Charleston Beer Week 2014

I’m not a big fan of the beach. I don’t crave the feeling of warm sand between my toes. But a cold beer in hand? I’ll take one of those in any locale.

I ventured down last Wednesday to partake in the tail end of Charleston Beer Week, seven days of booze documentaries, tap takeovers and coastal brew love. The last-minute efforts of the CHS Beer Week planners (THANK YOU, MIKE!) netted me a ticket to Cinnebarre for the CRAFT and Cultured Craft Beer documentaries.

Cinnebarre, CRAFT, Cultured Craft Beer

Image from CHS Beer Week Event

I settled in with Sweetwater’s Take Two Pils and high expectations for CRAFT, but this “behind-the-scenes look at [craft beer’s] trailblazers” left me hanging: it felt like a meagerly elevated “craft beer for dummies” string of shorts providing overviews of beer history, brewing and trends. Only a handful of brewers (fewer than a dozen?) were interviewed, all of which were from the US except for two Canadians and only one of which was a woman. This “beertastic voyage” lacked an overall focus, and just as each segment began to provide depth, the screen faded and a new topic began.

Tony Tassarotti’s Cultured Craft Beer, on the other hand, successfully captured the talent and culture of Charleston beer in less than 30 minutes. The documentary had an overarching focus that brought together numerous interviews of brewmasters and bottle shop owners, a bit of beer history, brew law and an eye on the future. I welled up with South Carolina beer pride and “shout from the rooftops” enthusiasm I get for something I really believe in.

After a restful night at the quiet Notso Hostel, I entertained myself with a drive around Mount Pleasant, lunch at Butcher & Bee, and a tour and tasting at High Wire Distilling. Distiller Nick Dowling was inviting and entertaining as he led a tasting and tour (only $5) for a Connecticut couple and me. It was exciting to compare distilling and brewing; did you know that the now one-year-old distillery has barrels from Full Steam Brewery? I’m delighted to have a new bottle of Woodford Reserve barrel-aged rum on my liquor shelf, and I’ll be picking up a bottle of the citrus-forward gin next time or the new bourbon that launches next month.

With all of the CHS Beer Week events occurring at night, I was thankful Palmetto Brewery opened at 3 p.m. Beyond the large outdoor space and expansive murals, the brewery’s one-month-old tasting room boasted a gorgeous interior with cedar walls, a refurbished-wood bar (made from cattle cars!) and a glass “window” peaking into the neighboring coffee roaster. Yes, the smell of fresh beer and coffee was as intoxicating as you’re imagining, and the nitro Espresso Porter was my favorite of the beers I tried.

Barb Falkenstein kept my glass full (try the AM Wood!) and my questions satisfied during my tour and tasting, and introduced me to Chris Winn, resident Brewery 85 fan and Beer Evangelist (best job title ever!). He treated me to the tale of Hootie’s Homegrown Ale went from an idea in Tampa to a collaboration between Cigar City and Palmetto. Chris also gave me the best suggestion of the trip when he pointed out that two of the night’s CHS Beer Week events were within walking distance of each other. Plans changed for the better.

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I swapped the cool, calm tasting room for the loud, cramped enthusiastic crowd of barrel-aged beer lovers at Closed For Business. Craft beer fans shouldn’t miss this restaurant and bar, which always boast an impressive but not overwhelming tap list.

IMG_1352A generous stranger bought me a Founders KBS (amazingcan’t believe I waited this long to try it), and it was then that I spotted a familiar face from home: the illustrious Todd Hamrick of Anderson Valley Brewing Company, along with Stone’s Jason Selby and Coronado’s Johnny O. Each represented fantastic brews: Pinchy Jeek in Wild Turkey barrels, Reason Be Damned Belgian Abbey Ale in red wine barrels (the best red wine barrel-aged beer I’ve had) and Stupid Stout (creamy, bourbony, yum), respectively. Conversation ensued as beers swapped hands, and I look forward to seeing those lovely chaps at this fall’s big Greenville beer events.

