Craft beer isn’t just fun to drink, but also a billion-dollar industry with “untapped” potential to spark economic booms in local cities, according to experts at an annual north Fulton development conference.

Indeed, “Untapped” was the official theme of this year’s “North Fulton Opportunity Outlook” event, held Sept. 15 at Sandy Springs’ Wyndham Atlanta Galleria hotel. Presented by the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and the Council for Quality Growth, the conference brings city officials and developers together to network on trends and redevelopment sites.

Pontoon Brewing CEO Sean O’Keefe, far left, speaks during the Sept. 15 “Untapped” event. Joining him on the panel are, from left, Michael Sard, an attorney specializing in alcohol licensing; Matt Curling, owner of Roswell’s Variant Brewing; and Michael Lundmark, CEO of Alpharetta’s Jekyll Brewing. (John Ruch)

“There’s a lot more breweries coming,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Denver-based craft brewing trade group.

One of them in Pontoon Brewing, set to open next month in northern Sandy Springs. Its CEO, Sean O’Keefe, was among the “Untapped” panelists. Pontoon will be Sandy Springs’ first brewery – as opposed to a brewpub that also serves food – and city leaders see it as potentially sparking their longtime urban planning goal: redevelopment of northern Roswell Road’s older shopping centers and apartment complexes.

And that’s not the only craft brewing business headed to one of Sandy Springs’ redevelopment wish-list areas. Another is Porter Pizza Brewery, slated to open this winter at Powers Ferry Road and Northside Drive, just across the street from the Wyndham. Owner Allen Porter says he hopes to create a brewpub chain that can open a Dunwoody location as well.

At the conference, economic development officials from other north Fulton cities said they have their eyes on the craft business. A Roswell representative said that city aims to have breweries operating within its borders by year’s end. In Milton, an official explained, the city offers a new “limited tap” license that allows up to four beer taps at a business that does not regularly serve food. One of the first to take advantage: a company that wants to stage bicycle rides that end with a drink.

Gatza put some numbers on the craft — meaning made locally by small businesses — beer business’s exploding market share. In 1980, he said, there were 89 breweries in the U.S. owned by 42 companies, of which five were craft. Today, there are more than 5,600 breweries, and craft has grown to 13 percent of the market share. Each year, about 900 craft breweries open and about 100 close, he said.

The emergence of craft beers in the late 1980s helped to revitalize his hometown of Denver, Gatza said. The opening of Wynkoop Brewery was “the ignition point for the whole downtown area to emerge,” he said. He added that today, downtown Denver’s real estate is so expensive that some of the breweries that made it successful, such as River North Brewery, have been priced out of their own neighborhoods.

Georgia is benefiting from the craft beer trend as well, Gazta said. The state had 53 breweries in 2014; today, it has 65, of which 38 are craft breweries. Another 85 are in the planning stages, a number that Gatza said could triple in next five years.

He praised the so-called “Beer Jobs Bill” — the last legislative session’s Senate Bill 85 — which allowed breweries and distilleries to sell a certain amount of alcoholic drinks directly to consumers rather than through a distributor. The Brewers Association is pushing for a higher cap on the amount of alcohol sold, among other legislative changes. The bill was shepherded through the legislature by former state Sen. Hunter Hill of District 6, which includes parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs.

Pontoon is among the breweries that opened or changed their business model in response to the Beer Jobs Bill.

“The word ‘red tape’ is thrown out a lot,” said O’Keefe, describing the complexities of licensing and permitting for an alcohol-producing business. But, he added, reaching out early to the city of Sandy Springs for advice was key, and legislation like the Beer Jobs Bill helps the industry.

One of those city officials is among those looking to benefit from the craft beer trend. Gabriel Sterling, a Sandy Springs city councilmember and candidate for Fulton County Chair, has been working on his own beer for several years under the name Elbow Bend Brewing. While the business is on hold while Sterling campaigns, he attended the “Untapped” event as a public official and spoke afterward about the plans he has brewing.

Sterling said he had originally planned to contract out his beer-brewing, but with the Beer Jobs Bill allowing for direct sales, he “might open a physical location,” he said. “I’d love to do it in Sandy Springs.”