After 25 years in the beer business, Kevin Varner is branching out.
Not into a different line of work; just into a new location.
Varner, who opened Main Street mainstay Hunter-Gatherer Brewery and Alehouse in 1995, is weeks away from the anticipated mid-January opening date of the brewery’s second location at the Curtiss-Wright Hangar at Owens Field. The spacious 13,000-square-foot airplane hangar adjoins the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport and will feature a tap room, a 527-gallon brewhouse, a kegging and bottling line and an observation deck overlooking the airport.
“I don’t know how to do anything else that pays,” said Varner, who had already begun his beer career before graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1993. “When you’ve been doing it as long as I have now, it’s kind of part of your identity.”
The original Hunter-Gatherer, a cozy brick building at 900 Main St., helped pioneer Columbia’s craft beer scene. A second location had been in the back of Varner’s mind for a while, but first, S.C. laws regulating ownership of multiple brewpubs and breweries had to loosen.
Once that happened, and after he purchased a German brewing system from a defunct Japanese brewery, Varner needed a location. Word reached him that a former USC classmate was redeveloping the historic airplane hangar off Rosewood Drive, and the aesthetics immediately appealed to him.
At the new location, five tanks and a fermenter will keep five beers in regular rotation. Patrons can find the same British pale ales, porters and ESB – extra special/strong bitter – beers offered downtown, but the drastic increase in space will allow Varner to try some different varieties, such as a lager.
But Varner, who proudly says he’s made every batch of beer served at the Hunter-Gatherer (his favorites are the Plain X Stout and the traditional pale ale), doesn’t intend to get too fancy.
“We’re still going to stick to sort of doing it the traditional way,” he said. “We’ve never made beer with any other ingredients other than the normal beer stuff.”
Varner first fell in love with hops, grain and yeast in Scotland, where he studied abroad for a semester and “found out that all beer didn’t taste the same,” he said. “There was more variety.” Back in Columbia, he began homebrewing in his apartment and corresponding with brewers, eventually heading to Seattle to get a taste of the Pacific Northwest’s overflowing suds scene.
He worked at Hale’s Ales, brewing, kegging and delivering beer for the industry trailblazer, in business since 1983. That experience made his passion permanent.
“By the time I was 19, I was sure that I wanted to open a brewery one day,” Varner said.
Varner, a Greenville native, returned to Columbia with a rare yeast strain, taken by Hale’s from a brewery in England that opened in the mid-1800s, and a determination to make a go of craft beer in his home state, despite its slightly less established beer culture. When a bill legalizing brew pubs in the Palmetto State passed in 1994, Varner was ready with a secondhand brewing system and a dream.
Now, Varner is hard at work getting his new location ready. Hammers pounded and power saws whined inside the hangar, strewn with shiny equipment. Varner had hoped to open the location by Dec. 21, the winter solstice in Columbia, but equipment issues pushed the big day back to Jan. 19.
“I don’t do much other than work and sleep, but I have made sure I sleep,” he said.
The new Hunter-Gatherer will have a lighter menu than the Main Street location. Plans are to sell kegs to other bars and restaurant within a month or so of opening and to eventually begin bottling beer.
Varner will take a hands-on role in every step in the business that still gives him a buzz after more than two decades.
“It’s satisfying to actually finish the day with something done. Days I’m on the computer, I don’t really feel like I accomplish very much,” he said. “It’s more fun than the rest of the world has (at work), I guess.”