BREWS CRUISE

By John “Jilly” Garner For Weekly SurgeOctober 9, 2013 

South Carolina is experiencing a brewing renaissance. Even if you aren’t already a craft beer enthusiast, we’re sure you’ve noticed – the unfamiliar tap handles appearing at your local bar, strange bottles adorned with gargoyles, geese, turtles and dogs staring back at you in the supermarket beer aisle. Each week in South Carolina, new and different breweries and their dinstinctive and often-quirky beers are made available to a growing base of beer drinkers who find themselves craving full-bodied and full-flavored brews.

If you’ve traveled to other states and cities the past few years, you may have seen the same thing – maybe earlier or on a much larger scale. When the craft beer movement started picking up steam in the rest of the country, South Carolinians were stuck drinking 6.25 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) beer. And while there were tons of good beers at that limit or even below, the limit still discouraged many breweries from distributing their beers here in the Palmetto State. That all changed in 2007 with the “Pop the Cap” campaign led by Jaime Tenney, who was about to open COAST Brewing in North Charleston with her husband David Merritt. The pair wanted to open a brewery, but weren’t going to do it in South Carolina if they couldn’t brew the beer that they wanted to. So, after navigating the red tape of legislative bureaucracy and enlisting the support of some key players, a bill to raise the legal alcohol limit of beer was created and eventually passed. The craft beer landscape in South Carolina was ready to change.

Regional and national breweries such as Stone, Terrapin, Founders and Bells were interested in bringing their beers to the people of South Carolina. It was a little slow at first, with a few breweries pulling out of the market early on after their sales didn’t meet expectations. But, just like the rest of the country, beer drinkers were catching on – craving more hops, more malt and more flavor. Many of those brewers ended up coming back to South Carolina and unlike many other products, the introduction of new brands didn’t dilute the market – it made people want even more variety. This didn’t go unnoticed by local breweries.

Unfortunately, the legal climate in South Carolina still wasn’t encouraging existing breweries to grow or new ones to open. That too, was about to change, again with the help of Tenney and the group that was formerly “Pop the Cap” – now renamed the South Carolina Brewers Association. A pair of bills was passed into law that made it legal for breweries to sell their beer at the brewery for on-premises and off-premises consumption. Brewery tours began, and samples, pints and growlers started flowing. Beer wasn’t the only thing flowing – now breweries were starting see the cash flow, too.

In 2006, there were only four production breweries in South Carolina, including Myrtle Beach’s New South Brewing Co. In the past 7 years, we’ve seen that number triple. Breweries are opening at a break-neck speed. Existing breweries are operating at or near capacity. Many are in the process of expanding their operations, like COAST, Palmetto and Thomas Creek who are undergoing huge renovations and expansion. New South Brewing has recently added another 60-barrel fermentation tank and a new boiler. Conquest Brewing in Columbia, Benford Brewing in Lancaster and Frothy Beard in North Charleston continue to grow as demand for their beers skyrocket.

It is a great time to be a craft beer drinker in South Carolina.

If you haven’t explored all that South Carolina brewers have to offer, take a day trip and discover what’s out there. Lots of passionate and talented people – not only brewing great beer, but also bringing much-needed jobs and revenue to our state economy.

Here’s our guide to what’s brewing at The Palmetto State’s craft beer production breweries.

New South Brewery

Where: 1109 Campbell St., Myrtle Beach

Flagship beer: New South White Ale

One of the oldest production breweries in the state happens to be our hometown brewery, New South, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary in November. Started in 1998, New South was sold to current owner and Brewmaster, David Epstein in 2006. Since ‘98, New South has won multiple awards at brew competitions across the country. Besides its White Ale, New South also cans its Nut Brown Ale and sells kegs of its lager, IPA, Darkstar Porter, White Pale Ale, Stout and Oktoberfest to bars, restaurants and growler stations in the Myrtle Beach area.

