Here at the beach we’re more concerned about whether the fish are biting than we are with keeping up on the latest trends. But with craft beer trending upward across the globe and showing no sign of slowing, this Thanksgiving we can be grateful that Myrtle Beach not only has an award-winning local brewery, but also the third-oldest brewery in the state and its origins can be traced to Thanksgiving Day 1998 - fifteen years ago. Thirteen production breweries operate in South Carolina with even more slated to open in the near future. Myrtle Beach-area locals are genuinely fortunate that our neighborhood brewery has withstood the test of time and continues to evolve with beer drinkers’ changing tastes.
A couple of weeks ago, on a clear autumn night, more than 200 people gathered at a non-descript warehouse in the industrial section of Myrtle Beach off Mr. Joe White Avenue to drink beer, eat some bratwurst, listen to live music and celebrate with friends. Our hometown brewery – New South Brewing, has been crafting its own distinct ales and lagers for 15 years, and marked that milestone with an emotional celebration on Nov. 9.
Led by owner, Brewmaster and co-founder David Epstein, New South is also comprised of Head Brewer, Brock Kurtzman, Operations Manager, Roddy Graham and former intern-turned new hire, Jacob Rice. On Nov. 9, the four men took to the makeshift stage in front of an enormous tower of White Ale and Nut Brown cans to mark this momentous occasion and thank the crowd for the years of support. Kurtzman, Graham and Rice thanked Epstein for this passion, vision and for just being an awesome, laid-back boss.
“Dave is an amazing teacher and boss. I really couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Kurtzman to the crowd gathered at the brewery.
The trio presented Epstein with a celebratory bottle of single-malt Scotch and a framed New South poster with the invitations from every one of the brewery’s customer-appreciation parties throughout the years. Epstein graciously accepted the gifts, hoisted his glass of bourbon barrel-aged Lily the Great and thanked the community for standing behind New South through the good times and the bad.
Given the state of the economy during the last decade, celebrating 15 years of business is an enormous accomplishment for any company. Especially in Myrtle Beach, where even the best-funded and thought-out ideas can fail spectacularly. And while craft beer is definitely seeing a renaissance around the world, 15 years ago it was quite a different story, especially in the cheap light beer atmosphere of Myrtle Beach. The fact that New South has not only endured, but also prospered and expanded is a testament to Epstein and the strength and determination of his passion and vision.
Go West, young man...then come back South
Born and raised in Charleston, Epstein started brewing 5-gallon batches of homebrew in his dorm room at Warren-Wilson College outside of Asheville, N.C. His college buddy, Don Richardson, finished school a year earlier and made the trip out West to Colorado to work for the Rockies Brewing Company, which would later become Boulder Brewing Company. Richardson had worked his way up to Packaging Line Manager and urged Epstein to come join him in learning the ropes at a professional brewery. After graduating with degrees in Psychology and Graphic Art, Epstein came out to Denver and stacked cases, cleaned kegs and worked his way through to the brew house.
“When Dave moved to Boulder in 1994, I helped him get a job at Boulder Beer Company. Dave’s work ethic and dedication to craft beer helped him excel through all facets of beer production at Boulder Beer. Dave is one of the kindest and most laid-back people that I have ever met, in addition to being a great brewer,” said Richardson, who is now co-owner and Brewmaster at Quest Brewing of Greenville in the Upstate.
“I was trained by the packaging crew, the cellaring crew and eventually the brewing crew – basically learning all aspects of brewing. I attended some seminars, but got no formal schooling. All my experience and knowledge came from working pretty much every position at a commercial brewery,” said Epstein.
In 1996, Epstein moved back from Denver to his hometown of Charleston. He brought back several things with him, besides his growing family – namely the knowledge and experience he needed to start his career in brewing and the desire to do it in his home state of South Carolina.
“I always knew that I wanted to come back to South Carolina. When I was in college, breweries weren’t even legal in South Carolina. Luckily, the law changed and I was able to return from Colorado and begin my career at home,” said Epstein.
Back home in Charleston, Epstein set about looking for work in an area that was still less than accommodating to brewers and breweries in general. Palmetto Brewing in Charleston was the only production brewery in the state and there were only a few brewpubs – most still in the beginning phases of operation.