With Kudu and casks on my mind, I suspended my barrel-aged love momentarily and headed for dinner and more beer. Music and laughter wafted around the corner from Vanderhorst, where I found a Christmas-light-strung garden filled with eager beer drinkers. This event featured Kudu’s excellent craft beer line-up in addition to four local casks, and I started with Coast’s previously unreleased September Saison cask. I sat at table to take notes and watch as a variety of brewers gathered by the entrance.

Halfway through my glass, the stars aligned as Coast’s Jaime Tenny walked up and introduced herself. I was ecstatic and this official meeting played out exactly like I’d dreamed:

I dorked out. I stuttered. I try to be laid back and professional at all hours, but I literally forgot all words besides “cool,” “awesome” and “derp.” I can only hope she read between the lines and saw “your beers and business savvy and legislative work and brew culture-building make you the coolest person ever” in my starstruck gaze.

We did eventually get around to a wee update on Coast: the tasting room work will resume by the year’s end, and a DHEC-approved kitchen is in the brewery’s new future (thank you, Stone Bill). In her wise words, Coast has been waiting seven years for these opportunities, and they can be patient for change.

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As the crowd dwindled, I visited the casks for a senses-awakening sip of Palmetto’s 5-hole Smoked Stout conditioned with cinnamon and five ghost peppers (OUCH) and a soothing Pluff Mud Porter with blueberries and coffee from Holy City. I also had the pleasure of chatting with two familiar faces: Palmetto’s God-ordained owner, Austen, and Collin (the guy who runs the show, though they don’t know it). They talked about the daily happenings at the brewery, including the schemes of janitor Chris Winn and John Planty, the GM and Director of Janitorial Services, and shared some Charleston beer insights. Though Austen will probably be mute next time you see him because he drank a whole pint of the ghost pepper beer, both hilarious chaps are worth popping into Palmetto for a visit.*

The leisurely theme continued with a morning exploring the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, where I stopped for my favorite food of the trip: lunch at The Obstinate Daughter (which has local craft beer on tap!) and gelato from Beardcat’s Sweet Shop.

IMG_1386A love of arts and culture as much as beer, I spent a wandered the unique collection of the Charleston Museum. Did you know it’s the United States’ oldest museum? I was fascinated by the collection’s history: the important natural history and Egyptian artifacts gathered in the late 18th century are housed a few rooms from a gargantuan Civil War time and extensive Low Country collections. The museum even has a small portion devoted to Prohibition and features a piece of Palmetto Brewery’s history.

The drive to Columbia loomed over me. After stopping briefly at Total Wine for a River Rat Brewery tasting, it was time to follow up on a promise to Joey Siconolfi to visit Frothy Beard Brewing Company in North Charleston. Joey was one of the many Brewery 85 fans who spied my shirt at Kudu and sang praises of Will McCameron’s brews.

The small, hot brewing space was filled with the hum of rain and the clink of taster glasses when I stepped inside. The friendly Charlotte couple before me invited me to their table, where we talked about beer and the delicious selection of beers from the nanobrewery’s 1.5-barrel system. I’m amazed that this tiny system churned out the well-balanced Hoppy Baby, the chocolately and malty goodness of the Maltese Falcon Brown, the uber-refreshing and not too sweet Watermelon Wheat and the marvelous Bearded Brut (made with champagne yeast).

Though I would have liked more daytime events to balance my itinerary, Charleston Beer Week still proved an excellent opportunity to visit the cost and explore the historic city’s impressive beer culture.

*I distinctly remember a promise of free beer for life if I published this humorous paragraph. You two remember too, right?  =)  You’re always welcome in Greenville if you get sacked!


The Rat is Growing!

What’s a visit to Columbia without a stop at River Rat? I headed to town two weekends ago specifically for the release of the Lost Port Vanilla PorterMother’s Day weekend festivities, and was happy to spend an afternoon with the beers and brewers I adore.

