Moon River at 20

Savannah’s first brewpub marks two decades of beer, fellowship, and community building

SAVANNAH mainstay Moon River celebrates twenty years on April 10.

Since 1999, John Pinkerton and Gene Beeco have been brewing some of Savannah’s favorite beers and serving great food in their brewpub.

Reaching twenty years as a brewery is not only a big accomplishment for Beeco and Pinkerton. It’s a particular badge of honor among the recent swath of breweries popping up in our community and around the country.

Moon River has been doing it almost as long as its youngest customers have been alive.

The anniversary celebration—to the exact day of Moon River’s opening—features $2 beer from 4-7 p.m., a tapping of a cask of the Little Chocolate Donuts porter, live music by City Hotel, and, of course, birthday cake.

click to enlarge Moon River at 20
Owners Gene Beeco and John Pinkerton back in the early days.

We caught up with Pinkerton last week.

What has it been like to take Moon River from its early days to what it is now?

It’s one of those things that when you’ve been around for 20 years, you’ve seen the city go through a lot of changes. We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve played politics on the state level, on the national level.

How so?

A while back, I was elected by the members of the Brewers Association to be on the board of directors for the national trade organization. I served on one of the seats that represents brewpubs around the country. I was particularly proud to represent the Southeast, because there hadn’t been any board members from the Southeast at that point.

And so I’m sitting on this board with the owners of Sierra Nevada and Jim Cook from Sam Adams and the guy who runs Harpoon, all these big dogs and here’s little old me. I was actually able to have a voice in shaping some of the policy that we developed over those years.

I served two three-year terms. That was an amazing sort of chapter in Moon River’s history, and I was fortunate enough to have a business partner that was amenable to me traveling all the time and basically serving the greater brewing community in the United States as opposed to just Moon River.

click to enlarge Moon River at 20
Back in the day.

Coinciding with that, I basically got the band back together, so to speak, and herded the cats of Georgia and got the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild off the ground. I was the founding chairman of that organization, and that involved me basically driving back and forth to Atlanta a million times. I was able to help get Georgia on the map, beer-wise, and begin some of the legislative efforts that have come to pass now that have allowed Georgia breweries to really proliferate.

My last act as chairman on that board was to hire the executive director, Nancy Palmer, who I might add was the first woman to win the F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award at the Brewers’ Association Conference last year. That’s an extremely proud moment for Georgia and for me. I give her all the credit, but it’s one of those things where you’re like, “Alright, we have arrived.”

Did you think that Savannah would be a lucrative market for beer, or were you just stepping in blind?

I moved here in ’99 to start Moon River. [Gene and I] had been down here a number of times to check it out. I think we were going to move here no matter what. We just felt strongly that we wanted to be in this city. It was just that attractive to us.

I had the good fortune to have a mutual friend [with Gene.] The guy that introduced me to my business partner had tried to start something, and he had too many other interests for the Department of Revenue in Georgia.

At the time, they were very conservative and they said, “You can’t be a brewpub in Georgia because you have these conflicts of interest.” At that time, he was the guy that owned the Wynkoop [Brewing] in Denver, Colorado.

A couple years after we got Moon River started, it turns out that this gentleman was elected to be the mayor of Denver, which we thought was hilarious because he’s just a wacky brewer dude, one of us. A number of years after that, he was elected to be the governor, and he’s still the governor of Colorado.

John Hickenlooper is the guy that introduced Gene and I. If things had worked out a little differently, if Georgia’s laws had been more lenient back then, I wouldn’t be here and Hickenlooper would.

And now he’s running for President.

Obviously, I think that’s just awesome [laughs].

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Moon River has always been family-friendly.

What's changed in the beer world since Moon River started?

Savannah has changed a lot. When we first got here, it was not a beer scene. Beer across the nation has changed so much.

When I started professionally brewing in 1994, the biggest deal was ESBs, extra special bitter, English styles. A lot more brewpubs around the country were really hardcore English in terms of décor and beer styles and that stuff.

Fruit beers were kind of a thing, but this is pre-sour beer, pre-putting oatmeal cookies and Cheetos and whatnot into beer [laughs]. It’s pretty popular with the kids these days, not to sound like too much of a fuddy duddy.

We’ve had to retool on the beer front numerous times. When we first opened up, we didn’t even have an IPA on the menu. They’ve become the thing.

You can hardly find a classic style English ale, and I’m not necessarily an English guy, but for a while we had endeavored very carefully and long and hard to recreate this English-style pale ale.

And we just finally realized, “Nobody gives a shit about English pale ales anymore. Why are we working so hard at this?”

How much pressure do you feel to keep up?

The trick nowadays is there’s a new thing opening up every other week. On one front, you have to pay attention and make sure you’re not becoming old and stodgy. On the other side of it, if you’ve got a good thing going on...

This is the kind of thing Gene and I talk about all the time. I might want to do a million different cool ideas, but what we’ve got has been working for us, and you almost don’t want to screw that up.

But on the other hand, we’re different than the average restaurants. We’ve got the brewery in there. So as other breweries have opened up in town, we’ve had to be aware that we’re all sort of competing for that bandwidth.

Breweries can do things we can’t really do very well, because they don’t necessarily have restaurants, even though they legally can. Other restaurants don’t feel like they’re competing with [breweries], when in fact, they kind of are. That’s a whole other discussion. We’re all competing for the tiny slice of this giant pie.

Honestly, I talk to more restaurant people these days than I do brewers, because we’re all wringing our hands about what is going to happen with Savannah. The tourism market has waxed and waned here and there.

The city has made changes that really influenced the local draw downtown. A lot of our locals don’t come downtown anymore, and again, that’s a whole other conversation entirely.

Speaking of downtown, how did you get into the location?

The Oglethorpe Brewing Company had opened up before us in this space. We were just picking up the pieces. They had gone out of business, and Gene and I had visited the Oglethorpe Brewing Company just to see, “Okay, what are these guys doing? Are they doing this right? What are they doing wrong?” Reconnaissance, basically.

We were looking for a location and looked at a bunch of different spots and we were having a tough time. I guess right after the Oglethorpe closed, our former not-so-silent silent partner said, “Hey, these guys closed. I’ll bankroll this thing. Let’s come in and pick up the pieces from the Oglethorpe.” That’s kind of how we got started here at 21 W. Bay St.

And obviously, the big thing is that your building is haunted.

I’m the resident skeptic. I’m the one they generally don’t show on the TV shows because if you hear a noise, I can probably explain it, but that’s not good TV. The problem is I’m a terrible liar. I shrug my shoulders and say, “Look, it’s the living ones I’m afraid of, not the ghosts.”

I’ve literally had to fire people because they were too freaked out to go to parts of the building that we store stuff in. Like, “I need you to go get the box of trash bags downstairs,” and they’re like, “I’m not going downstairs.”

Well, if I can’t pay you to do that, then I’ll have to pay somebody else to do that.

click to enlarge Moon River at 20
Brewers John Pinkerton, Justin Carapella and Mike Livings.

Tell me about the team you have right now.

To be honest, I don’t even put on the boots anymore. I act in a support role and do a lot of project work and fixing things. I’ve got Justin Carapella leading the show in the brewhouse—he’s amazing. His sort of first lieutenant is Mike Livings, former Navy, a hard-working dude and just full of love for craft beer and making cool stuff. We’ve got some good things on the horizon.


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