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Bierkeller Columbia’s vision remains clear in face of pandemic

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Sam Moses didn’t know exactly what to expect when he stepped into the shed.

Moses, a Columbia economic development attorney, had been invited to a friend of a friend’s backyard to discuss a business venture over beers.

After a few sips, Moses was sold, and a partnership that would bring a taste of Germany to the Midlands was formed.

Bierkeller Columbia has grown from its homebrew-by-way-of-Bavaria founding in 2016 into a popular popup beer garden that draws thousands of people to locations such as the banks of the Congaree River for seasonal gatherings at Riverfront Park. Though facing challenges necessitated by COVID-19 to its business model, Bierkeller Columbia and founder and owner Scott Burgess are committed to continuing to produce authentic German beer — and more of it.

“We can’t make as much as we could sell,” said Moses, Burgess’ friend and business partner. “We’re kind of at that crossroads. We can make 1,000 barrels a year, but we can’t go any further until we have another partner with more capacity or do it ourselves.”

Bierkeller Columbia currently operates out of Swamp Cabbage Brewery, located at 921 Brookwood Drive near Williams-Brice Stadium. In return for production space, Bierkeller’s brand and recipes are licensed to Swamp Cabbage, and the producers of German styles direct-retail their products through popup events.

While the pandemic has put a kibosh on large public gatherings, that original decision, made partially to avoid a significant outlay of upfront capital, has also proved beneficial. Bierkeller’s overhead costs are low, it doesn’t have full-time employees to pay, and it’s able to utilize tanks at Swamp Cabbage for storage of its beer — lagers that can last longer than ales or other styles that are brewed at higher temperatures.

Those advantages, along with their accompanying limitations, mean that, despite a drop in revenue because of the pandemic, Bierkeller is still on the lookout for expansion opportunities — with an eye toward a possibly permanent place at the river.

“Our next step and our big focus right now is getting more capacity,” Moses said. “ I want to move faster probably than Scott does to grow it. What’s really hard and challenging is finding capacity without making large capital investments. … You can get (investors), but you give up some control.”

The birth of bier

Control over his product, as a few minutes in his presence will make evident, is kind of a thing with Burgess.

Usually found manning the taps of beer trucks at Riverfront Park and describing the beer he makes in detail, Burgess is now a fixture at a to-go stand at Swamp Cabbage, handing out pre-ordered crowlers to customers once a week.

“Normally we’d do the biergartens at Riverfront Park in fall and spring, and spring was canceled,” Burgess said between drive-up customers on a recent Thursday. “Sadly, it was a very beautiful spring.”

The to-go crowlers are “our lifeline, basically, right now to revenues, and trying to keep Columbia supplied with fresh, authentic German beer as best we can,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty well. Response at the very beginning was amazing, overwhelming almost. I think that’s for a number of reasons. People wanted to support local, and people knew that this was going to be a burden to food and beverage folks. For a while, we were selling six, seven, eight hundred cans a week.”

Those numbers waned when restaurants were able to reopen — severely at first, Burgess said, before leveling out at around 400 crowlers a week.  

“It’s not to the numbers that we were, but even at about 50% of those numbers, 400 crowlers a week is a good revenue stream, especially given that most everything else is closed down,” Burgess said. “We were lucky enough to have product in the tanks, and a lot of it that we had there preparing for spring. If the beer stays in the tanks, it stays more or less ‘alive’, and so we’re still able to fill kegs as needed, and the day of the drive-through is when we fill these cans, so the cans that people are getting are super-fresh.”

The life and death of beer — specifically, the behavior of the yeast that produces alcohol — is a topic Burgess can discuss on demand and in minute detail, one of many related to all things beer. His low-key delivery does not mask his pride in what he has created in his hometown, borne of experiences a continent and a decade away.

In 1993, Burgess was on an exchange program between the University of South Carolina and Bamberg in Bavaria, the largest of 16 German federal states. His day job was studying comparative literature. His passion was roaming the 375 or so breweries within an hour's radius of the town of around 70,000 people.

“Every direction you go in, you’re going to hit multiple ones. So on the weekends, when I wasn’t working, I would hop on my bike and just do these loops,” Burgess said. “It takes you through sort of hilly countryside and forest and little villages. I visited these breweries and just fell in love with the whole central role that it played in life there.

“It’s everywhere, beer. I’ve stumbled upon miniature beer gardens in the courtyards of department stores, the way Kmart would have a blue-light sale back in the day. PTA meetings, church concerts, not to mention every gas station, bakery, butcher shop. In our dorm, we had a beer vending machine. It’s absolutely everywhere, and people treat it as a sort of cultural — not only heritage, but also a proud tradition in that area.”

