Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
Some of the regulars at Moon River Brewing Company are greatly appreciated. Some, simply won’t go away. Some are content to get together every Friday evening at 6 o’clock to raise a pint and toast their friends. Others, according to taped testimonials on the brewery’s website, make their presence known by throwing bottles at bar staff and moving objects around the dining room – despite the fact that they have been dead for decades.
The Savannah, Georgia brewpub has a reputation as one of the more haunted locales in a town known for its ghost stories. Like those who fill the bar and dining room every week, they must like the beer.
Shut up and Drink
There exists an undeniable attraction to stories of visitors from beyond the grave. Savannah does little to discourage the tales that have made the city something of a tourist destination, and Moon River has its fair share.
There is the notorious drunk and violent soul of James Jones Stark that gets credit for much of the mischief, and tales of finely garbed women descending and ascending staircases before vanishing like a head of foam into an IPA. However, brewmaster and co-owner John Pinkerton prefers to keep his attention plainly on the living patrons.
“With all these ghost shows that have popped up over the past couple of years, Savannah has stamped its identity in the media as being a fairly haunted place,” Pinkerton said. “With my ego being wrapped up in the beer side of things, I have largely been the voice of skepticism on that front. But you‘ve got to admit at some point that it’s great for business.
“I personally cannot claim any experiences that I call paranormal. What I often point out is that the scariest things on this planet are living people. I don’t worry about the spirits of dead people. I worry about living people and in particular drunk living people.”
Pinkerton added that perhaps Savannah gained a reputation as a haunted town because it has long had a reputation as a drinking town – it’s no secret that things become a little unclear after a few beers and a few more glasses of rum. If Savannah is indeed a good drinking town, then perhaps the best place to have a pint is at Moon River – specifically, at 6 p.m. on a Friday evening.
Since sometime in the mid 1990s, the bar quiets down and samples of whatever Pinkerton feels like sharing are passed around the bar as one of the locals stands up and prepares the crowd with a traditional “wind-up” that invites everyone in the bar to listen up and get ready to welcome the weekend. It’s usually followed by a recap of the week’s events and news, sometimes a clever limerick (although Pinkerton notes that it’s a family establishment and the toasters are encouraged to keep that in mind), or a dedication to a friend and his accomplishments. They all end the same with a resounding cry to “shut up and drink your beer!”
“That’s the salutation,” Pinkerton said. “It’s been a very lively part of our Friday tradition. Even so many years later when you stand up for the toast. Being the owner I’m always keen to what people’s reactions are… everybody kind of gets into it.”
It’s Not What You Know
After years of brewery jobs—some bad, some good—Pinkerton and his wife Connie had begun considering opening an establishment of their own. Connie had her eye set on Savannah, and Pinkerton was considering a brewpub when a friend introduced them to John Hickenlooper.
Coloradans may recognize Hickenlooper as their current governor, but at the time he was just a businessman looking to establish a brewpub in Georgia. However, the State of Georgia wouldn’t allow Hickenlooper to have a controlling interest in a brewery due to a conflict of interest, so instead of going into business with Pinkerton, Hickenlooper introduced him to current co-owner Gene Beeco. From there, the two partners and a third—who has since been bought out after several years of missteps that nearly sank the business—took over the failing Oglethorp Brewing Company in April of 1999, changed the name and got to work establishing a new Savannah landmark.
But before that could happen, Moon River had to endure trying times.
“We came along and basically picked up the pieces after (Oglethorp) and made some improvements, but we struggled for quite a few years,” Pinkerton said. “Our silent partner’s idea of helping us get through that was to dilute us further and further until we almost had no stake in the place. By the time our relationship with him was over and we had a significant amount of debt.”
The partner’s idea was to liquidate the business and move on, but Pinkerton and Beeco weren’t ready to abandon a project in which they still believed. So rather than follow his advice, they came up with a plan and the funding to buy out his stake and began righting the business.
“Almost as soon as we penned that deal it was like the clouds parted and beams of sunshine came through,” Pinkerton said. “It was like our customers and employees knew everything was going to be fine. From that point on it’s been spectacular things. And just in the past year we’ve finally kind of leveled off.”
Since that time, Pinkerton has been deeply involved with improving the beer community and knowledge on a local and national level. He is currently the president of the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild, and is on the board of directors for the Brewer’s Association where he is part of a committee focused on connecting with the many brewpub owners in the BA.
“We want to connect better with the owners,” he said. “The actual direct members of brew pubs and to identify ways to serve them better. That’s been a process that’s coming along. We have monthly meetings and dialogues online.”
The ghosts may bring in the tourists, and Pinkerton’s connections might gain him clout amongst the brewing community, but none of them would matter much if the locals didn’t drink the beer. To keep things interesting, Pinkerton has avoided falling into the trap of producing predictable brewpub ales that fit nicely into a handful of categories.
“What I rally like to do is make sure I’m covering a wide breadth of variety and each beer is distinctive. I always find it sad when you go into a brew pub and there are six to eight beers that all taste like lighter or darker versions of each other,” he said. “Sometimes that’s hard because you’re dealing with the same yeast strain or some corporate overlay… I want to make sure there’s enough contrast in the lineup.”
Part of that contrast comes from the fact that Pinkerton is not shy about keeping strains of yeast on hand at all times, but part of it comes from an approach to creating beer that he calls “Pinkerton Style.”
“Any style of beer I make is John Pinkerton Style,” he said. “I do, on occasion, make beers to style because I want it to be traditional and meet expectations of a traditional style… but by and large it just drives me insane to listen to the banter about whether something is to style and everybody’s opinions on it. I usually start with the caveat that this is a Pinkerton Style beer and you can judge it on its own. Don’t box me in.”
Beers like Swamp Fox IPA, a West-Coast IPA that is a favorite amongst the regulars, are a mainstay on tap, as is the sweet and roasty Captains Porter that has essentially remained the same since Pinkerton created the recipe during the pub’s early years. Then there are cult hits like the Rosemary IPA, which is in regular rotation at the brewery and claimed gold in the Herb Spice/Chocolate Beer category at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.
Whether they are to style or not, the regulars come back every week to have a toast and a couple pints of Pinkerton’s beers. Some of the regulars have simply been coming much, much longer than the others.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer and is currently writing his first book for St. Martin’s Press