Terrapin at 20: one craft brewery’s long, strange trip

It all started when Spike Buckowski and John Cochran wanted to stick it to the man.

Uninspired by the beers they were making at an Atlanta brewery, the last straw was when their boss punished them for taking in a baseball game.

“We said, ‘Screw this. We’ll open our own brewery,’” Buckowski remembers of that pivotal moment in 1998. So was born Terrapin Beer Co. – at least in concept – with a name and branding inspired by Buckowski’s favorite jam band.

It wasn’t until 2002 – after rewriting their business plans twice and giving up on the dream of a brick-and-mortar brewery – that Terrapin truly arrived, marking its arrival with an exclamation point by winning gold at the Great American Beer Festival for its Rye Pale Ale.

Now, 20 years later, the Athens, Ga.-based brewery stands as a success story, one that depended on grit, business savvy and creativity to become one of the largest craft breweries in the Southeast. It is now distributed in 17 states and Puerto Rico.

But before it became one of the top breweries in Georgia – producing nearly 100,000 barrels in 2021 – it had to brew its first batch, contract brewing out Dogwood Brewing in Atlanta, where it produced 238 barrels its first year.

At the time, banks were handing out loans to all comers – as long as the company’s name ended with “dot com.” Then came the terrorist attacks in September 2001, which roiled U.S. financial markets and curtailed lenders’ appetite and ability to back new businesses.

“We probably entered the craft brewing business at the worst time possible,” Buckowski says.

Then came gold.

Terrapin entered its Rye Pale Ale in GABF’s pale ale category; it was a beer that intrigued the senses with the spice of rye grain and a burst of aroma from dry-hopped Amarillo hops. That thrust Terrapin into the national craft conversation and led to an uptick in demand, forcing the nascent brewer to relocate its contract brewing operations to what is now Flying Dog Brewing in Frederick, Md.

‘What are you doing?’

By the time Dustin Watts joined Terrapin as employee No. 2 in 2003, the brewery was on its way to winning a silver medal at the World Beer Cup and another medal at GABF.

Two years later, Terrapin had grown large enough for its own brewery, a converted blue jeans warehouse in Athens, a college town home to the University of Georgia. (Buckowski actually lived in a makeshift apartment in the brewery with his cats, Hops and Lil P, for about a year.)

Watts was struck by the bold beers Terrapin was serving around Atlanta and was offered a sales job. He’s been there ever since.

“We were a cutting-edge brewery coming out of the South. People weren’t making beers like we were making,” says Watts, now Terrapin’s president. “This is where big lager beer dominated, but we were pushing the envelope of doing big India brown ales and Big Hoppy Monster (an imperial red ale), and coffee, oatmeal and imperial stouts. People were like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Whatever they were doing was working.

After opening a new brewery in 2007, a slew of innovations followed, including its highly regarded Side Project series in 2008 (“improvisation,” says Watts), and its hop bomb Hopsecutioner IPA, which debuted in 2009 and has since become Terrapin’s best seller. By 2010, it launched its Krunkles IPA series (one of several Terrapin beers inspired by jam band-adjacent culture) and eclipsed 18,500 barrels a year. That was more than double its output of 2007.

A deal is struck

But the realities of business overshadowed the whimsy of brewing.

In 2011, a group of Terrapin’s investors came calling and attempted to initiate a takeover. Around the same time, large brewers were gobbling up craft breweries across the U.S., most notably Anheuser-Busch, which swallowed Chicago’s Goose Island in a deal that sent shockwaves through the industry.

In order to stave off its investors and maintain control of the brewery they created, Buckowski and Cochran turned to MillerCoors, which had previously pitched the pair on a partnership that would allow them financial flexibility and creative freedom.

They struck a deal to sell 24.4% of the company to MillerCoors, which would keep Terrapin within the Brewers’ Association’s definition of craft.

“Our credibility was very important,” Watts says. “(Ever since), we’ve been on a mission to prove we can work with Big Beer.”

For MillerCoors, which at the time was the U.S. business unit of Molson Coors, Terrapin represented a long-cherished chess piece, remembers Tom Cardella, the now-retired former president of the company’s U.S. craft beer division, Tenth & Blake.

As drinkers flocked to craft, MillerCoors wanted to complement its existing collection of powerhouse craft breweries – Blue Moon Brewing Co. and Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. – with the new wave of boundary-pushing upstarts. Cardella teamed up with Dick Leinenkugel to scope out the 50 largest craft breweries in the U.S.

Cardella was in Cleveland kicking the tires of another craft brewer when the call from Athens came.

“The thing that really attracted us to Terrapin was two things: They were in an area of the country where we were totally underdeveloped as a company, and they were an up-and-coming brewery that made excellent IPAs,” says Cardella, from his home in Costa Rica.

While MillerCoors was confident in the deal, Terrapin worried about the backlash from consumers.

“They were deathly afraid of what would happen in their core market,” Cardella says, referencing the blowback from craft die-hards in Chicago when Goose Island cashed in its chips. “They worried about losing half their taps. But they only got stronger.”

Since selling a minority stake, Terrapin has defended its own market while methodically marching outward, expanding distribution of its portfolio of beers into what’s now 17 states.

Since 2017, Terrapin has grown dollar sales by 44%, according to IRI, far outpacing the overall craft market. What’s more, its corporate partner kept its promise of allowing Terrapin to largely operate unencumbered and maintain its unique identity.

The compatibility between the two led to Molson Coors completing its acquisition of Terrapin in 2016; Cochran left the same year, but Buckowski, Watts and dozens of other long-timers remain.

Growing a ‘dream’

The deal has worked out for both organizations.

Terrapin has continued to grow its IPA-forward portfolio at retail, leading with Hopsecutioner and a best-selling IPA variety pack. It’s maintained the free-wheeling inspiration of music, while connecting with its Georgia roots, even establishing a pilot brewhouse at the Atlanta Braves’ ballpark. Last year, it started a scholarship fund for underrepresented students at Middle Tennessee State University.

And it's fully embraced the issues that matter with its employees, its community and its drinkers: sustainability.

The brewery’s Terraprint sustainability platform, which includes a solar-powered brewery, a cutting-edge wastewater treatment plant, composting programs and more, is a key focus for the company, right behind making beer.

With the pieces in place to continue growth and deliver on a mission to preserve the planet, Terrapin’s come a long way from the dream that unexpectedly won craft gold.

The brewery’s success still surprises Buckowski.

“It hits home once in a while: Wow, a 20-year brand, man, that still has legitimacy,” he says. “I've had some great hits. I've had some bad misses. But I turned my hobby into a career? Isn’t that everyone’s dream?”