Ask any veteran Charleston bartender about beer in the late '90s and visions of Bud Light and early faux micro brews will come to mind. Such was the case for Phillis Mair. "I was working at Arizona's on the Market," she says. "I just recall a bunch of Bud, Bud Light, Miller Light, Tecate in the can, Fosters, too. Corona was always popular." This was also the age of Zima and birth of other malt beverages like Mike's Hard Lemonade.
That was the Holy City landscape when beer enthusiast Derek Baugh moved to Charleston from Michigan just before the turn of the millennium. "In those days, your only options were Village Tavern, Mellow Mushroom on King Street, T-Bonz, and Gene's Haufbrau," recalls Baugh.
But hailing from a more advance beer state, Baugh quickly sought out craft options, becoming a member of every mug-club these outposts offered. The selection he found, however, was limited. Imports sprinkled with American craft beer offerings made up most beer club lists. Early on, these clubs attempted to address the adventurous nature of beer consumers, but it was people like Baugh who brought the demand and knowledge of beer, and in many cases advised beer buyers in their decisions, driving business with it.
"Along with the prerequisite British and Irish imports, Pete's Wicked Ale was a staple tap handle. We had rotating seasonal beers out every month or so, and that provided a nice way to try new beers," remembers Dan Wenz, owner of The Griffon. Palmetto Brewery, the city's first post-Prohibition brewery, which opened in 1993, was also a stalwart offering around town.
"In the late '90s, if you could find a sixer of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Ale, or Anchor Porter on a local store shelf, you were doing quite well," says writer, musician, and beer lover Ballard Lesemann. There weren't any stores that focused solely on craft beer, and Palmetto was the only Charleston brewery available.
Charlestonians love great food and maintain a willingness to try new things, and good booze and good food go hand-in-hand. In 1999, most high-end restaurants had a beer selection that rivaled the nearest gas station, but it was Charleston's first foray into beer dinners at Ted's Butcherblock that really got the craft brew ball rolling. "Nobody realized the growth potential of beer, except Scott Shor," says Ted Dombrowski, Ted's Butcherblock owner. Shor, the co-owner of Charleston Beer Exchange and lauded brew pub Edmund's Oast, got his start as a cook at Ted's, but quickly brought his love of craft beer to the store. "He was the real impetus behind the dinners," says Dombrowski.
Under Shor's direction, monthly beer dinners at Ted's drew in a mixed crowd of beer lovers and foodie folks alike. "Ted's Butcherblock provided a casual but lively and informative opportunity to learn about classic and modern beer styles, flavor profiles, and how certain flavors, aromas, and textures complemented and accented certain foods," says Lesemann.
By 2008, Shor had partnered with Rich Carley to open Charleston Beer Exchange (CBX), the peninsula's first craft brew emporium at 14 Exchange Street. (Full disclosure, I work at CBX.) Jeremiah Bacon, of Oak and The Macintosh, was then working at Carolina's restaurant just around the corner and got wise to the duo's knowledge, quickly joining the beer dinner game. For Bacon's events, CBX would usually pick the beers, and the chef would craft a menu around them. A CBX staffer would also go to the dinner to present the beers and explain the pairing philosophy.
Following these monthly beer dinners at Carolina's, dozens of restaurants followed suit and began to strengthen their relationships and communication with both local and nationwide breweries.
But as most local beer aficionados now know, it was Jaime Tenny and David Merritt of COAST Brewing Company who ultimately did the most to make South Carolina a friendly place for craft breweries by changing the state's alcohol cap.
"In 2006 no one knew what I was talking about," says Tenny. Most folks had no idea of the myriad styles of beer that existed above the arbitrary 6.2 percent ABV limit. Many breweries wouldn't do business in South Carolina because most of the offerings in their portfolio where not legal to sell in the state. When these laws changed with the Pop the Cap campaign, so did the variety and selection available to Charleston consumers. Immediately, stronger import brands that had existing distribution in surrounding states showed up — think Delirium Tremens, an 8.5 percent ABV Belgian Golden Ale — followed by a number of offerings from craft breweries eager to expand into a new market. Further efforts legalized tastings and pints at breweries. "The one thing we did have the entire time was strong consumer support. Beer people are good people, and they have supported every initiative we've ever had," says Tenny.
As with many new trends, it's the smaller guys who jump on first and take the bold steps. After CBX opened, offering the first full-time growler station in the state, a new business model spawned. Independent retailers, as well as chains like Piggly Wiggly, opened their own craft beer stores and departments. Today, almost every local grocery in the Lowcountry has a craft beer section that is slowly moving into the macro space, along with mixed-singles sections. Growler stations are even showing up in surprising places like Sunoco. The barometer in the beer world has certainly shifted.
These days, The Griffon has 16 tap handles, and the local beers are grouped together at the top of the beer list. The big movers as of late are all regional and local: Freehouse Folly's Pride, COAST 32/50, and Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan. Almost every restaurant, from the upper echelons to your favorite dive bar, have something in the way of locally or regionally produced brews. Charleston hosts a slew of excellent beer festivals including, but not limited to, the Ballpark Festival of Beers, CBX's Brewvival, and the Charleston Beer Garden.
We now have eight breweries operating in town, with more to come, plus three brew pubs, taking dining to a whole new level, with food to match the beer. Beer-centric bars, restaurants, and retailers continue to open, regularly rotating a variety of styles and seasonal offerings while ensuring that fresh, properly handled beer is served to showcase the producer, which speaks volumes to the establishment serving them.
"The fact that regular folks — not just the beer nerds and hardcore foodies — understand and communicate beer terminology fluently these days is a sign of progress," says Lesemann. Being able to maintain a common vocabulary for beer flavor and aroma establishes a certain rapport that demonstrates the incredible distance that beer culture has traveled here in the Lowcountry.
Compared to the arduous task of changing beer legislation in the past, the Stone Bill sailed through the legislation and was quickly signed by Gov. Nikki Haley into law. Breweries are now allowed to not only distribute their beer but to also operate a pub element and serve beer from other breweries. COAST and Palmetto are currently ironing out the details for their food service and dining areas. New brewers now have an additional business model to pursue production that seems to be a status quo in most other states. And while Stone Brewing will not be opening in South Carolina, the opportunity for a bigger brewery to open here remains. "A large brewery moving to Charleston would certainly help the cause reach a wider audience. I hope they would act as an incubator for the area, much like Sierra Nevada has for Asheville," says Tenny.
In 15 years it seems that local beer has only gotten better and the best is yet to come. The story of beer in Charleston is no different than any other American city. Consumers who desire variety and quality make do with what's available, eventually demanding beers that aren't in the market. Through their support, education, initiative, and a lot of hard work, laws begin to loosen. Shifting from a landscape of Bud to Holy City's Bowens Island Oyster Stout in less than two decades shows just how far we've come.