When Freddy Bensch graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he realized he was really only good at two things: fly fishing and brewing beer. So he planned to stick to both of them.
With his roommate Kevin McNerney, Bensch spent much of his time fishing Boulder Creek, the St. Vrain, and the South Platte, but they also worked part time cleaning kegs at a local brewery. They got paid in “short fills”—beer cans that weren’t completely filled—and made their cash by re-selling the beer to their college friends. When they weren’t out fishing, they experimented with their own homebrews and got hooked on the idea of becoming brewmasters who could set their own schedules and leave plenty of time for fly fishing.
After graduation, Bensch began his formal beer education with American Brewers Guild. He was still wondering what he was going do to with his life when he visited the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He fell in love with the city, and soon got in touch with his old roommate about starting a West Coast-style craft brewery in Georgia. To get their business off the ground, the two tapped their own savings and raised funds from friends and family, and started with $200,000 operating capital. Bensch named the business after Sweetwater Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee located a few miles west of the brewery.
After kayaking the creek—and catching bluegills and small bass—the former Colorado trout bum came up with the company slogan “Don’t Float the Mainstream.” It’s a motto that has served Bensch well in both the business world and in his global search for new fishing spots.
Since it launched in 1997, SweetWater Brewing Company has grown to 15th place among the top 50 craft breweries based on volume (240,000 barrels per year) and the success of the brand is twofold. Having good beer is an obvious starting point, and SweetWater’s 420 Extra Pale Ale and other perennials have won multiple awards and become consumer favorites in the 25 states where it’s distributed.
But what makes SweetWater special to fly fishers is more than just the distinctive leaping rainbow trout branding, and the fact that “Big Kahuna” Freddy Bensch makes fish and fishing such an important part of SweetWater’s marketing. All of that is superficial, really. What truly makes so many fly fishers so committed to the brand is SweetWater’s deep involvement in fisheries conservation.
It all started with a simple idea: “Our partnership with SweetWater Brewing Company started nearly 20 years ago with a phone call from Freddy,” says Rebecca Powell (Klein), development director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “He said SweetWater had basically an empty canvas on the bottom of their 420 Extra Pale Ale 12-packs, and he offered to print our logo and our hotline number on the box. Freddy just cold-called us with this idea, not just because he’s a fly fisher and wants to see gamefish thrive, but also because SweetWater relied on water from the Chattahoochee River to make their product. Right from the beginning he saw the value in protecting the water itself.”
Georgia’s Water Crisis
The Chattahoochee River begins as a rivulet in Jack’s Gap, in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and flows all the way to the Apalachicola Bay. Much of the upper watershed is in Chattahoochee National Forest, where there are more than 1,300 miles of recognized trout streams, many of them tributaries of “The Hooch.”
The name Chattahoochee comes from a Muskogean word meaning “painted rocks,” which may refer to the many colorful granite outcroppings along a section of river that runs through the Brevard fault zone. The river drains an area of 8,770 square miles and is the most heavily used water resource in Georgia. It’s also one of the smallest river systems in the entire country to supply water to a city of this size. The Atlanta metropolitan area is home to nearly 6 million people and is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the nation. This urbanization causes a variety of problems, including stormwater and wastewater pollution, increased water consumption, a hardened landscape of asphalt, concrete, and other unnatural surfaces, denuded stream buffers, and most damaging, a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and water withdrawals that exacerbate problems associated with low flows and high stream temperatures.
The Hooch is the lynchpin in what has been described as “Georgia’s water crisis.” In 2007 Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency in 85 counties and implemented water restrictions in response to drought and low levels on Lake Lanier, a reservoir on the Chattachoochee. That declaration was just a small glimpse at the larger Tri-State Water Conflict that has been ongoing for 25 years.
Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have fought over the use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and in particular the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ operation of Lake Lanier’s Buford Dam just north of Atlanta. On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion of Florida v. Georgia and sent all parties back to the negotiating table. The court held that Florida has not yet demonstrated how much water it needs from Lake Lanier, and what benefit that extra water will provide. The court instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help determine an equitable apportionment.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper believes that the Supreme Court decision creates an opportunity for all stakeholders to find a solution, and in response to it published that “Georgia and Florida should not spend three more years and tens of millions dollars more to continue this litigation. The three states can turn to an existing technical solution produced by the ACF Stakeholders—a collaborative group of agricultural, municipal, industrial, environmental, individual, and other interests who live, work, and use the water resources of the ACF river basin. We must cease endless rounds of litigation, and instead focus our resources on sharing our water resources because climate change is real, communities will continue to grow, and our clean water resources are limited.”
Putting the hotline number on beer cases was literally a first step of a fledgling company. In 2006, SweetWater started its Save Our Water program and since then has raised more than $500,000 for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and its monitoring and patrolling efforts, but Freddy didn’t stop there. SweetWater in 2016 broadened the Save Our Water campaign to annually donate $100,000 in matching funds to a total of five partner organizations, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and Coastal Conservation Association’s National Habitat Program, Building Conservation Trust. That program alone has contributed $1 million to those five conservation organizations.
And continuing in the vein of the original Riverkeeper hotline, SweetWater has continued to use its product labeling to raise awareness of conservation issues. In its “Stack a Fish, Stock a Stream” program in 2018, a limited release of stackable cans showing rainbow trout helped SweetWater work with local and state agencies to stock streams with healthy, native trout species. Stackable tarpon cans helped Sweetwater fund Bonefish & Tarpon Trust tagging programs.
Those were all instances of altering the packaging of existing popular products. For Bensch, the next logical step was to create an entirely new beer to help fund a cause he feels strongly about. SweetWater’s new Guide Beer debuts in March 2019. The beer is an easy-drinking 4% alcohol American lager that will find a home in rafts, drift boats, and flats skiffs across America. SweetWater will donate 11% of all profit from sales of Guide Beer to a newly created Guide Fund. The fund will help alleviate unexpected medical expenses and other hardships of a seasonable workforce that is chronically under-insured.
“SweetWater has always been about creating a company and brand that exudes the same core values we hold as individuals, and that includes a deep love of all things outdoors. We decided early on that we wouldn’t spend our limited marketing dollars on traditional advertising, but instead put money and energy toward efforts that were more rewarding to us and the greater good. Guide Beer has become a natural extension of this philosophy.
“Over the years and after hundreds of trips all over the world, we developed a great sense of gratitude for the guides who befriended us along the way. Always taking a sliver of information or heightened respect from each experience, we came to understand that these guides are the true stewards of nature. They educate folks on the importance of taking care of the environment, and they teach the next generation how to fish and how to respect the great outdoors.
“More often than not, they’re not doing it for the salary or insurance benefits. I’ve met guides who were living in their car or a tent or couch surfing, moving from one season to the next to pursue their passions. We’ve recently seen devastation to the guide community from several hurricanes. But we’ve also been encouraged by the helpful rally calls of the guide community, local shops, and outfitters.
“It hit me that we as a company need to step up and formally give back to the people who have impacted so much of who we are as a company, and who I am as a person. That’s what Guide Beer is about—to honor and support “those who show us the way.”
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.