Sandlapper Society

South Carolina Brews

by Cynthia Boiter • photo by Matthew John

When approaching the corner of College Street and Main in Columbia, South Carolina, one block from the University of South Carolina and two behind the Statehouse, it might be easy to overlook the old brick building on the corner closest to the university’s historic Horseshoe. But I wouldn’t— especially if you are a fan of good beer brewed in small batches, with an eye toward quality. The Hunter-Gatherer Brewery and Ale House, established in 1995 when the craft beer and microbrewery tide rolled its way from the West Coast into South Carolina, has the distinction of being the only Columbia brewpub from that era to put down roots, establish a following and become a fixture among Carolina beer aficionados.

Hunter-Gatherer owner and brewer Kevin Varner is, in many ways, typical of the members of the craft brew movement that began in the United States in the 1980s as a response to the blandness and ubiquity of mass-produced beer. (Most American local and regional breweries were unable to survive during Prohibition, paving the way for larger breweries to consolidate the smaller ones and monopolize beer production once the law was repealed. The result was the uniformly mild-tasting lagers most Americans have come to expect.) A history student at USC, Varner’s European travels in college introduced him to the complexity and diversity of beer brewed in small batches. He returned to the U.S. and learned how to brew beer at home. Summers found him in Washington state, one of the early centers of craft beer, where he was introduced to the American microbrewery movement as a summer employee of Hale’s Ales. When laws in South Carolina changed to allow for brewpubs in 1994 (a brewpub is a brewery that serves food and garners at least 25% of its sales on site, according to the Brewers Association), Varner returned to his roots and opened the Hunter-Gatherer.

“Not that much has changed with the Hunter-Gatherer itself since I first opened it,” Varner says, harkening back to his early days of being the go-to beer guy on campus, both before and after graduation. “But a lot has changed with me. I’m married with children now.”

Varner still does his brewing on Mondays when the brewpub has limited hours. And he still offers only a small selection of beers on tap— his own Pale Ale, Wheat, ESB (Extra Special Bitter) and always one seasonal beer that can range from summer 2010’s Brown Ale to the wintertime favorite, the rich and hefty Ye Olde Bastarde. He also still uses an 1847 proprietary yeast strain— used, as well, by Gales Brewery in Hampshire, England— giving Varner’s beers the distinctive flavor on which his fans depend.

It is this kind of attention to detail that endears brewpubs such as the Hunter-Gatherer and the Aiken Brewing Company, in the Central Savannah River area, to its clientele. Aiken Brewing Company’s brewmaster, Randy Doucet, who also got his start in beer by brewing at home, offers a sampler of the half dozen or more beers he keeps on tap at the pub, allowing customers who are new to crafted beers to try out the various styles in sipping-sized portions. But for the regulars at the brewpub, a mix of Southern good old boys and girls and northern retirees drawn to Aiken’s and nearby Augusta’s golf courses and warm weather, the staff makes sure they feel at home. Over the plank flooring of the old furniture store in Aiken’s small downtown area where the pub is located, an oak bar with worn brass plaques displaying names such as “George Alexander,” “Steve Connors” and even “Standing Bill” boasts of a popular Mug Club for the locals. Rows of clay mugs that are inscribed with regulars’ names line the back of the bar. For a yearly fee, Mug Club members are assigned their own mug and receive a discount on all the beers they drink. Styles include the Scottish 80 Shilling Ale, a Powder House Porter, Golden Honey Wheat and a West Coast Pale Ale, as well as a number of seasonal offerings; of these the most popular beer is the Thoroughbred Ale, a malt-rich and well-balanced amber red ale that keeps people coming back.

Microbreweries, sometimes called craft breweries, differ from larger or macrobreweries (think Anheuser Busch or Molson Coors Brewing Company) in that they brew no more than 15,000 U.S. barrels of beer per year— which is about 460,000 gallons. Of South Carolina’s 13 small breweries, six qualify as microbreweries and the other seven are brewpubs, such as the Hunter-Gatherer, the Aiken Brewing Company, and Quigley’s Pint and Plate, owned and operated by Josh Quigley and Michael Benson, and located on Pawleys Island since 2007. Actually, Skull Coast Ale Company in Fort Mill, a newcomer to the Carolinas beer scene, produces such a limited amount of their hops-heavy Maelstrom IPA that owner David Fox cleverly calls his operation a “nanobrewery.”

While brewpubs may serve anything from snacks to full meals along with their beer, some, such as the Hunter-Gatherer, also concentrate on using local ingredients in their food preparation, including organic produce and heirloom pastured-pork products. Microbreweries, on the other hand, simply brew beer that, until recently, had to be sold and consumed off-site away from the brewery. When New Jersey native Mark Johnsen introduced Spartanburg residents to their first locally crafted beer in 1997, he did so via his brewpub RJ Rockers. A Gulf War veteran, Johnsen was stationed for a while in Ebing, Germany, where he learned as much as he could about brewing and eventually brought all that knowledge and more to an old storefront on Spartanburg’s Morgan Square. The brewpub was successful, but Johnsen, who serves as president, co-owner and brewer, found that he much preferred devoting his attentions to brewing good beer than the assorted demands of a restaurant. So in 2002, he closed the brewpub’s doors and moved his brewing operations out of the downtown area to an industrial park where, to his and everyone’s surprise, business increased exponentially.
“I was pretty much shocked myself,” Johnsen admits as he describes how the new ten-barrel system reached capacity by 2008, experiencing as much as a 92% growth rate by the end of the year.

