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Beer boom not slowing down in South Carolina

Hospitality and Tourism
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In 2005, Jaime Tenny and her husband David Merritt wanted to open their own brewery. Merritt had been a brewer for more than 10 years at Palmetto Brewing Co. in Charleston, and the couple decided it was time to strike out on their own.

At that time, Palmetto Brewing and RJ Rockers Brewing Co. in Spartanburg were two of the only breweries in the state.

A big obstacle stood in Tenny’s and Merritt’s way: South Carolina law didn’t allow beer above 5% alcohol by weight (about 6.3% alcohol by volume) to be brewed or sold in the state, and Tenny said that limit restricted how financially viable a new brewery could be.

“So we had two plans, and I still laugh that plan A was to change the law, and plan B was to move to North Carolina and open a brewery there,” Tenny said. “I really wish I could flash back to my young mind at that point and wonder why I thought changing laws would be easier than moving.”

Tenny began a group called Pop the Cap to advocate for changing the law, and after two years of work, the South Carolina Legislature lifted the limit to 14% alcohol by weight (about 17.6% abv) in May 2007, opening the path for Tenny and Merritt to open Coast Brewing Co. in North Charleston.

In the 10 years since that law passed, more than 40 additional breweries have opened in South Carolina, bringing the total to almost four dozen in the state, with more projected to open in the coming year.

Brook Bristow, executive director of the S.C. Brewers Guild, which is what the Pop the Cap group evolved into, said the industry’s growth is in part because of continuing advocacy to get more laws changed. In 2010, it became legal for breweries to allow customers to sample beers on-site, and in 2013 and 2014, laws changed to allow breweries to sell beer directly to customers and serve food.

“Now, running a brewery in South Carolina is actually a viable business,” Bristow said. “I think for some of the originators like Palmetto, it wasn’t that you couldn’t make money; but now we have various business models that we’re seeing, and it just makes more sense.”

Bristow said he expects the growth of breweries across the state to continue, but “It’s not going to just keep going to the sky; it’s going to be more of a gradual kind of growth rate.”

Will McCameron, president and co-founder of Brewery 85 in Greenville, said there’s plenty of room to grow in the Upstate beer market.

“It’s good that a lot of people are opening, it’s good that there are a lot more options,” he said, adding that as long as everyone is brewing good beer, there’s no risk of oversaturating the market.

“There’s plenty of room to grow, I’m pretty happy with it,” McCameron said.

Bristow said as the market grows, breweries are working to stand out from the crowd through different marketing techniques, such as social media, collaboration with other breweries and events. He said every taproom has its own vibe.

“I think they’re finding that just offering beer maybe isn’t enough anymore, so you kind of have to have another component to get people to come in,” he said.

Bristow and McCameron both said one thing they worry about is making sure new brewers are getting into the industry for the right reasons.

“Quality has to come first,” McCameron said. “I’m not saying a lot of people in South Carolina aren’t (brewing quality beer), but quality has to come first.”

Meeting market demands

When Coast Brewing first opened, Tenny said the only goal was to brew beer for distribution, since that’s all that was legal at the time.

More than 10 years after Coast opened, though, the laws have changed, and Tenny said Coast is finally buying the property that it leases from North Charleston to build a taproom and update its facility. In the current configuration, customers visiting Coast have limited seating options, mostly consisting of folding chairs.

“It’s past time,” Tenny said. “We’re small, it’s my husband and I and my cousin Michael, and it’s just taken this long to do it right, to do it sustainably, to do it where we have the cash flow and the bank doesn’t laugh at us. … We’re overdue for that taproom, that public space, but it is what it is, and this is the timing that we have.”

Newer breweries are also having to expand to meet demand: Tradesman Brewing Co. was founded in 2014 on Johns Island in Charleston County, but its owners closed down their initial facility in September for a larger one on King Street Extension.

“We were having a hard time making enough beer to keep up with demand, and the little facility that we started with we outgrew relatively quickly, and there was no way for us to add any more equipment or streamline any of these processes,” Tradesman co-owner Chris Winn said. “It wasn’t even a matter of ‘Should we expand?’ It was a matter of ‘We really need to expand. We can’t make any more beer and, we can’t get any more people in the door.’”

Winn said he and the other owners of Tradesman has been working to make sure they don’t lose the brewery’s vibe in the new facility. The original Tradesman facility was intimate, and Winn and co-owners Sara McConnell and Scott McConnell, who are married, want to retain that feeling.

“The new building is so much larger, but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to be a big open room with the tanks,” Winn said. “One piece is that the tasting room space is going to be walled off and built up inside the building. (It) will still feel cozy and intimate.”

Winn said the beer industry across the state and across the country is in a state of flux as more people try craft beer and consumer tastes change.

“I think it’s an exciting time to be in beer,” Winn said. “We’re definitely in the middle of a full-blown American brewing revolution, and it’s great to see so many different takes on styles and so many variations on the theme.”  

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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