20140518-191720-69440073.jpgAfter a successful launch just two months ago, River Rat Brewery has wasted no time expanding across South Carolina. Their beers have been on tap at Growler Station, Community Tap and Greenville Hop House, and I’ve had a few growlers of the Broad River Red Ale at home. Coincidentally, River Rat entered the Charleston market this past weekend while I was visiting; it was exciting to hear commercials about their beer while I was driving through the Holy City.

The latest release, the Lost Port Vanilla Porter, boasts smooth drinking with a little smokiness, a little bitterness and a lot of rich vanilla that deliciously lingers. The dark brown color and milky head give way to an unexpectedly light-feeling beer. Oh, what I’d do to have taken home a whole keg of this one!

The beer offerings aren’t the only things to change around the brewery. A gravel parking lot 20140518-191719-69439208.jpghas transformed into a grassy escape, with picnic tables, a vast deck and room for a band. I ate lunch with brewmaster Drew–I’d had the luck of running into 2 Fat 2 Fly food truck and getting some mac-and-cheese-stuffed wings–who filled me in on the latest happenings and gave me a tour of the facilities. The biggest difference is that brewer Mark left and has been replaced with Tyler Pawelkop, a seasoned beer rep. Oddly enough, Tyler recalled our meeting back at the Community Tap Beer Festival, when he was working for Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery.

Another big difference inside: barrels. A lot of them. I was giddy to see the collection of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels barrels in the brew space, patiently waiting to be filled with a River Rat creation. Barrel-aged stouts are one of my favorite beers, yet River Rat doesn’t currently offer a stout. Maybe they have a new beer brewing they haven’t mentioned? Or perhaps a staple such as the Hazelnut Brown or the Moncks Corner Abbey Ale will find a new home? The barrels were filled this past Tuesday, so hopefully we’ll find out soon!

Growlers of Lost Port Vanilla Porter and Hazelnut Brown Ale alongside the Double IPA

Growlers of Lost Port Vanilla Porter and Hazelnut Brown Ale alongside the Double IPA

While the beer is spectacular, half the fun of going to River Rat is the people: Mike wasted no time playfully scoffing at my Brewery 85 shirt, Logan and Tyler entertained at the bar, and Drew indulged my questions for more than an hour.

If any Greenvillians want to hop down to Columbia for a day at River Rat and Conquest (and Swamp Cabbage, perhaps by summer’s end), let me know!


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New Beers on the Way

It’s been a little too quiet around here partly because I’ve been working on some other beer-related projects but mostly because I’ve been busy blabbing on Twitter. Come say “hi” at @SCBeerChick! More posts are on the way soon, including a review of Greenville Growler Station’s Beer 101 classes (a new semester begins tomorrow!) and an update on the Stone Bill.

This past week has welcomed a number of new beer announcements. Here are a few of my most anticipated brews:

River Rat Brewery
As luck would have it, my Mother’s Day visit to Columbia this weekend will include a new beer! River Rat’s Lost Port Porter, brewed with Madagascar vanilla beans, hits the taproom along with live music and BBQ Bus.

Brewery 85’s 864 Saison
It’s a beer release and a party all in one May 17th. This Bavarian-style Weizen boasts a unique recipe, with German hops melding with Southern-grown ingredients.

Seminar Brewery
Florence’s first commercial craft brewery has finally opened its doors! I’ve been patiently awaiting Seminar’s beers since I first stated their work at BrewHaHa last fall. A beer road trip is in order!

Swamp Rabbit Brewery
Nichole is letting secrets slip (thanks!) and tweeted today that Ben Pierson is giving a nod to his Lexington Avenue Brewing days with his Raspberry White Ale. If you hear a release date, please share.

Are you excited about any new beer release? Do tell in the comments!

