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Craft brewers create seismic rumble in South Carolina

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Craft beer from small and independent brewers has experienced tremendous growth in the Southeastern United States. There has been an awakening even though the presence of home grown local craft brewers has been relatively sparse. South Carolina is one of those places where craft beer drinkers have developed a great thirst for craft beers from small U.S. brewers. But what they crave are opportunities to support their own South Carolinian craft brewers.

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The local craft brewing scene is South Carolina though small, is experiencing an awakening. You might say amongst craft beer enthusiasts “I found beer!” is the phrase on their lips and the taste in their mouth. There are over a dozen new breweries in planning and several that have opened up in the past year. Amongst the new brewers there are even American craft brewing pioneers that take pride in their 20 year legacy. The beers I sampled were of the quality that will encourage a bright future for all.

I spent 2 days in Charleston, South Carolina this past April and enjoyed every single minute of it.

First stop was the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse at 161 E. Bay Street, Charleston. It was a Sunday late afternoon visit and even though I didn’t get to meet the brewer I enjoyed the excellent and hoppy pale ale, the velvety smooth oatmeal stout and a super well balanced Rye IPA. Southend on Bay Street is the survivor of what used to be a chain of 5 restaurants/breweries. There’s probably good reason it has survived. The location is great. The ambiance offers a neat cathedral-like ambiance, offering some great interior views and a great view of the city from its 3rd floor bar. They have the best smoked chicken wings I’ve ever had. Beer & wings. It’s worth the trip just for that, but if you’re not a wing nut, there’s plenty of good eats to choose from. Downtown / Oldtown Charleston has an old European seaport feeling and somewhat festive atmosphere similar to old town New Orleans. There’s lots to see, do and experience.

Monday morning was a full day of touring breweries with a homebrew event thrown in just for great fun; all in the surrounding Charleston bay area. First stop was the nearly two year old brewery called Westbrook Brewing Co. at 510 Ridge Rd., Mount Pleasant just across the bay bridge northeast of downtown Charleston. Edward and Morgan Westbrook co-founded Charleston area’s largest production brewery. Head brewer, Shane Cummings came from Stone Brewing in California to eventually migrate the Westbrook Brewing Company. In 2012 they produced about 3,500 barrels of beer. They are anticipating the increased demand for their beers that will put them at 7 to 8,000 in 2013. Their 30 barrel brewhouse and 60 barrel fermenters are set up in preparation to help meet increasing demand. They’re packaging in kegs, cans and bottles and not only exporting to Denmark, but through their partnership with Danish brewery Evil Twin Brewing Company they are contract brewing for the American beer drinkers, Evil’s Biscotti Imperial Stout and special brew called “Even More Jesus” brewed with smoke malt and a 5 hour boil. South Carolina’s beer laws recently legalized the limited sale of pints in brewery tasting rooms. Westbrook’s tap / tasting room is inviting and has several great beers on tap and in bottles. I tried Weisse Weiss Baby, Udderly Stout, Gose, The Raver White IPA, Shane’s Big DIPA, Citra Rye IPA and White Tail (a lemongrass, ginger root and Sorachi Ace hop witbier). Get thee to Westbrook.

Next I headed retracted 10 minutes to Charleston to visit South Carolina’s pioneer craft brewery, Palmetto Brewing Company at 289 Huger St Bldg B. There I had the privilege to rendezvous with both Ed Falkenstein, owner/founder and new staffer John Matthew “Cat Herder” and General Manager. As John puts it, this is his dream job, after having a wonderfully successful earlier career with Pearlstine Distribution. The brewery is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Ed had his epiphany in the early 90s while pursuing one of his original passions: wind surfing/sailing. While in Hood River, Oregon sporting the wind he discovered some of the pioneering Oregon microbrewers. His thoughts drifted to “I can do this.” And so he did. In their small tasting room I talk with Ed and also Chris Winn, Marketing & Events manager (formerly working for New Belgium Brewery with events having helped found Tour de Fat). They did about 4,000 barrels in 2012. They just installed three new 100 barrel fermenters to meet an anticipated 8,000 barrel demand in 2013. They are busting at the seams while currently distributing in only the seven lower counties of South Carolina. The beers I tasted were super. And the one that was most unforgettable in a very good way was a somewhat Bavarian’ish style pilsener brewed with 100% Maris Otter malt. I loved it. So would you.

I caught a bite to eat somewhere along the way as I headed to Coast Brewing Company at 1250 N 2nd St., in North Charleston. There I met Jaime Tenny and her brewer husband David Merritt; both co-founded the brewery in 2007. Theirs is a 700 barrel a year operation anticipating continuing growth in the near future.

At Coast Brewing the South Carolina Brewers Association convened for a meeting and I had a chance to meet several other brewers from the area. At the time their biggest legislative concern was getting a small brewery friendly version of the “Pint Bill” passed allowing the sale of pints of beer for on premise enjoyment at South Carolina breweries. [Note: A month later the bill did pass and thanks to Jaime’s and the association’s efforts this huge step forward will help South Carolina craft brewers continue to grow and reach out to more beer drinkers.] As of the meeting there were 10 operational breweries in South Carolina and as of July 2013 about 18 in planning.

Coast Brewing offers several brews, all likely to bring a beer smile to any beer enthusiast.

The final brewery visit on my 1,000 mile journey was a double bonus experience. Not only did I get to visit the Holy City Brewing Company at 6 Ludwell St., Charleston but also attended a Charleston area homebrewers rally hosted by the brewery. Attendance numbered over a hundred beer and homebrewing enthusiast. Kindred spirited Joel Carl, Sean Nemitz, Market Access Committee Minaudo and Chris Brown co founders of the brewery were on hand to serve several of their beers as tasters (it still wasn’t legal to sell pints) and the homebrew was shared generously.

Charleston area has a great spirit and South Carolinians haven’t seen seen the last of the influence homebrewers and craft brewing enthusiast will bring upon this state. Beer is good and I’m glad to report that it is really good here.

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