Meanwhile, Josh Quigley, fellow Charlestonian and owner of a local homebrew shop in West Ashley named Charleston Beer Works, had been approached by local restaurateurs Jerry Scheer and Mark Cumins who were looking for a brewer to help them open a brewpub in Mount Pleasant. The pair was also in the midst of opening up Liberty Steakhouse and Brewery at Broadway at the Beach. Scheer and Cumins sent Quigley off to the American Brewers Guild in Vermont for an education in the fundamentals of commercial brewing.
“Jerry and Mark came to me needing a brewer to help open their brewpub. They said ‘you know more about this stuff than we do,’ so they sent me to the American Brewers Guild to learn how to brew on a commercial system. And when I came back, I set about the work of running the small brewing operation at T-Bonz and opening Liberty Steakhouse and Brewery,” said Quigley.
With the early success of the 7-barrel system at T-Bonz and the expansion of the brand into Myrtle Beach, Quigley needed someone to help manage the homebrew store back in West Ashley. So, while he was brewing at T-Bonz and helping Scheer and Cumins open Liberty Steakhouse and Brewery in Myrtle Beach, Quigley interviewed and hired Epstein. But the quick growth of Liberty and T-Bonz meant the responsibilities and workload for Quigley and Epstein continued to grow. Epstein started brewing three times a week at T-Bonz, twice a week at Palmetto Brewing – whom was contract brewing for T-Bonz to supplement their beer supply - and managing the homebrew store.
"I first met Dave at the Charleston homebrew shop when I started home brewing around 1995. He helped me formulate my first few batches which then led me into the beer business shortly after,” said David Merritt, co-owner and Brewmaster at COAST Brewing of North Charleston.
Even with the brewhouses at Liberty and T-Bonz in production, the laws in South Carolina prohibited the brewpubs from supplying other restaurants with beer. Under S.C. law, beer brewed at a brewpub cannot be served outside of that brewpub. That’s why Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant couldn’t/can’t pour its draft beer brewed in its brewpub at Market Common across the street at Valor Park during beer festivals. It’s also why you can’t drink Liberty Brewmaster Mike Silvernale’s beers at sister tavern Liberty Tap Room.
As a result and seeing an untapped market (pun intended), Quigley and Epstein set the wheels in motion that would create New South Brewing. By fall 1998, the equipment had been installed in the warehouse on Campbell Street in Myrtle Beach and the first batch of beer was brewed on Thanksgiving Day. With Epstein brewing, Quigley ran the front office and continued to brew at Liberty. Epstein filled the fermenters that fall and winter and the first New South beers hit the restaurants and bars in January of 1999. The beers included New South Lager, Nut Brown Ale and an American Pale Ale.
According to Epstein, the name spawned from the idea that brewing in the South was and is still kind of a new idea. “Myrtle Beach is also kind of a newer city, in our fine state,” said Epstein. The only other name considered was Waccamaw Brewing Co., Epstein said.
The pair worked long hours perfecting their beers and taking them on the road. Whether it was to local bar and restaurant owners or to festivals across the country, they were getting the word and their beer out on the streets. They would bring their beers into bars and restaurants and even clean their draft lines – assuring their product would reach customers tasting fresh and delicious. Some of the first establishments to pour New South beers were House of Blues, Bumstead’s Pub, the Pawleys Island Tavern, Magoo’s Sports & Spirits and Ron Jon’s Beer and Burgers.
Epstein and Quigley also made the trek to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival each October for the first three years. Each year they brought home medals. In 1999, New South brought home the gold for its Oktoberfest. In 2000, New South won bronze medals with the New South Lager and Pale Ale – and in 2001, the Lager took top honors.
The Pale Ale was an award-winner nationally, but back home it was a harder sell. Myrtle Beach wasn’t ready for a hop-forward pale ale, but instead had its eyes and taste buds set on a beer, brewed with coriander, that was making its appearance as a seasonal beer. In 2003, New South White Ale was an instant hit. The light, citrusy, refreshing Belgian witbier (white beer) resonated with tourists and locals alike. It made the perfect pairing with local seafood and hot days at the beach and on the water. Local bar owners told Epstein and Quigley that if they started brewing the beer year-round that they would keep the beer on draft. By 2005, the White Ale had become the flagship beer.
