It’s April 12, 2014 — a quintessential spring day in Athens — and throngs of people have descended upon The Classic City to immerse themselves in something they’re extremely passionate about. The principal attraction on this glorious 80-degree day is the G-Day football game at Sanford Stadium. But by late afternoon 600 people have lined up at the Terrapin Beer Company on Newton Bridge Road. They’ve come to Terrapin to both quench their thirst and to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of a craft brewery that has been making waves in the beer world since 2002 when Terrapin’s American-style Pale Ale won a gold medal at the U.S.’s most prestigious beer festival.
Terrapin drinkers represent a cross section of the Classic City. They come from every walk of life — old and young, preppies and hipsters, students and townies — and the treats that await them during this twelfth anniversary celebration include some special craft concoctions produced specifically for this day: Jalapeno Business (rye beer with jalapenos) and Mean Green (rye beer with Serrano peppers).
The two men responsible for Terrapin (named for the Grateful Dead album Terrapin Station) are emerging superstars in the beer world. In little more than a decade, John Cochran (BBA ’03), who majored in risk management and insurance at Terry, and his co-founder Brian “Spike” Buckowski have made Terrapin the second-largest brewery in Georgia. They sell beer in 11 states and in Washington, D.C., and three more states are expected to go online this year.
Brewing beer may sound like pure, unadulterated, intoxicating fun. But, as is the case with most businesses, survival is hard work, Securing investors, taking a product to market, and reaching solvency is a path riddled with alternative plans and inventive solutions. Even success — Terrapin has experienced 40 percent growth over the last three years — can be a headache. Despite its popularity, Cochran and Buckowski are constantly working to differentiate Terrapin’s brand from the other 32 brewers in Georgia and more than 2,700 nationwide.
“The stereotype is that brewers hang out all day drinking beer,” says Cochran, who hails from nearby Commerce. “We do love beer, but it took us a decade to get into the brewery we have now. It’s a cliché, but the reason we have succeeded is truly because we love where we are and we love what we do. Because of that, we do it well.”
In April 2002, Terrapin released its first beer: the Rye Pale Ale. Just six months later, the nascent brewery shocked the beer world by winning a gold medal at America’s premier event, the Great American Beer Festival. Terrapin’s American-style Pale Ale beat out 93 competitors in its category — and that was quite an accomplishment for a brewery whose signature variety, Rye Pale Ale, was available only on draft and only in Athens.
“Distributors from across the country started calling, saying, ‘We’d love to carry your product,’” says Cochran. “My standard answer was, ‘I appreciate that and I am glad you heard good things . . . but call me back in about three years.’”
Cochran’s path to that seminal moment began nearly a decade earlier. Shortly after he graduated from Terry, having created some promising home brews in his Athens apartment but not thinking of beer as his life’s work, Cochran moved to Seattle to work as an insurance salesman. In Seattle, he quickly got immersed in the new world of craft-brewed beers — which differ from mass-produced beers like those of Anheuser-Busch in terms of quantity brewed, local identity, and the individuality of recipes. (The Brewers Association nominally defines a craft brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” However, Boston Beer Company — Samuel Adams — is defined as a craft brewery and is ranked No. 5 in the overall beer market with more than two million barrels sold annually.)
Seeing a chance to marry his passion for beer with a viable business enterprise, Cochran returned to Georgia and went to work for a couple Atlanta-based breweries. In 1998, he met Connecticut native Buckowski, who had graduated from the American Brewers Guild in California two years earlier. They became fast friends and instant business partners with Cochran taking charge of marketing and Buckowski dedicated to brewing singular beers for a public that was quickly developing both a taste and a fascination for them.
“We worked for about three years, putting together different business plans and looking for funding, but without success,” says Buckowski. “We redeveloped our plan . . . and then September 11, 2001, happened. We again went looking for funding without success. I finally looked at John and said, ‘You don’t care if your kids go to college, do you?’ Then we basically rubbed our credit cards together and we really went after it.”
Making beer requires four basic ingredients — water, yeast, malt, and hops — which can be purchased from all over the world. Terrapin’s grains, for example, typically come from North America and Germany. Terrapin’s hops are shipped from Australia and the Pacific Northwest. But getting the actual liquid product in front of paying customers — and, importantly, investors — takes two more important ingredients: moxy and risk.
In 2002, Cochran and Buckowski decided that the best way to attract investors was to take a product to the market. They began by contract brewing (making Terrapin beer in another brewery’s tanks) at Dogwood Brewing Company in Atlanta. And they signed on with a distributor — a necessary part of Georgia’s mandated three-tier selling system — Northeast Sales, which also handles Miller beer. Still, Terrapin teetered on the brink of closing its doors.
A decision to begin contract brewing in Frederick, Md., where they found additional tank room, was a key element in expanding the business. In 2004, Terrapin started producing bottles and began selling in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama.
The ultimate goal, says Cochran, was for Terrapin to open its own brewing facility in Athens.
“We thought we’d contract brew for six months and then we’d get the money to do it,” says Cochran. “Well, it took four years before we were able to bring investors in. It was 2006, after we’d grown to more than 5,000 barrels a year, when we were able to put a plan together and say, ‘Look, we are making this work. We need capital.’”
In 2008, the Terrapin Beer Company opened its doors in what had been a textile warehouse on Newton Bridge Road. Today the retrofitted facility leaves little space unused. Brewing ingredients, sacks of dry goods, a i line, and office space surround a small army of stainless steel tanks, which do the work of brewing and fermenting. In June, Terrapin will begin canning in-house.
“It’s one thing to have an idea for something, but to do the hard work and actually get it done is always a big challenge,” says Chris Hanks, who has brought Cochran in to speak to his entrepreneurship students at Terry. When John speaks at Terry, he’s always a big draw. He makes students think, ‘I can take this thing I love and I can make a business around that. If he can do it, why can’t I?’”
For the past two years, Cochran and the Terrapin Beer Company have made the Bulldog 100, which ranks the fastest-growing, UGA-owned businesses in the country. In Terrapin’s case, growth of more than 40 percent yearly didn’t happen by luck, without a plan — or come cheap. In 2012, Terrapin expanded and added a state-of-art brewhouse to the tune of roughly $4 million.
“What the system allows us to do is have more quality, consistency, and more volume per brew,” says Terry graduate Dustin Watts (BBA ’03), who is Terrapin’s vice president of sales and marketing. “A brewhouse system like this one could potentially produce up to 200,000 barrels per year.”
In 2014, Cochran estimates that Terrapin will produce 44,000 barrels of beer. Terrapin will produce two dozen different beers this year and its runaway most-popular variety is Hopsecutioner, an India Pale Ale that is 7.3 percent alcohol by volume. Hopsecutioner represents 43 percent of Terrapin’s sales, and Cochran has stated publically that the company’s goal is to be the premier India Pale Ale brewer in the Southeast.
“We have to keep an eye on the next thing on the horizon and how to differentiate ourselves without losing sight of where we’ve come from,” says Cochran. “Athens is famous around the world and being an Athens brewery is a real feather in our cap.”