In the last few years, Epstein and Head Brewer, Brock Kurtzman, have experimented with bourbon barrels and more aggressive hopping schedules for some of their beers. They have released the amazing bourbon barrel-aged Oktoberfest, Stout and Porter. Some of the imperial stout, Lily the Great, is currently in a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel and will be released soon with a new batch likely to be brewed again this winter. The dry-hopped lager is quickly becoming a staple of the New South Brewing tasting room. That, along with the hopped-up IPA, are responses to the public’s growing thirst for hoppy beers.

“Stronger and hoppier beers used to be a hard sell in Myrtle Beach. And while our lower gravity beers continue to be big sellers, many folks are craving the big hops and higher gravity,” said Epstein. “We are more than happy to oblige them, so look for more experimentation from us in the future.”

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.newsouthbrewing.com

COAST Brewing Co.

Where: 1250 N. 2nd St., North Charleston

Flagship beer: HopArt IPA, 32/50 Kolsch

Aforementioned Brewmaster David Merritt and his wife and partner, Jaime Tenney, opened COAST Brewing in 2007 after helping coax the South Carolina legislature into relaxing its post-prohibition limit on the amount of alcohol that beer brewed and sold in the state could contain. Tenney is a craft beer pioneer and continues to help South Carolina be a more brewer-friendly state. In 2010, COAST teamed up with the Charleston Beer Exchange to put on one of the premier beer festivals in the Southeast – Brewvival, held each year in the field across from the brewery.

COAST began bottling its flagship, HopArt IPA and soon added its 32/50 Kolsch and Blackbeerd Imperial Stout. Seasonal releases include the popular hop bomb, Boy King Double IPA, Red Legs Scotch Ale, Event Horizon Dark IPA, ALTerior Motive, Carnie Fire, Rye Knot Brown, Harold American Stout, Saison du Fus, Belafonte Belgian pale ale and Dead Arm pale ale.

After raising renovation funds through the crowdsourcing Web site, Kickstarter, COAST is expanding its brewery capacity from 7-barrels to 30-barrels. An upgraded tasting room with a space for live entertainment is on its way, too. Located on the old naval base in North Charleston on Noisette Creek, a day trip to COAST is well worth the drive.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.coastbrewing.com

Westbrook Brewing Co.

Where: 510 Ridge Rd., Mt. Pleasant

Flagship beers: IPA, White Thai, Gose, One Claw Pale Ale

Founded by another husband and wife team – Edward Westbrook and Morgan Westbrook, Westbrook Brewing is a beautiful, state-of-the art brewery off of I-526 in Mount Pleasant. Hop vines grow up the sides of the 18,000-square-foot building tucked into the trees. The inside features a sleek tasting room and bar area as nice as any restaurant in the area. But on the other side of the tasting room through the glass doors is the enormous brewing operation. Stainless steel tanks line the walls and the canning line sits in the center. A walk-in cooler off the main floor contains the barrel room, housing some of the most sought-after barrel-aged beers in the Carolinas.

Opening its doors in 2010 with its flagship IPA and spicy witbier, White Thai, Westbrook Brewing has continued to push the envelope with its beers. Perhaps the most famous beer to come out of South Carolina so far is Westbrook’s first anniversary beer, an imperial stout aged on cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks and habenero peppers, named Mexican Cake. Deliciously decadent with just a hint of pepper heat on the back of the tongue, Mexican Cake was brewed again in May and a limited run of barrel-aged varieties were released to a rain-soaked crowd of beer enthusiasts who travelled from across the state and country to wait in line to purchase their bottles.

Besides brewing Westbrook’s lineup, which also includes the newly canned Gose, a salty and sour refreshing ale, One Claw Pale Ale, the Bearded Farmer series of Belgian saisons and the hopped-up imperial IPA Citrus Ninja Exchange, Westbrook is also home to the Danish gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewing. Evil Twin Brewing is best known for its Imperial Biscotti Break, a chocolaty, coffee imperial stout that tastes like dessert in a glass. Collaboration and cooperation is the name of the game at Westbrook, so continue to look for new and even more cutting edge brews from this brew house.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.westbrookbrewing.com

Holy City Brewing

Where: 4155 Dorchester Rd., North Charleston

Flagship beers: Pluff Mud Porter, Holy City Pilsner, Slanted Porch Pale Ale, Washout Wheat

