The Mystery of the 79,000-Bottle SweetWater Beer Heist

sweetwater stolen beer
Atlanta Police helped SweetWater recover some of its stolen beer. Courtesy SweetWater Brewing

Late Monday night, maybe even early Tuesday morning, two loaded freight trailers disappeared from the SweetWater Brewing parking lot in Atlanta, Georgia. Though the trailers and some beer were recovered within hours, the brewery and police are baffled at why anyone would steal so much beer.

Aboard the two trucks, 3,300 cases of beer slipped away Monday night without raising an alarm. But thankfully, the trailers were equipped with GPS trackers. “Once we figured out that the trailers were stolen, we were able to track them down relatively fast,” Tucker Berta Sarkisian, the head of communications at SweetWater Brewing, says. “It probably only took us an hour to locate them.”

One was parked at a warehouse on Camp Creek Parkway just south of Atlanta. The other was wedged into the property of a private home on Southwoods Parkway in a nearby area. But both trailers were empty, and the search for all 79,000 bottles of beer was still on. “We can’t speculate,” Berta Sarkisian says of why someone would steal 7,400 gallons of beer, “but maybe someone is just trying to throw one hell of a party.”

Aside from drinking it yourself, there isn't much thieves can do with stolen beer. Yes, there are plenty of Smoky and the Bandit jokes to be poked at, but it's illegal to buy or sell the pilfered SweetWater cases and off-loading it is a difficult task to begin with. Under law, no retailer can accept or purchase beer from anyone who is not a licensed SweetWater distributor. With SweetWater’s ales, the local business network is old and familiar. Berta Sarkisian says that distributors and retailers are well known and connected to one another. No retailer would fall for a fresh face telling them that they were a new distributor if SweetWater hadn’t warned them themselves. “A beer black market would be really hard to pull off,” Berta Sarkisian says. 

Other beer cons in the past have largely failed. In April, a Nebraska woman stole a beer truck from a Kwik Shop only to crash into a fence on University of Nebraska’s campus before being taken into custody. A Chicago man was sentenced to three years in prison after stealing more than 1,800 cases of Miller beer in January. And Moosehead Brewing in Canada was the victim of one of the previously largest beer lifts. In 2004, a truck transporting 50,400 cans of Moosehead Lager destined for Mexico disappeared. Authorities were able to track down the truck, but only recovered a fraction of the beer (despite Spanish labels), which was strewn across New Brunswick — from a marijuana farm to back roads.

But sometimes, the robbers get away with it, or at least get away. A big-rig containing 39,000 cans of Miller High Life was stolen from a truck driver in Texas, only to be recovered by detectives in Miami — with the booze and rig in near-perfect condition. The thieves, or joyriders, were never found.

Authorities and SweetWater are hopeful that this heist will end with the beer bandits in handcuffs, thanks to a few errors and some bad luck. All of the stolen beer was on its way to be repacked as variety cases. That means that the trailers were full of cases with a single beer in each box, instead of a mix of the 420 Extra Pale Ale, IPA, Take Two Pils German pilsner, and the seasonal debut: Goin’ Coastal, an IPA infused with pineapple. Any retailer or customer getting a variety pack containing a single style would have something to say about it.

Additionally, all of the heisted beer had an expiration date of September 20 or 21. Between the mislabeled boxing and the expiration stamp, the SweetWater team has enough recon to find any stolen beer that might leak back into broad daylight. “Obviously someone put some thought into this, but I don’t think it was very well thought out,” Sarkisian says.

After recruiting Atlanta police, SweetWater didn’t have to look very far to find a trail of bottles leading them to a portion of the stolen goods. About 20,000 beers were found in a parking lot. Soon after, 20,000 more bottles were found in a warehouse near the private home where the second trailer was located. Half of the stolen ale was recovered, but it can’t be sold because SweetWater can't ensure it's unmolested. “We have to recycle all of that beer and throw it out,” Sarkisian says. “It’s pretty sad because that was almost our whole inventory of our seasonal brews.”

Goin’ Coastal was SweetWater’s current bestseller, and only five to seven days worth of backstock was kept at the brewery. Now, the brew team has to start from scratch — but it’s nothing the craft brewers aren’t used to. “In true SweetWater fashion, we quickly turned the talk to, ‘Okay, this happened, but what do we do to get these beers back on the shelf fast?’ ”