Charleston's Beer Scene Bubbles Over
Jul 11, 2018 03:13PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson
Ten years ago, the strict laws governing alcohol sales and brewpubs drove most people to, well, drink. But not at a brewery. Now, after a series of legislative wins, the Lowcountry has a booming beer business.
“There’s certainly never been a better time to be a brewer in Charleston than right now,” says Brook Bristow, owner of Bristow Beverage Law. “Not only do we have the built-in tourism destination that Charleston is, it’s now a beer tourism destination.”
That wasn’t always the case. 2007 marked the first big change for brewers in the state: the “Pop the Cap” bill, which allowed brewers to produce and sell beer greater than 6.5 percent. Although a seemingly insignificant change to industry outsiders, craft brewing is tied to innovation, and maintaining an alcohol percentage below 6.5 percent inhibited growth and creativity.
The next big legislative win came in 2010, with the Tour and Taste initiative, allowing consumers to visit a brewery, try the beers, and purchase some to take home.
“That was important, because for the first time the consumers got to go to the brewery, see the process up close, and learn about what it was,” says Bristow. “It wasn’t so mysterious, and it shaped education for both consumers and our legislators.”
It also began to shape the burgeoning beer scene.
Chris Brown, co-owner and production manager of Holy City Brewing, opened his brewery in 2011. He and his partner were in the planning stages when the Tour and Taste law was passed. Upon opening, they were allowed to provide four 4-ounce samples to customers. Holy City sold a pint glass and four beer tastes for $5 and customers were allowed to keep the glass. Still, although helpful, the law was restrictive.
“That hurt us early, compared to breweries in North Carolina that I'm friends with,” says Brown. “Their taproom sales were much higher than mine off the bat. They had a much higher cash flow and were able to add tanks and expand and add employees faster than I could, and that hurt us a lot.”
It would be two more years until the state added to that law. In 2013, the Pint Law was introduced, which amended the Tour and Taste law to say that if a customer comes to a brewery, they can purchase up to 48 ounces of beer to consume on-site. Bristow calls the Pint Law “a monumental change.”
“For the first time, for the breweries selling to-go, this was an allowance for a direct sale,” he says. “Breweries could start making some really nice money in direct-to-customer sales. You could sell beer out of your taproom and turn a really nice profit and create jobs.”
“I would say the Pint Law was the momentum starter and the conversation piece,” says Ryan Coker, owner and head brewer at Revelry Brewery and vice president of the S.C. Brewer’s Guild. “The rest snowballed from there.”
In 2014, Stone Brewing Company, headquartered in California, was looking to open an East Coast location. As an incentive to lure Stone to South Carolina, the state passed what’s now known as the Stone Law: If a brewery offers food and has a kitchen that DHEC will approve as a retail food establishment, the 48-ounce cap was removed and breweries could sell as much beer as they liked, subject to restrictions such as responsible serving practices.
Although the brewery ultimately chose not to locate in South Carolina, the Stone Law was key for Coker as he worked to open Revelry. He had been working on his business plan and found a suitable location. A kitchen was included, but Coker and his team planned to get rid of it.
“As soon as the bill was written in its original form, we said, ‘Wait a second, we can go back to our business plan and re-tool this thing,’” he says. “Our margin is going to be huge and we can keep this kitchen we were going to scrap.”
Coker, who opened Revelry in September 2014, says his brewery came about in the “momentum” phase of South Carolina’s beer growth. He gives credit to the beer pioneers who lobbied the Legislature and paved the way for up-and-coming brewers to bring their craft to light.
“They laid the fundamental groundwork for all this change and did a lot of the early grunt work, and then the momentum caught,” he says. “Not only with the influx of breweries coming to the scene, but the consumer is more educated and looking for a local watering hole, as opposed to buying Bud Light off the shelf.”
Jaime Tenny, co-owner of Coast Brewing with her husband David Merritt, was one of the “old guard” who ushered in the changes in laws. She founded the Brewer’s Guild in 2005, with the sole goal of removing the alcohol cap. Once the Pop the Cap law was passed in 2007, Tenny realized she could start her own business here.
“If that didn't happen, we were going to move out of state,” she says. “It was pretty pivotal. Without the laws, none of us would be here today because it simply wasn’t worth it to run a business how you want to run it without those law changes.”
Had the laws not changed, Tenny says the industry simply wouldn’t have developed here. Clearly, that’s not a fear anymore. According to Bristow, the craft beer industry in the state of South Carolina contributes $655 million in economic benefits, an increase of nearly $200 million over the last couple of years.
Those benefits could rise with the passing of the new federal tax laws. For every barrel of beer (31 gallons) that’s brewed, the brewery pays $7 in excise tax. That number will drop to $3.50 per barrel, allowing breweries to use the freed-up funds to hire more employees, buy new equipment, and produce more beer.
The new excise tax law will also encourage potential brewers to open up shop. While the Charleston area alone currently boasts more than 20 breweries, brewers aren’t too concerned about new competition—yet.
“Charleston’s always thirsty,” laughs Bristow. “If beer isn’t top-notch, then in time consumers will vote with their pocketbooks and the market will work itself out.”
Quality, not quantity, seems to be the big factor in play.
“Just like with real estate in Charleston, it’s getting a little crowded,” says Tenny. “That’s where I think the quality part will play a factor. You can’t be mediocre anymore, whereas maybe you could be at one point.”
Tenny says that when there is a lot of choice, it’s difficult to stay relevant and keep in front of people’s view. She admits that if she were a new brewery, she’d be nervous.
“We’re established, and we consistently put out really high-quality beer because my husband is a fanatic about that, so we’ve got that on our side, but new breweries have to come out on day one with good beer.”
The brewers agree that beer is a collaborative industry, and many find themselves working hand-in-hand with competitors. Because of the collaboration, Brown says that he doesn’t think the market is saturated by any means.
“I know everybody, and if I need something that I can’t order or can’t get within a couple of days, I know I can call some other breweries and they can help me out,” he says. “And I’m happy to help anybody out that needs something on the fly or needs to wash kegs.”
Coker says that Charleston’s fierce local pride also helps make plenty of room for new entities.
“In Charleston specifically, you’ve got a real support for ‘Made in Charleston,’” he says. “We really pick each other up.”
Coker and other Charleston brewery owners are currently working to develop a brewery district that extends from Huger Street downtown to the city line at North Charleston, to include seven to eight breweries. They’re working with the city to obtain a declaration of an official district, as well as other benefits such as shuttle buses running between the breweries.
“We’ve all kind of grown together, and now we want to cement our place in downtown Charleston,” Coker says. “If we all start making crap beer because we get complacent and don’t continue to educate ourselves, then we’re not going to be taken seriously and a brewery district won’t materialize.”
Luckily, in Charleston at least, that doesn’t seem to be a problem.
“I think the sentiment of the rising tide floats all boats is true, and we’re in a very fortunate circumstance if you look at the greater picture of craft beer,” Coker says. “The world is our oyster, and if we can maintain focus on the important aspects, the future is bright for this area.”C