Copper Thieves Hit Red Brick Brewing, Put Beer in Jeopardy

Written by Christopher Seward for ajc.com/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Red Brick Brewing Co. staffers arrived at work Friday in northwest Atlanta to find a refrigeration unit used to keep its specialty beer tanks cooled had malfunctioned.

On closer inspection, the staff at the brewery at 2323 Defoor Hills Road realized an electrical box that powers the $100,000 “chiller” had been stripped of its copper wiring.

Red Brick, formerly Atlanta Brewing Co., is the latest target of metro Atlanta thieves who risk electrocution to steal copper wiring and tubing from utility poles and air condition units at vacant homes and schools, churches, shopping centers and businesses.Each theft can cost a property owner thousands of dollars of damage for a few hundred dollars’ worth of scrap metal.

“We’ve been running around here like chickens with our heads cut off,” Red Brick Brewing President Bob Budd said Friday in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a theft problem in 17 years. It’s really kind of a shock.”

Budd said the damage couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Two months ago, the company launched a brand new craft beer called Hop Atlanta, which Budd said was being brewed at full capacity. Wednesday and Thursday, Red Brick began brewing its 17th Anniversary Ale, a specialty beer that won the company a world championship in 2008.

The chiller helps keep some of Red Brick’s 11 fermenters cooled – six 3,000-gallon tanks and five 1,500-gallon tanks, Budd said. The larger tanks have specialty beers with a retail value of up to $80,000, while other tanks can have $20,000 to $40,000 worth of beer.

“If, unfortunately, we can’t get it [chiller] up on line soon, it’s going to damage some of the gears in the fermenters, which is our biggest concern,” Budd said. Without the chiller, fermentation can increase the temperature inside the tanks, ruining the beer.

The thieves did $3,000 to $4,000 in damage to the electrical system for perhaps 40 pounds of copper worth $200, Budd estimated. Luckily, a more expensive chiller appeared to have escaped damage, he said.

Carrier Heating and Air Conditioning technicians spent Friday trying to pull together electrical parts from suppliers around the city to jury-rig a system to get the chiller on line.

With the rising price of certain metals, copper thieves have kept metro Atlanta authorities busy.

The Atlanta Police Department, which is investigating the theft at Red Brick, responded to 150 incidents involving copper thefts just in the month of June, according to crime statistics obtained by the AJC.

The crimes, however, have not been limited to Fulton County. Similar crimes have been reported in Cobb, Paulding, DeKalb, Hall and other counties.

Budd, who declined to provide annual sales figures because Red Brick is privately held, said his company produces about 10,000 barrels of beer annually. By comparison, in a year’s time Red Brick rival Terrapin in Athens produces about 18,000 barrels, and Atlanta’s Sweetwater, about 100,000 barrels, Budd said.

“Right now, the craft beer industry in the Southeast is on just on fire,” Budd said. “The market is growing 27 percent here in the Southeast. We are all raising money and buying equipment and expanding our systems,” he said.

“It’s a good time to be a brewery,” Budd said, “if you don’t have a breakdown.”