Just off Dorchester Road in North Charleston behind a motorcycle shop in an unlikely spot for a brewery, sits Holy City Brewing. Started by four friends coming from backgrounds as varied as biodiesel production and bicycle rickshaws, Joel Carl, Sean Nemitz, Mac Minaudo and Chris Brown, Holy City Brewing opened its doors in July 2011. A huge tasting room right inside the brewhouse opens up to picnic tables, cornhole boards and a large grassy parking lot, which plays host to the Iron Brew Homebrew Competition. For the past two years, an interesting ingredient is selected for homebrewers to craft their best recipe around, with the winner brewing his/her batch on Holy City’s 15-barrel system to be poured at the Avondale, downtown and Summerville Mellow Mushroom outlets. Homebrewers themselves, the owners of Holy City continue to promote and support local brewers.

Seasonal beers and one-offs include a bacon porter named the Notorious P.I.G., Pecan Dream, Tripping Brick, Biscuit n’ Honey, Bowens Island Oyster Stout, 50 Shades of Green, Laser Pants Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Impact IPA and Imperial Storm Trooper White IPA. A bit tricky to find, Holy City Brewing is well worth visiting.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.holycitybrewing.com

Palmetto Brewing Co.

Where: 289 Huger St., Charleston

Flagship beer: Palmetto Amber, Charleston Lager

The first production brewery in Charleston has roots that go back to the 1850s. Palmetto Brewing rose from the ashes of the pre-prohibition brewery that happens to be the only production brewery in downtown Charleston. Located just a few blocks away from the original brewery, Ed Falkenstein and Louis Bruce revived Palmetto Brewing in 1993 after trips to the Pacific Northwest exposed them to the craft beer being brewed and enjoyed in Washington and Oregon. After operating at capacity for a few years, this spring Palmetto added three fermentation tanks and doubled its annual production.

Besides flagship beers Palmetto Amber and Charleston Lager, Palmetto also brews Palmetto Pale Ale and the Espresso Porter, made with coffee roasted by Charleston Coffee Roasters. Palmetto Brewing also releases a few seasonals, Hop Harvest IPA, Aftershock, a hoppy steam beer, or "California Common," Chocolate Bock, Ghost Rider, Angry Ginger, Watermelon Wheat and the amber lager, Lighthouse Lager.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.palmetto brewingco.com

Frothy Beard Brewing Co.

Where: 7358 Peppermill Parkway, North Charleston

Flagship beers: Photuris Pale Ale, Never Winter Wheat, Zingbier Pale Ale, Tides of Galway Irish Red, Peppermint Porter

Not only does the number of breweries in South Carolina continue to grow, but also the variety of breweries. From the comfy-yet-industrial feel of COAST to the big and shiny Westbrook Brewing, breweries are popping up in every shape and size. Which brings us to South Carolina’s smallest production brewery, Frothy Beard, located off of Ashley Phosphate Road in North Charleston. Brewing on a 1.5-barrel system, Frothy Beard is making beer with a set-up not much larger than what many homebrewers use in their driveways. But, just because it is small, doesn’t mean that this little brewery that could isn’t turning out some amazing brews.

In a converted warehouse space, Frothy Beard brews a changing lineup of beers that can be tried in the tasting area as well as several Charleston area restaurants and bars. The trio of owners, Joey Siconolfi, Michael Biondi and Steve McCauley, brew in every spare moment to fill the many new black plastic kegs that line the brewery. But starting small also means that Frothy Beard can grow on its own terms and expand when the need arises. A 100-gallon fermentation tank was purchased this summer, so we’ll continue to watch this brewery grow to meet the increasing demand for its delicious beers.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.frothybeard.com

Conquest Brewing Co.