When the exchange ended, Burgess searched for an opportunity to return, and a Fulbright fellowship led to a 10-year second trip.

“I got a job at a university in a different town, but I stayed in Bamberg and commuted back and forth over the old East German border,” he said. “So I got to see, before they got overgrown, all the minefields that used to be there, and watchtowers and Jeep tracks and all those cool types of things.”

Along with remnants of history, Burgess absorbed more hops. Upon his return stateside in 2002, Burgess began thinking about trying to replicate the beer that had worked its way into his bloodstream, narrowing it down to his “absolute favorites” that he would try to replicate “over and over and over until we get them where we think that they taste like over there. “

The result: the beer made with just malt, water, hops and yeast described on Bierkeller Columbia’s webpage as comparable to “old friends: unique but familiar … and always refreshing to spend a few hours with.”

‘Keller’ means cellar or basement in German, with kellerbier coming from a tradition in hilly areas such as Bamberg where brewers tunneled through sandstone to reach a temperature of eight degrees Celsius to lager (store) their beer. Bierkeller in Bamberg is to biergarten in Munich.

 “Kellerbier is just the beer that you serve at the bierkeller. It can be, from one bierkeller down the road, pale yellow to dark brown. It’s just whatever they serve most at the keller is the kellerbier,” Burgess said. “The one we chose is from my favorite place right there in town, and it’s kind of in between, kind of orangey. It’s liquid bread, basically. It’s what they consume for sustenance.”

The other Bierkeller Columbia flagship styles are Fastenbier, a dark Franconian lager; Rauchbier, a lager smoked in the Bamberg tradition of beechwood fires; and Kolumbianer, the “outlier” according to Burgess, as it’s modeled on Cologne-area Kolsches. Burgess also developed a Bockbier last fall modeled on a beer brewed by monks in Bamberg’s oldest brewery, Klosterbrau Bamberg, which is first mentioned in historical records dating to 1333.

Burgess also makes seasonals, including a light, wheat Weissbier, and is cooking up a Dampfbier, “an obscure Franconian Bavarian style that I’m planning on doing for this October. … I’ve been rolling it over in my brain for years but I think I’ve figured out how to do it right.”

Changing S.C. beer laws such as the Stone Bill, a failed attempt to lure Stone Brewing Co. to South Carolina which nevertheless loosened production and sales restrictions, made Burgess’ brainstorm of bringing the German styles he loved to his home state seem possible. Back stateside, he hooked up with Moses, whose work had led him to Munich for six years.

“We both spoke German and had an appreciation for German culture, with beer top of the list,” Moses said.

That shared connection led to the backyard shed where Moses first sampled Burgess’ brewing efforts. He was handed a Kolsch.

“I don’t think I tasted anything as good in Cologne,” Moses said. “It was just awesome.”

With not just capital but legal knowledge and even more German connections to bring to the table, Moses quickly jumped on board Burgess’ burgeoning idea, and a bit of Bavaria took root in Columbia.

Riding the storm out  

Bierkeller Columbia’s present includes not just pandemic-related challenges but also a looming shortage of aluminum, tied to federal tariffs and fueled by soaring sales of take-out beer that replaced on-premise consumption as states shuttered bars, breweries and restaurants. A while back, Bierkeller ran out of labels for its crowlers and instead sells sleek silver cans marked by Burgess’ looping cursive.

“Someone said that Bierkeller has established air supremacy over Columbia because we don’t have to have any marks on our cans,” Burgess said. “It’s just straight silver.”

Last month, Bierkeller did a “trial run” in conjunction with Swamp Cabbage, setting up reservation-only tables for limited beer service with individualized bottles of sanitizer and following recommended state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. A noncontact infrared thermometer, distributed by Richland County and part of what Burgess said has been “tremendous” county and city support, got lots of use.

“The intention with this was to see if we could handle it, if the public could handle it, and what the numbers were going to look like after our little trial,” Burgess said.

South Carolina’s coronavirus cases have spiked in following weeks, with the state reporting 87,117 confirmed cases and 1,600 confirmed deaths as of July 30. The percent positive rate of 7,600 tests reported to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on July 29 was 21.5%.

“So we haven’t done any since, and the river is still … up in the air,” Burgess said. “We want to get back in fall, and if we do, we think we have a pretty good grasp on how to space it out properly.

