By Chris Chamberlain
Lilburn, GA, is a sleepy suburb outside of Atlanta. Take a right turn at the quaint little park in the town square, and you’ll enter an industrial park filled with millwork shops. Keep going, and you’ll pass an odd sheet metal building advertising “ghillie suits,” the disguises that Army snipers and serious hunters use to make themselves look like bushes to trick their prey into a false sense of comfort. You’re almost there.
Round the next corner, and you’ll see a small sign for Hope Springs Distillery, the late-in-life’s work of married couple Paul Allen and Betsey Dahlberg. During the recession of the late 2000’s, both found themselves suddenly laid off from their jobs—he as an engineer, she as an attorney. Dahlberg recalls, “We entered our 60’s, and our employment had ended. All of the sudden, we didn’t have any income, and nobody was going to give us jobs. So we decided we had to have our own business because we were the only people who would hire us!”
Allen and Dahlberg had experience making beer, wine, and mead at home, but they didn’t want to open a brewery since there were already so many of those in the area. “We saw craft distilling taking off, and we figured we could do that,” explains Dahlberg. And so they set about planning to open the first legal distillery in Gwinnett County since the beginning of Prohibition. Dahlberg was surprised by what was involved in getting started: “We’ve had product on the market for two years, but it took us three years to get there. Distilling is the sort of business where you spend all your money before you get started.”
Fortunately, the couple’s individual skillsets complemented each other. “Betsey was an attorney, so she keeps me on the straight and narrow with the Feds,” jokes Allen. He had the engineering background, which was fortunate, since they were planning to design a custom hybrid still that would allow them to make all sorts of products.
Dahlberg remembers, “When we got the still set up, it didn’t work properly. They sent a tech out here six times, and we did a lot of test runs before we got our first product.” Allen adds, “I remember taking rides in my car with all my clothes soaked in pure grain alcohol and just praying that I didn’t get pulled over and that no one would light a match near me. But now there’s not much that can go wrong with the still that we can’t deal with.”
The system they settled on is pretty impressive for a small distillery. Based off of a 300-gallon pot still, they distill their mash using a copper four-plate whiskey still and a split vodka column with two towers of eight plates apiece. They had to split the column because of the lower ceiling height of their facility, but they came up with a rather ingenious system to use an industrial pneumatic pump to stabilize the pressures between the two columns. They also installed a gin basket in the system, but they don’t currently use it to create their delicious Garner Creek American Dry Gin, prefering instead to macerate the botanicals in the first step of distillation and then leave the botanicals in the spirit while it undergoes a final distillation run, similar to dry-hopping a beer.
Another innovation is the fact that they don’t actually mill their grain before adding it to the wash. Allen explains, “We figured our neighbors were too close for us to have a noisy hammermill running!” So they actually use 50-lb. bags of hard winter wheat flour with enzymes added to power the fermentation process. “I’m convinced God meant for neutral grain spirits to be made from flour, and when we first tried it, the skies opened up and the angels sang,” explains Allen, adding jokingly, “plus I really like the cost of it!”
In fact, there’s a lot of joking going on at Hope Springs. The nametag hanging over Allen’s computer in the couple’s cramped 8’ x 10’ foot office reads, “Chief Flunky,” and they have added punny name labels to many of the pieces of equipment in their operation. The mash tun is named “Monster;” their small four-head bottle filling station is, of course, “Phil;” and their main fermentation tank is labeled “Tanky McTankface.” Spend any time in the cozy tasting room that is open on Friday and Saturday afternoons, and you’re sure to be regaled with the couple’s humorous stories.
But they are quite serious about their spirits. Their flagship product is Top Hat Vodka, an 80-proof spirit that is distilled through all 16 plates before passing through a novel coconut charcoal filtration system. It’s not easy making vodka from flour, as the fine meal doesn’t like to mix with water during the mashing-in process. Hope Springs solved that issue with more of their bootstrap ingenuity, fashioning a venturi system from hardware store parts that allows them to introduce an entire bag of flour into the still in less than a minute. The result is an extremely smooth vodka with a hint of wheat sweetness that they can position at a price that competes with the big boys in the vodka business at around $20/bottle.
Their second major product is Dahlberg’s pet project, Garner Creek. As an American dry gin, some consumers would expect the required juniper character to be somewhat muted, but Dahlberg decided on a juniper level of 57%. “I happen to like the flavor of juniper,” she explains. “I went through 16 recipes before I said ‘Eureka, I have found it!’ I like floral gins, too, so we’re heavy on the lavender.” While her exact recipe is proprietary, she reveals that the main botanicals in addition to juniper and lavender are coriander, cardamom, orris root, angelica, orange, and lemon.
This fantastic gin has been a big hit for Hope Springs. Allen shares, “We get people in the tasting room all the time that say they just don’t like gin, but three out of four of them leave saying that they really love this one!” Their third product is a collaboration with Atlanta mixologist-turned-distiller Jaz Jarzewiak, a young man with a dream who came to them wanting to create a unique spirit for the area. His Jetty Absinthe is the first version of the ancient product made in the Atlanta area, and it has definitely been a labor of love. Like Dahlberg with her gin, Jarzewiak experimented with dozens of iterations before settling on his final recipe for the pale green spirit.
Once only an exotic import from Europe, absinthe has had a resurgence among American distillers who use the traditional trio of flavorants of anise, wormwood, and fennel to create a bold spirit with licorice notes. Jarzewiak sought to add more herbaceous and savory characteristics with the addition of black pepper and thyme, and local bartenders have picked up the product as an important ingredient in creative cocktails. It’s also ideal as part of the traditional absinthe ritual of dripping water through a slotted spoon with a sugar cube in it to create a lovely cloudy “louche” in a snifter of absinthe.
Dahlberg serves as the main sales force for Hope Springs products, riding along with distributor reps once a week to visit customers and potential outlets. “We want to position ourselves as being local. We’ll put our products up against others, and you’ll find we’re better and less expensive,” she promises boldly. “We figure we’ve got ten to 15 years in this business, so we have no interest in becoming some enormous producer. We just want to be every place in Gwinnett County that sells alcohol, and then maybe we’ll head north from there.” That sounds like plenty of reason to visit Hope Springs in Lillburn and their tasting room so you can experience their personable warmth and excellent spirits.
Hope Springs Distillery
4839 Railroad Avenue Suites D & E
Lilburn, GA 30047