Where: 947 S. Stadium Rd., Columbia

Flagship beers: Sacred Heart IPA, Artemis Blonde, Medusa Stout

The brainchild of longtime homebrewing buddies Joseph Ackerman and Matt Ellisor, Conquest Brewing started shipping its beers in January. The first production brewery in Columbia, Conquest is located in a warehouse close to Williams-Brice Stadium. Of course this proximity makes Conquest the perfect tailgating opportunity with convenient tasting hours before and during University of South Carolina home games. The pair opened the brewery and began brewing on a three-barrel system, but due to the popularity and high-demand of their flagship beers, have already quit their day jobs and started the expansion to a 15-barrel brewhouse.

Having poured their beers at high-profile beer festivals such as Brewvival and the World Beer Fest, Ackerman and Ellisor are keen on pushing the envelope with their beers and satisfying the extreme tastes of many beer enthusiasts. They also hope that with their company’s expansion, they’ll be able to start selling their beers in other markets. Conquest is brewing many experimental beers that the duo is calling its “Cyclops Series.” Among these beers include the popular Bi-Polar High Roller, a porter made with bourbon-soaked peppers and cacao nibs, The Finisher, an imperial stout that’s a whopping 17.5 percent ABV and the recently debuted imperial stout, Brutus. Plans are in the works for many more one-offs, and beers that prove to be big hits may end up moving into a more regular rotation. And maybe with the upcoming expansion, Myrtle Beach will get the chance to enjoy some Conquest beers in the not-to-distant future.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.conquestbrewing.com

River Dog Brewing Co.

Where: 591 Browns Cove Rd., Ridgeland

Flagship beers: Coastal Wit, River Dog American Pale Ale, River Dog IPA, Chocolate Rye Porter

Josh Luman and Gabby Ferrell, owners of the wine shop Corks in Bluffton, were looking to start up a new craft beer venture and met James Brown, a long-time homebrewer at the Lowcountry MALTS homebrew club meeting. Thus the idea for River Dog Brewing Company was born. In 2012, the wheels were turning and by May the tasting room and 10,000-square-foot brewery opened its doors. Since it opened, River Dog continues to expand, with its beers being poured from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, to here at the beach. Ever the consummate salesman, Luman takes River Dog’s beers with him on the road across the state bringing the tasty brews to bar, restaurant and storeowners.

Following the trend of craft brewers across the country (and a few here in South Carolina, including New South and Westbrook), River Dog is planning on packaging its beers and delivering it to the masses via the convenience of 12-ounce aluminum cans. River Dog is also planning on aging its Chocolate Rye Porter in Makers Mark barrels and has started distributing its beers to Georgia. Besides bourbon barrel aging some of the beers, River Dog has started a sour beer program that involves aging beers on fresh peaches and plums in wine barrels.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.riverdogbrewing.com

Quest Brewing Co.

Where: 55 Airview Dr., Greenville

Flagship beers: Ellida IPA, Kaldi Coffee Stout, Golden Fleece Belgian Pale Ale, Smoking Mirror Porter

When Brewmaster Don Richardson and Andrew Watts met in 2012, they had the same idea - they wanted to open a craft brewery and bring more delectable beer to Greenville. Watts, dubbed the "Chief Drinking Officer," runs the business side of things while Richardson brings more than 20 years of craft beer experience to the brewing side. Having brewed at Boulder Brewing of Colorado and Cottonwood Brewery in North Carolina, Richardson is a master of recipe development and producing great beer to suit any taste. Richardson and Watts also keep a close eye on keeping a small carbon footprint and using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible.

Quest Brewing is located near the Greenville airport in a space that allows the operation to have a small outdoor stage for weekly concerts, as well as a beautiful tasting room adorned with modern fixtures and an inviting warmth. Having just had its grand opening in July, Quest has hit the ground running with an outstanding lineup of flagship brews appropriately named as its "Legendary Series." But Quest’s beers don’t just stop at "legendary" - Richardson and Watts are also producing a "Seasonal Series," "Sour Series" and have a "Barrel-Aged" series. Recent seasonals include the Kermesse Pumpkin Saison, a Dry-Hopped Golden Fleece BPA and the Saluda ’Wet-hop’ Dubbel, which uses freshly picked hops (hence “wet”). Two beers have already gotten the bourbon barrel treatment - the Ellida IPA, aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Smoking Mirror.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.questbrewing.com