“The problem is, here we did reservation-only. We wanted to implement things that we could carry forward, but we wouldn’t be able to say it’s solely by reservation at the river, and the fear would be that we would get overwhelmed. We’ve had, on nice days, 2,000 people down there, and we can’t have that now. The danger is turning people away, having them be understanding about it, but at the same time, maybe say, ‘Well I just won’t try again.’ So there’s a customer who’s maybe even loyal to you that has given up, not based on anything you did, just based on the situation. So that’s the Catch-22. … You want to get in it and you want to do it right, but doing it right is going to exclude people.”

It’s a dilemma being monitored by influential industry observers.

“I’m curious about Bierkeller,” Brook Bristow, owner and managing attorney at Bristow Beverage Law and executive director of the S.C. Brewers Guild, said. “Their model was all based on those special events, like out by the river. You haven’t been able to do that.”

An executive order issued by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster on July 29 allows gatherings of up to 250 people or 50% capacity if social distancing and other guidelines are followed.

“I think if you had a big enough space to operate in – it’s really no different than operating a restaurant or a beer garden or something that has dining and seating. You could deal with that,” said Bristow, adding that logistics such as seating remain.

“It’s an interesting dilemma, because at a certain point, just to survive, especially if that’s your model, you’re going to have to look at it really hard, and you probably need to do it,” he said. “But in terms of policing it, that’s tricky. … You also want people, when they think of your brand, to think, ‘That’s a great product, and they care about me and keeping me safe.’ Not everyone who goes out these days cares about those things, but companies sure have to. It’s going to be tricky, especially if you do it on a larger scale, how to keep people in a good spot, especially when they’re drinking.”

Keeping consumers safe while staying afloat is a balance breweries in S.C. and nationwide have had to strike during the pandemic, even as reopenings were permitted.

A recent survey by the Brewers Association, a national organization representing craft breweries, found that breweries have averaged a 43% loss in revenue, with the smallest operations hit even harder. An S.C. Brewers Guild survey released in April sounded alarm bells, with 80% of respondents saying they would have to close if bars and dining rooms remained closed for another 90 days.

Easing restrictions and federal and state aid have lessened that predicted impact, Bristow said, but the reality remains challenging.

“No (S.C.) brewery or brew pub has folded as of yet, which is very encouraging news,” Bristow said. “Obviously, that hasn’t been true for a lot of retailers, especially bars and restaurants. The longer this draws out, it’s not going to be isolated to just retailers.

“ … It seems like, with everyone I talk to, they seem to be doing better than I think people expect, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing great. I think everyone was able to weather the shutdown, but long-term, what they’re not going to be able to weather is just a continuation of basically operating at a 50% capacity level.”

Bristow participated earlier this month in an online version of the annual hill climb, where craft beer representatives from across the nation advocate for their industry to Congress. A main issue on the table, Bristow said, is extending or making permanent the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which cuts S.C. brewers’ federal excise taxes from $7 per barrel to $3.50 but sunsets in December.

“Obviously, in the thick of a pandemic, a giant tax hike like that is not going to be very palatable to some of these businesses,” he said.

On a state level, pending legislation could increase South Carolina’s current to-go beer limit of 288 ounces, or a case of 12-ounce beers.

“The proposal would be to double that limit, and then that would phase out, I think, the end of May,” Bristow said. “The intention being, it’s a temporary help, but then it might bring all industry players to the table to work out further relief. That’s on the table. … Most of the issues that South Carolina breweries are facing have to be dealt with on the state level. It’s definitely an opportunity for the entire food and beverage industry to take an assessment of where things are, look at the structure of the system. There’s definitely an opportunity there for everyone to improve and succeed and assess certain laws.”

While focused on weathering the COVID-19 storm, Burgess and Bierkeller are also thinking about the future. Public gathering and aluminum worries notwithstanding, Burgess is also ruminating about how to reconcile his direct retailing approach with his beer-making operation.

“There are a lot of cool spots in Columbia that are super underutilized, especially around the water,” he said. “(But) if you want to have a biergarten or a bierkeller that is in an idyllic setting and you want to be a producer, that property has to be contiguous legally. That’s harder to find. Ideally, my dream if we could find it, would be a contiguous property here where we could be producers and also still sell it in the setting that not only lets what we’re doing and what our vision is from coming over from Germany shine, but lets Columbia shine, (and) a lot of that focuses on the water.

“Within the next five years, if we somehow ended up in a position where we could have a biergarten on the water that we’re not just doing as a popup and have a production facility that also would sort of replicate the experience of the taverns over there, which are super-cool as well, the old breweries and taverns that you ride your bike to out in the country … long-term, I’d love to be able to realize something like that. We’ll see. We got some ideas.”

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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