New South was operating at capacity – filling the needs of the T-Bonz chain, bars and restaurants with its brews – and gaining in popularity. But things were changing. Quigley, having passed the baton of brewmaster at Liberty to his successor, Eric Lamb, was working full-time at New South, but missed the restaurant/brewpub life.
“I got my start in the restaurant industry. I enjoyed production brewing, but always knew I wanted to get back to the food service industry one day. It’s a multi-faceted experience,” said Quigley.
So, in 2006, Quigley got his chance – he sold his share of New South Brewing Company to Epstein and opened Quigley’s Pint and Plate in Pawleys Island. A family-friendly pub serving Quigley’s signature brews and new southern cuisine, Quigley’s Pint and Plate has thrived and become a fixture in the Litchfield community. Quigley still brews a couple times a week and remains proud of New South and the direction Epstein has taken the brewery since his departure.
“Dave’s a natural. He’s an accomplished and passionate brewer. He’s been at it as long as anyone,” said Quigley. “We created something special at New South and I’m proud of the direction Dave has taken it and what it has become.”
Quigley parted ways with New South, handing the reigns and sole ownership over to Epstein. And for the first year, it was a one-man show with Epstein handling the brewing, packaging and bookkeeping. Luckily, help arrived in the form of intern Jimmy Deaton. Deaton helped with the more physical aspects of the job, allowing Epstein to focus more on brewing and growing New South. Deaton eventually went on to open his own brewpub in Florence – Southern Hops Brewing Company with partner Christian Gibson.
“[I] Then entered brew school at American Brewers Guild and did my internship with Dave. It was awesome. I’ve never thought someone would just be so open and share every facet of their business. It was a huge help in understanding the brewing process and the business side of things as I moved forward in my own business venture. So one phone call to Dave began as a mentorship and has ended up as a great friendship,” said Deaton.
Started at the bottom
Deaton’s internship illustrated that growth would involve expanding the manpower the brewery needed to operate and meet its demands. At the fall 2007 customer appreciation party at the brewery, a young bartender from Liberty Tap Room approached Epstein asking for a job. Having heard a thousand times how cool it would be to work at a brewery, Epstein took it with a grain of salt and told him to come to the brewery the next morning. And when Epstein pulled into work the next day, Brock Kurtzman, was waiting for him in the parking lot – ready to work.
Kurtzman started off washing kegs, emptying the mash tun and cleaning the floors. Over the next few months Epstein taught him how to operate the brewhouse equipment. Another intern was brought in to help ease the workload. With Kurtzman doing the brewing, intern Roddy Graham helped with the maintenance and packaging. Once Graham became an employee in 2009, Epstein had an eye to the future – the next four years would see big changes – not only at New South, but also in craft beer in South Carolina and across the country.
“I came here seven-and-a-half years ago not knowing anything about brewing. Cleaning kegs and washing floors – and now I can say that I brew beer for a living. It really is a dream come true,” said Kurtzman.
“While he [Epstein] had me scrubbing keg after keg, he taught me one of the most important aspects of being in the business – brewery work is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle. He showed me that every day,” said Graham.
2010 was a milestone year for New South. The recession was in full swing, and the brewery’s long-time distributor, Benchmark, got out of the craft beer business and sold its brands to other distributors. New South struck a deal with Better Brands Myrtle Beach, the local Anheuser-Busch distributor. The deal would help take the small brewery further than ever before. By getting on the same truck as Bud Light, New South beers would have larger exposure to a bigger client base. “We made many good friends and customers with the RNDC / Benchmark group, but the resources and contacts that Better Brands brings has opened new relationships for us,” said Epstein. “When we went to Better Brands, craft beer was a new thing for them, so we have both grown up together, and this has been a positive for both of us.”
New South had always sold its beers as draft-only. It was only available at bars and restaurants – and only in the Myrtle Beach area. But in 2010, New South got its labels approved and put its 6-pack canning station to work – canning the flagship White Ale. Suddenly, consumers were seeing White Ale for sale in grocery stores, beer stores and even some gas stations. It also allowed the brand to travel outside of the Myrtle Beach area. Visitors to the Grand Strand were finally able to buy a couple of six-packs to take home with them and enjoy with friends. This mean that New South White Ale could also be sold in other markets outside of Myrtle Beach and soon started popping up in Columbia and Charleston.