Thomas Creek Brewery

Where: 2054 Piedmont Highway, Greenville

Flagship beers: River Falls Red Ale, Dockside Pilsner, Up the Creek Extreme IPA, Appalachian Amber Ale, Pumphouse Porter, Deepwater Doppelbock, Castaway Chocolate Orange IPA, Class Five IPA

South Carolina’s second-oldest (and largest) production brewery also happens to be in the midst of an expansion. Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville opened its doors just a few months before New South Brewing in July of 1998 and has been operating at capacity for several years. The 30-barrel brewhouse’s capacity is on the verge of more than doubling. A 10,000-square-foot expansion is underway that will increase its output from approximately 10,000 barrels per year to roughly 24,000 barrels per year, as well as a brand new tasting room and outdoor patio. Thomas Creek is a family affair – with Brewmaster Tom Davis, his wife Terri Davis and his dad Bill Davis. Tom Davis started out as many professional brewers do – as a homebrewer. He then moved onto brewing at a now-defunct brewpub in downtown Greenville. In 1998, Thomas Creek opened its doors and began delivering its solid lineup of beers to thirsty South Carolinians.

Not only is Thomas Creek expanding its own space in an industrial section of Greenville, it is also opening up a bar and grill in the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport that will offer a wide variety of Thomas Creek beers, as well as pub food to travelers. Seasonals include the Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale, Oktoberfest Lager, Pumpkin Ale, Coffee Oatmeal Stout, a Belgian Porter named Dirty Monk, its imperial version, the 10 percent ABV Conduplico Immundus Monachus and the decadent Banana Split Chocolate Stout.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.thomascreekbeer.com

RJ Rockers Brewing Co.

Where: 226-A W. Main Street, Spartanburg

Flagship beers: Son of a Peach Wheat Ale, Patriot Pale Ale, Bell Ringer, Fish Paralyzer, The First Snow

In 2002, owner Mark Johnsen got out of the brewpub business and made RJ Rockers a full-fledged production brewery in Spartanburg. The brewpub opened in 1997 and after five years, Johnsen opened the 10-barrel brewhouse in an industrial park outside of downtown, near I-85. After reaching its capacity at the beginning of the craft beer boom in 2008, the brewery moved into its current building in downtown that features a 39-barrel system - brewing 7,500 barrels per year – as well as an awesome tasting room.

The guys and girls at RJ Rockers have a lot on their plates these days. First, RJ Rockers is in a competition to win a commercial spot during the Super Bowl. The company is also working on some re-branding, which will mean new labels and a new look for its beers. The delicious black IPA, Black Perle, will be the first brew to get a makeover and will make its way to four-packs this fall. The wildly popular fruit beer - Son of a Peach, has now been made into a year-round beer. New seasonals such as Gruntled Pumpkin and Strawbeery Wheat Ale are making their debut, and a new series of draft-only one-off beers named the “Chalkboard Series” is in the offing, which will lend itself to experimental beers from Head Brewer Taylor White.

For tasting room and tour schedule: www.rjrockers.com

Benford Brewing Co.

Where: 2271 Boxcar Rd., Lancaster

Flagship beers: Old Hickory Brown Ale, Riverside Red Ale, Irish Honey Blonde Ale

Owner and brewer Bryan O’Neal took his love for homebrewing and turned it into a Plan B for his high-end construction career. So far, Benford Brewing is sending its beer to restaurants and bars around Lexington and as far as Columbia and Fort Mill. Originally named Boxcar Brewing Co., O’Neal changed the name upon learning another brewery was operating under the same moniker in Pennsylvania.

O’Neal made the leap from homebrewer to commercial brewer last fall (2012), after jumping through the many hoops of federal and state licensing. He was finally able to start packaging and selling his brews in February. O’Neal was able to expand Benford Brewing’s capacity this summer with the addition of more fermentation space.

For more information, go online to: http://benfordbrewing.com

Two blogs, CHSbeer.org and drinkblogrepeat.com, were indespensible in compiling this report.

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