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Midlands craft beer scene hopping

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By Chris Cox
Published Oct. 26, 2015

From the Sept. 28 – Oct. 11 of the Columbia Regional Business Report

Even in the face of its statewide explosion, and the cultural renaissance it has experienced nationally, local distributor Ashley Bower still finds herself teaching people the ins and outs of craft beer.

“I still run into people who think of beer as this yellow, fizzy stuff,” she said. “ … Just like wine, it has a place at the dinner table. It can pair with all different foods. It’s more than just yellow, fizzy stuff.”

Educating the uninformed continues to be one of the biggest obstacles for those promoting the craze locally, where about 10% of the state’s craft beer is brewed, according to S.C. Brewers Guild president Brook Bristow. While the consensus suggests thirst for the product continues to rise, some believe it has momentarily tapped out in the Midlands thanks in part to a college community still living off cheap domestic beer.

“We’re a college town, we’re not a bunch of young professionals,” said Mike Tourville, owner of River Rat Brewery. “We’re starting to come that way, but it’s still a college town. It’s a lot of under-21s and there’s a lot of people with low budgets that aren’t going to pay $5 or $6 for a pint.”

The craft beer industry has about a $450 million economic impact on South Carolina, up from $250 million just three years ago, S.C. Brewers Guild president Brooks Bristow said. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
Changing the beer culture remains a work in progress. Columbia was slow in coming around to the trend – Greenville and Charleston were the in-state epicenters of the movement – as it didn’t welcome its first craft beer brewery serving to the commercial market until Conquest Brewing and River Rat joined in January 2013. Swamp Cabbage Brewing Company entered the fray the following year.

The boom was a new, surprising development in a community that for a time was only home to Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse, which opened its doors in 1995. The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium later followed in the Vista.

But the relative adolescence of the industry in Columbia is what makes it so interesting, Bristow said.

“What makes it special is that it’s almost the Wild West,” he said. “There’s so much that hasn’t been done. Whether it’s River Rat, Conquest or somebody else, the different styles they’re rolling out are by and large things no one has ever seen before in the market.

“So I think that’s what makes it cool, that it’s so young. There’s still this great opportunity to really educate people about things they didn’t even think they would like.”

Fermenting knowledge

Slowly, but surely, that education is taking hold. The World Beer Festival has been a staple in Columbia for the last seven years, and earlier this spring Bower helped co-found the inaugural Soda City Suds Week. The three-day event featured more than 25 events focusing on the art and appreciation of craft beer in the Midlands.

The celebration was capped by the Cream of the Crop Beer Fest at City Roots, where tasting glasses and beer guides were given out to participants anxious to expand their craft beer palates.

“We had to turn people away at events,” Bower said. “Businesses to this day tell me that was one of their best events this year. It was great to see we were able to help small businesses around here and help highlight their craft beer and also educate people about craft beer.”

brewery tap 3
About 10% of the state’s craft beer is brewed in the Midlands, including at River Rat Brewery on Shop Road. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
And a host of other craft beer-driven businesses have also made their way into the marketplace. Everyone knows World of Beer in the Vista, but Lexington’s Keg Cowboy, Craft and Draft on Devine Street and Southern Brewed in Northeast Columbia are other establishments sprouting up across the Midlands.

And lest anyone forget the Brew Bus, which takes customers on a ride along to tour of each local brewing company, naturally complete with tasty samples.

“These days, especially among younger people, there’s more of an interest in supporting local businesses than there was when I was in college,” Bristow said. “I think people are more willing to do that and certainly when it comes to local beer, gosh, whether it’s Columbia or across the state, that’s a big deal.

“That has a lot to do with the success of breweries, is that people want to buy local and support their local companies.”

Growing beer economy

Bristow said the industry has about a $450 million economic impact on South Carolina, up from $250 million just three years ago. Much of that jump is due in part to a handful of law changes, including the 2013 pint law which increased the amount of beer customers can consume in craft brewery tasting rooms from four 4-ounce samples to three pints.

The industry directly supports about 3,000 South Carolina jobs, he said, and last year 56,000 barrels were produced in the Palmetto State. Greenville and Spartanburg produce most of the craft beer here, largely due to brewing companies Thomas Creek and RJ Rockers, while the Charleston area produces about 30% of the product.

No new breweries have entered the local marketplace since the initial trio came on board a few years ago. Changing that, however, will revitalize what Tourville hopes to see from the industry in the Midlands.

“I see positive things down the road, I would just like to see a couple more breweries opening up so we can become a brewery culture,” he said. That’s all it’s going to take. … And then the culture can go. And everybody working together as a community instead of separately. Distributors, all these beer enthusiasts, these little beer clubs. If everybody just worked together and supported each other we’d be in really good shape.”

The culture is constantly progressing here, Bower and Bristow agree. Whether it’s Conquest’s Finisher, a Russian imperial stout with its state-legal limit 17.5% alcohol by volume, River Rat’s Broad River Red or its flavorful Sour Cherry Sucker Punch, Columbia’s craft beer scene has something for everyone regardless of their taste buds.

“We’re growing all the time, every week something new is on the shelf,” said Bower, who now has about 40 clients in Columbia. “More and more people are getting into it.

“I think we still have room to grow. I think there’s plenty of market share to take from Bud Light.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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