2011, 2012 and 2013 saw double-digit growth for the brewery. Tastes were changing across the country. The craft beer renaissance was in full swing and consumers had a taste for fresh, local, handcrafted beers. The laws pertaining to breweries in South Carolina were continuing to relax. Local breweries could now offer tours, tastings and on-premises sales. On-premises sales meant a new source of cash flow. And 2012 also saw the brewery’s canned offerings expand with the addition of New South Nut Brown.
New South brewed its first high gravity beer in 2012, Lily the Great, a Russian Imperial Stout at 11.2 APV. The beer was a collaboration with Michael Byrd and the Piggly Wiggly at the Market Common and local home brewer (and columnist and writer of this article). Epstein and me scaled the homebrew recipe from 5 gallons to 20 barrels and brewed the inaugural batch in December of 2012. Since higher gravity beers use more ingredients, they can be a bit of a gamble for any brewery. But, after only a few weeks in the fermenter, New South knew it had hit a home run. The beer sold out quickly at every bar, restaurant and growler station where it appeared. Lily the Great even won a silver medal at the Carolina Championship of Beers at the Hickory Hops Festival in Hickory, N.C. this year.
Finally, the Myrtle Beach market was ready for bigger and bolder beers. New South held onto 55 gallons of Lily the Great that was placed in a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel and aged for 11 months. The barrel-aged version was released in time for the brewery’s 15th anniversary party and has proven to be a great success. Epstein has already planned the next brewing of Lily the Great and it should be fermenting by the time this article is published.
Besides brewing great beer for the community, New South has always believed in supporting local charities and fundraisers. The brewery donates beers to a multitude of events, including the Myrtle Beach Marathon, the Surfrider Foundation and several golf tournaments. New South has also won first place two years in a row at the annual Chilympics held in Murrells Inlet. Not only do these guys serve their beer, but also they are walking off with medals awarded to the chili made from their beer.
“Community involvement and service has always been a priority. We are part of the community and this community supports us. We have always done what we can to give back,” said Epstein.
New South is also involved in the local home brewing community. 2010 was the inaugural year for the home brewing exposition, “Brewing at the Beach” (covered elsewhere on page 12). New South allows home brewers to come in and set up their rigs in the brewery and teach others about the art of making beer at home. Kurtzman and Epstein always set up their pilot system and brew alongside the home brewers. This year’s event, on Nov. 16, drew more than 100 people. Not only do attendees learn about home brewing, but they also get to take a guided tour of New South, learn how beer is brewed on a commercial scale, and of course, taste the lineup.
So, what does the future hold for New South?
New equipment means more beer for everybody. New South has installed two new pieces of equipment this fall. First, a brand new enormous 60-barrel fermentation tank will increase capacity at the brewery and allow New South to brew more seasonal beers. And second, a new boiler was installed in September. Is it as glamorous as a new, shiny stainless steel tank promising more beer? Probably not, but the boiler powers the hot liquor tank and the boil kettle – and the new one will be more efficient and will make for an easier brew day.
New South beers continue to change with the times. The New South IPA was originally served from a nitro tap, creating a smooth carbonation, but muted hop presence. The newly formulated IPA is served using regular carbon dioxide, like other beers, and has a much hoppier taste and aroma. Epstein also says it will be the next beer to see distribution in 12-ounce aluminum cans. When asked the timeframe for seeing New South IPA in six-packs, Epstein is cagey. “It’s coming.”
You may have noticed displays of White Ale and Nut Brown cans at your local Walmart. The brewery has recently struck a deal to sell its beers at the retail giant. New South beers can now be found for sale in eight local Walmart stores. Epstein says that in-house and retail sales are driving the brewery’s expansion. While every business experiences growing pains, Epstein believes that slow and steady wins the race.
“We’ve withstood the test of time. Our ability to brew beer in South Carolina for the past 15 years says a lot about not only New South, but also about Myrtle Beach. I hope we’re able to keep doing what we are passionate about long into the future,” said Epstein.