Former pastor, Spencer Nix, now leads Reformation Brewery in Woodstock, Georgia. (Image courtesy Reformation Brewery)
On December 18, 2016, Pastor Spencer Nix gave his final sermon. The evangelical preacher took to the pulpit at Isaac’s Keep, the nondenominational church he founded roughly seven years ago, to say farewell to his congregation — and give them one last lesson.
The next day, it was back to making beer.
While beer and an evangelical faith don’t necessarily go hand in hand, Nix has been balancing the two professionally for more than three years. And as Reformation Brewing (the Woodstock, Georgia, brewery he co-founded and where he currently serves as CEO) has grown at a staggering rate, he’s found his calling has taken an unusual turn.
“I’ve always had a passion for connecting with people outside of the church,” he says.
“A lot of the fulfillment I was getting through the ministry, I get through Reformation, as well. … I’ve gotten pushback [from some members of his faith], but you’d be surprised at how little I’ve gotten. Mostly the feedback has come from people who said, ‘I had a father who was an alcoholic, and to see your approach has freed me from viewing everyone who partakes in alcohol as being of the devil.'”
Last year some 25,000 people came through the doors of Reformation’s Keeping Room, the public area of the brewery that offers tours and tastings. And after opening as the state’s smallest brewery three years ago, Reformation produced approximately 5,000 barrels in 2016 (more than 157,000 gallons).
For Nix, the journey to where he is today started 20 years ago on his friend’s front porch.
Nick Downs, a pilot for Delta at the time (and later, the other co-founder of Reformation), would bring full-flavored European-style beers back from his overseas journeys, and the two found themselves exposed to a style unlike anything available to them at the time.
After a promotion, Downs’ routes changed. With no access to those beers, he and Nix began brewing the beers in Downs’ garage and then enjoying them, as they always had, on that front porch.
There’s a difference between buying a few bottles and homebrewing batches of 5 to 10 gallons, though. To help them finish the beers, the pair decided to invite over a few friends.
“We had both been to Southern Baptist seminary, so we didn’t really know if we had any friends who would come out of the closet and drink with us, but it turns out we did,” Nix says with a chuckle.
Those friends began inviting others, and before long, up to 125 people would show up for the monthly gatherings. And those get-togethers began to form a community.
“We started to develop a pretty cool culture around making the beer,” says Nix. “We’d have artists come up, and they’d play music. Some people would bring potluck dinners. … People would hear about it and come camp out in Nick’s front yard. We’d have folks from Florida or Alabama come up. That’s when we realized there’s more to this than the beer we’re making.”
Some of those people had money to invest and encouraged Nix and Downs to turn their hobby into a business. Planning for Reformation was soon underway.
One of the first decisions Nix and Downs made was to keep the brewery close to where it all got started. Reformation is located in a suburb about an hour north of downtown Atlanta — and far removed from the metro area’s other breweries.
But the top priority, says Nix, was maintaining that sense of community that came during the monthly get-togethers. And a key component of that was welcoming families, not just Millennials or beer geeks.
“It’s what differentiates us from breweries that are more centrally located to Atlanta,” he says. “This is a place a family can come. We want to embrace the place we’re located in. We’re in the ‘burbs. This is where people are starting their families. We don’t want to alienate those people. … The beer is just a tool to connect people to each other.”
It’s a pretty effective tool. Early in 2016, Reformation began packaging its beer and expanding its territory. It expects to be sold statewide in the very near future. And further expansion to areas like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina, are being considered now.
Despite the limited footprint — and the fact that Reformation hasn’t attended any major national beer gatherings like the Great American Beer Festival — the brewery has established quite the reputation. Last year, among other things, it was named to Yahoo’s list of 50 Best Breweries Worth Traveling For.
Reformation’s most popular beer is Cadence, a well-balanced, smooth-drinking Belgian ale with strong fruit and caramel influence. That’s closely followed by Atlas, an IPA with strong citrus notes and a mild bitterness. And the just released Jude, a Belgian tripel with a zesty citrus finish, is quickly gaining steam, as well.
All of the brewery’s offerings, though, are highly ranked on both Untappd and Beer Advocate, two crowd-sourced beer-ranking sites popular in the craft beer world.
Nix says that while the purposes of the two businesses are significantly different, there are a lot of skills he learned when starting (or, as he calls it, “planting”) Isaac’s Keep that proved useful when starting a brewery.
“If you had planted a church in the last 20 years, you have every gift and everything you need to start up a brewery,” he says. “I credit a lot of our success to being agile. I didn’t know a lot about this industry, but I didn’t know about running a church, either. The willingness to learn and adapt fast all translates well to a start-up.”
But the ministry can be a hard thing to walk away from. Does he see himself ever standing behind a pulpit again? Nix says he never likes to say never, but for now, he’s content.
“The brand is resonating with people,” he says. “It’s freeing a lot of our customers to approach beer from a different perspective, [one] from which perhaps they’ve never approached it before. That connects me to the moment I’m in. … I find a lot of value in what I do as CEO of Reformation Brewery. A lot of the things I got out the ministry, I get out of this place.”