it would be a great idea if we could brew Helenboch, again, so he could serve it after the races,” Scoggins said.
“I thought it was a great idea, too, and I posted it on Facebook, asking if any brewer could lend me a brewery. JR responded and said he just wanted to brew Helenboch, again.”
“I remember drinking Helenboch in the ’90s, and when I read that post, it struck a nerve,” Roberts said. “I thought, Max Lager’s is the oldest operating brewpub in Georgia, and we have an opportunity to bring back the oldest beer in Georgia. It’s a lager. I specialize in lagers. This makes all the sense in the world. It just seemed serendipitous.”
Of course, back when Scoggins, Roberts and Cronin were struggling to open Helenboch, the majority of successful breweries in the U.S. were large-scale operations making the likes of Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
“We actually got three different locations approved,” Scoggins said. “We got zoning changed in Atlanta. We found a location in DeKalb County and got the laws changed there. We ended up staying in Helen, but we like to think we paved the way for Red Brick and SweetWater and Max Lager’s and all the others.”
Word is, Helenboch will be on draft at Max Lager’s until it runs out. 320 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-525-4400, maxlagers.com.