Story by Bob Townsend
Sitting at a table in an Atlanta restaurant having a drink with Eric Johnson, I can’t help but wonder if anybody around us could guess his profession — or more to the point, any one of them.
Currently, the brewmaster and co-founder of Wild Heaven Beer in Avondale Estates, Georgia, Johnson is a musician, horticulturist, host of the PBS show “Garden Smart,” and the former owner of Trappeze Pub in Athens, Georgia.
Among other things, he was a butcher for many years, working his way through college at the University of Georgia, where he earned a horticulture degree with an emphasis in genetics and plant propagation. During that time, he started brewing, played guitar and pedal steel in a slew of bands, and recorded a string of albums.
“I think my love of gardening, food, music, and all of that came from growing up dirt poor,” Johnson says, then smiles as if he’s about to deliver the punchline. “It was of necessity. My dad is a minister, and I’m one of five kids, so we never had any money. We never had a TV. Almost all of the food we ate, we grew in this one-acre vegetable garden. We also had an orchard and some chickens, and my mom had three giant freezers.
“My brother hated the garden, but I loved it. It was one of few opportunities I had to spend real time with my dad. That’s where my love of gardening came from. After that, I took a job as a commercial butcher, so late high school through college, I worked in a small processing plant in Athens. And I played a lot all through college. As a pedal steel player, I probably played with 20 different bands.”
After college, Johnson went to work for a Georgia horticulture company, where his primary job was learning how to clone oak trees. “I was one of the first people on any commercial scale to figure out how to clone oak trees,” he says matter of factly. “I worked on over 200 different selections, 60 or 70 of which were patented and are now on the market.”
Then Johnson became Head of Horticulture for Park Seed and Wayside Gardens in South Carolina. He also signed on as the host of “Garden Smart,” a gig that’s lasted for 17 seasons and counting. Those two jobs took him around the world, but he kept Athens as a base, and his homebrew rig was always at the ready.
“I started homebrewing as a freshman in college. As you can imagine, there would have been no homebrewing in my home growing up,” Johnson says. “For me, brewing has always been this beautiful collaboration between the culinary and the scientific. With my love of food, and plants, and ingredients, and also science, brewing was a great fit. But I don’t think I had any aspirations of becoming a commercial brewer.
“When I opened Trappeze Pub in 2007, that was just as a hobby. That’s when I was traveling all over the world, acquiring plants for the Park Seed and Wayside Gardens catalogs. Spending weeks and weeks in Europe, where you can go to these beautiful pubs in Holland, Belgium, Germany and France, I decided I wanted to bring that back to Athens.”
As it turned out, Trappeze evolved into much more than a hobby. In fact, it became so successful that Johnson quit his job with Park and Wayside, and gleefully took on the role of full-time publican, even opening a second Athens bar, Highwire Lounge.
But ever curious and adventurous, he soon took on another role, too, when he and an old friend, Nick Purdy, launched a plan for starting a beer company they would call Wild Heaven, after the R.E.M song, “Near Wild Heaven.”
At first, Johnson mostly acted as a consultant, designing and testing recipes for Wild Heaven beers. But as Purdy had those beers brewed and packaged under contract, and they started selling around the Atlanta market, it became apparent that Johnson had a choice to make.
“In Georgia, you can only hold one license, so I could either be a publican with Trappeze and Highwire, or I could hold a production brewing license,” Johnson says. “The Department of Revenue does not allow any overlap, so through all the years of planning, and then briefly contract brewing Wild Heaven, I could not have any implied affiliation, at all.
“There were some dicey moments with the Department of Revenue. They were interviewing my employees at Trappeze to discover the nature of my affiliation with Wild Heaven. Finally, I had like 60 days to clean it up, and I sold all of it. But I’m glad that’s what happened because brewing was the culmination of everything I wanted to do.”
In May, Wild Heaven celebrated its eighth anniversary. Asked to reflect on that time, Johnson is characteristically candid and upbeat.
“We started out doing only high gravity beers. The first three we made, Ode to Mercy, Invocation, and Eschaton, were all above 8 percent,” he says. “But now I’ve actually put a lot more energy into low gravity, mixed fermentation and, barrel-aged beers. And I have the luxury of sitting on those because Emergency Drinking Beer and few other beers pay all the bills.”
Of course, Emergency Drinking Beer must be reckoned with, because it is a brilliantly packaged oddball light beer, improbably flavored with citrus zest, Portuguese sea salt, and lemongrass.
“If you’d told me seven years ago that our number one selling beer was going to be a faux pilsner with that flavor profile, I would have said, there’s no way,” Johnson admits. “But that beer is what it is. It’s the most boring thing we make, but when you look at it from a business standpoint, it works.
“Any brand that doesn’t have a strong flagship beer that’s driving the engine like that doesn’t necessarily have the flexibility to do all the weird stuff that’s expensive. I was shocked at the trajectory of that beer. But then you realize that most people in Georgia wouldn’t drink the rest of the Wild Heaven portfolio, so that’s another lesson I learned.”