River Rat Brewery in Columbia

Meet the River Rats in their natural habitat:

River Rat Brewery

(left to right) Founder Mike Tourville, Head Brewer Drew Walker, Brewmaster Mark Walters

After getting lost in the wilds of North Carolina post-moving party for a friend, I arrived an hour late in Columbia to the River Rat Brewery shindig that I won tickets to at World Beer Fest. I stepped into a naturally lit taproom and was greeted by the aroma of barbecue and only a handful of people. The chatter of a crowd hummed somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t figure out where to head next. I soon met Claire, who works as some of the business brains behind the operations and immediately introduced me to Mark as a VIP. Fancy shmancy.

River Rat Brewery TaproomMark gave me a hard time for arriving late and then quickly sated my guilt with my first beer of the night: The Hazelnut Brown Ale. Rich in color and nutty flavor, this brew accompanied me through Drew’s extensive tour of the facility. Some fun facts about River Rat:

  • River Rat works with European malts and hops. In an age of local-ness, the brewery is committed first and foremost to quality and also prizes the history behind the product. Which would you rather have: a product with a few decades or a few centuries of experience behind it?
  • Mark hails from New Orleans, where he worked more than 20 years as head brewer at Abita, as well as consulted in opening breweries and brewpubs.
  • The Winter Premiere Ale, a spiced beer with ginger, cloves and orange zest, was the system’s inaugural beer and will return next year.
  • I lost a pen and got a new one with Drew’s DNA. In retrospect, I should’ve requested a beard sample to see if I can harvest a yeast strain from brewing.
  • No matter how many signs you put up specifying that a bathroom is for women, a male VIP member will still waltz right in to change into his new brewery shirt. Mark had a woman open the door and yell at the guy, who responded with obliviousness for why SHE was in the men’s bathroom. I wish I had a photo of the moment he finally recognized he’d stepped into the women’s bathroom!

River Rat Brewery TanksI spent much of my visit talking about favorite beers with my fellow VIPs, a couple who won tickets during the first session of World Beer Festival. We were treated to a taste of the Monck’s Corner Abbey Ale straight out of tanks, which will be ready for regular consumption later this month. This Belgian brew with noble hops and the familiar flavors of dates and cloves seemed to change flavor as soon as Drew mentioned “bubblegum.” It’s sounds strange to see I tasted that in a beer, but it’s a mouth experience I’ve had before and couldn’t quite nail.

Claire and I left the din of restaurant and store owners sipping beer—the real guests of honor at this party—for the quiet and good food of the taproom. I had a glass of the Broad River Red Ale, my personal favorite of the evening, and also tried the Double IPA, a favorite of Claire and Mike. A reasonably hoppy beer, this English-style brew began as one of Mike’s homebrewing recipes. Mark then took those details and worked out a recipe for large-scale production.

River Rat Brewery KegAnd speaking of increasing size, River Rats is already expanding! The demand for the beer is so great pre-opening that the brewery has already ordered additional tanks. Claire showed me the gigantic cooler, which is home to small stack of filled kegs, but there is no doubt it will be bursting with beer in a few months. I can only begin to imagine how popular their beers and how busy their taproom will be when USC’s football season begins (the brewery is located by Williams-Brice Stadium).

At the official opening on March 10th, visitors can expect to see a live music on the gigantic, outdoor deck, where smoking and dogs are also welcome. All five brews should be available for pints and growlers. In the near future, the deck will be accompanied by a beer garden and even a “drive-thru” window, where one can easily pop by for a growler. How cool is that?

Between the lively chat with Claire and the entertainment of the brewers, I was shocked when 5 p.m. rolled around the event came to a close. This was the first experience I’ve had in an exceedingly long time that has left my nostalgic for my home town and wishing I lived closer (it’s only a tiny tug, though–there’s no way I’m really moving back to the Famously Hot armpit of SC).

For the time being, I will patiently await their beers at Community Tap’s festival on April 5th!

A huge, huge thanks goes to everyone at River Rat Brewery for the raffle tickets, the free shirt and glass and sticker, and the patience to let me trail their every move and ask too many questions.

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You can learn more about the brewery, the beers and where they’re available in Columbia in this great Free Times article. Be sure to follow River Rat Brewery on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest news.