Having already outgrown their industrial park housing in 2009, Johnsen and his team moved their operations back downtown to Spartanburg’s old Salvation Army Building where they now run a 30-barrel brewing system and business continues to do well. The re-visualization and re-creation of the RJ Rockers’ system of operations several times over the past few years has given Johnsen and his team the opportunity to revise and tweak the way they get the job of brewing beer done. One of their biggest adjustments has been the decision to emphasize sustainability in the brewery. Solar panels now line the roof of the downtown brewery and are used to heat water to as much as 172 degrees. Almost 90% of their water is re-purposed rather than being flushed away and virtually all of their spent grain goes to local farmers who feed it to their happy cattle.

“We hope to eventually be 100% energy self-sufficient,” says Jason McElveen, RJ Rockers’ sales director.

Another innovative technique in RJ Rockers’ operations model, as well as an excellent way of increasing community involvement, is the role of the “Sons of the Fermentation” in the processing of the beer. Every Saturday, six of RJ Rockers’ biggest fans show up to help bottle beer. In exchange, the gentlemen— a philosophy professor, a chemist and an environmentalist among them— are allowed to drink their fill— no money is ever exchanged.

Across the way in Greenville, the folks at Thomas Creek Brewery, another of South Carolina’s successful microbreweries, also recognize the importance of a loyal local following when it comes to brewing beer for the people— and helping the people brew their own beer.

According to Sales and Marketing Director Katie Barnes, “We not only try to keep local homebrewers supplied from our Homebrew Shop, we host their meetings right here at the brewery.” Called the Upstate Brewtopians, Greenville area homebrewers have been drawn to Thomas Creek beers since Brewmaster Tom Davis and his father, General Manager Bill Davis, founded the brewery in 1998.

With a 40-year career as an architect, Bill Davis, who sports a head of snowy white hair and matching beard, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus, has been working full time at the brewery for four years, but he also serves, he says, “as the brewery’s official taste-master.” While Tom, who began brewing at home out of a desperate desire for a better-tasting beer more than 20 years ago, is a multi-tasker, darting from computer to brew kettle with little time for chitchat in between, the elder Bill slowly but passionately explains the history of Thomas Creek Brewery operations, future plans and even shares memories of good beers from his own history.

“I always appreciated a good beer,” he says, “even going back to the Esso Club at Clemson University when I had the honor of sitting down to a beer with my professor.”
Bill goes on to explain how much of a family operation Thomas Creek Brewery is, despite its growth to the equivalent of two active breweries and its annual production of at least 10,000 barrels. “My wife even does the books,” he says.

It is not uncommon to find entire families invested in the business of brewing good beer in small batches. David Merritt and Jaime Tenny, co-owners of Coast Brewing Company in North Charleston, are perfect examples. Married for 13 years and parents of two boys, 8 and 12 years old, the couple joined forces not only to make a family and found a brewing company, but to challenge the laws governing the rights of South Carolina brewery owners.

Tenny, who has a background in biology, first took on the South Carolina state legislature in 2007 with the successful “Pop the Cap South Carolina” campaign which lifted the ABV (alcohol by volume) regulation on beer brewed in the state from 6% to 17% in May of that year. “There are too many wonderful beers and beer styles from all over the world that, just by their nature, are higher in alcohol content,” she explains. “It’s not about drinking stronger beer; it’s about drinking great beer that just happens to be stronger in alcohol.” 

With that success, “Pop the Cap” became the South Carolina Brewers Association and Tenny was determined to continue on her crusade to loosen the restrictions on brewers and provide South Carolina beer aficionados with a wider variety of beer and the opportunity to taste it before purchasing— just as wine drinkers do at a wine tasting— as well as to purchase beer from the brewers themselves. More to the crux of the matter, though, Tenny and the South Carolina Brewers Association wanted a law that would provide for a real relationship between brewers and the people who drink their beer. An organization of brewers, beer wholesalers and beer retailers proved successful when House Bill 4572 became law on June 7th, 2010, allowing South Carolina brewers to serve up to four 4-ounce samples of beer per person, per day, but only in conjunction with a tour of the brewing facilities. The law also provides for brewers to sell up to a case of their beer per day, per person, direct from the brewery, and for retail beer outlets to conduct up to 96 beer tastings per year.

Some of the beer you might taste or purchase at Coast Brewing Company includes brewer David Merritt’s HopArt IPA— weighing in at 7.7% ABV, his 32/50 Kolsch— a style of beer that comes direct from Cologne, Germany, with a traditionally lower ABV of 4.8%, or Blackbeerd, the Imperial Stout— a seasonal beer with an ABV of 9.7% and the rich taste of sweet malt and smoked malts with a mighty hops kick. According to Merritt, “Blackbeerd is like your typical Imperial Stout— on steroids!”

Whatever you taste from Coast Brewing Company, you can be sure it is the kind of quality product picky drinkers such as Tenny and Merritt demand. Because, as Tenny says, “As long as you’re making really good beer, nothing is better at the end of the day than a glass of your own.”

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This article is sponsored by Hunter-Gatherer Brewery and Ale House, Thomas Creek Brewery and Aiken Brewery Company. 


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