Crafting a Passion: From Research Engineer to Brewer and Entrepreneur
The sun is blaring on Georgia Avenue, though it is not even noon. In the shadow of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Centennial Olympic Stadium, and Turner Field, in a long-neglected slice of the city, the noisy bustle of construction is everywhere.
Among the buildings now being renovated or newly constructed in the Summerhill neighborhood is the site of what may well become the first new business to open here in years — Halfway Crooks Beer. Inside this particular midcentury brick building, the gravel crunches beneath our feet as Shawn Bainbridge, one of the brewery’s co-founders, shows us around. It is humid and stuffy inside. There are mosquitos. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He is focused on what this space will look like in a matter of months.
It might seem an unlikely path for the young man from Warner Robins, Georgia, who graduated as a Georgia Tech Promise scholar with a degree in electrical engineering. Bainbridge would disagree.
He started homebrewing as a hobby when he was an undergraduate, with a friend who now works at Creature Comforts Brewing in Athens. He saw it as an outlet for his creativity and a way to blow off steam at what he calls “a tough school.” But Bainbridge also credits Tech for giving him “a strong foundation for solving engineering problems. And beer is an engineering problem — one that’s fun to solve. My Tech background is part of what made me gravitate to it in the first place.”
After graduating in 2011, Bainbridge became a hardware electrical design engineer for a technology services company in Alpharetta. Since 2014, he has worked as a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), where he specializes in the design and analysis of FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Array) — devices that allow people to create and configure digital circuits for a wide range of applications.
Through it all, his passion for beer stayed with him. Bainbridge and a friend and former roommate, Joran Van Ginderachter, who had professional brewing experience in his native Belgium and in Decatur, regularly kicked around the idea of starting their own brewery.
But it wasn’t until last year, when Georgia’s brewery laws changed, that they got serious. Signed into law in March and taking effect Sept. 1, 2017, the Beer Jobs Bill allows breweries to sell 3,000 barrels of beer per year to visiting consumers, who can buy beer by the glass onsite and purchase up to 288 ounces (or one case) of beer to go.
Previously, breweries and distilleries were required to distribute their products through wholesalers and were prohibited from direct sales.
“At that point, it became real for us,” recalls Bainbridge. “We knew we could create a viable business model to do what we want to do: an on-premise location where we can control the product all the way to the consumer and tell the story of our beer the way we want it to be told.”
That story, at its heart, is one of community. Inspired by the Belgian bars of Van Ginderachter’s home country, they want to create “an old-world, warm, cozy feeling, where you really want to stay here and drink beer. We want this to be a community-centered space.”
Bainbridge says they were very intentional about the location. “Summerhill used to be a great neighborhood, before the interstate came through. Coming to Braves games when Turner Field was here, this area was just a sea of parking lots with very little economic development. There have been a lot of empty promises to develop this area.” They hope to be a part of breaking that cycle.
And they are pleased with the redevelopment plan that honors the neighborhood’s past by not razing buildings. “We are happy that this renovation incorporates the history of the area and preserves it. We love this space.” They plan to keep most of the original architectural features of the building, including chimneys, interior columns, plaster, and bricks.
Others will be joining Halfway Crooks this year as the Georgia Avenue corridor takes shape. Little Tart Bakeshop will be located next door. Across the street and down a couple of buildings, Atlanta restaurateur Todd Ginsberg will open Wood’s Chapel BBQ. Georgia State University has plans to build student housing nearby. They are the first steps in the redevelopment of an area that has been passed by for decades.
As the brewery renovations continue, Bainbridge anticipates a late fall opening. “Everyone will be welcome here,” he says.
Above all, he looks forward to being able to do what he loves while also serving others — in this case, a tasty pilsner or two.