It may still feel like summer outside, but the beer offerings are signaling a change of the seasons. To get a taste of Indian summer, we took a tour to see what Charleston's brewpub and handful of microbreweries are up to.
Southend Brewery and Smokehouse brewmaster Ahren Warf has worked hard in recent years to brew clean and tasty ales — from light blondes and wheats to more robust brown ales, porters, and stouts. His most successful efforts in recent months have been his specialty seasonal beers, many of which feature either additional spices and herbs or a hefty level of alcohol.
Wharf's strongest beer is the aromatic Bombay IPA, a zesty, orange/caramel-colored pale ale with an assertive hop character. At an easygoing 5.2 percent a.b.v., Bombay is medium-bodied and drinkable. The hazy brew features a tangerine-tinged hop aroma and a balance of caramel malt and zesty bitterness in flavor, pairing well with the spicier, smokier wood-fired pizzas, pork, and seafood on their menu.
This month, eager Southend customers could barely wait to taste Wharf's latest specialty, a high-gravity, weizenbock-like wheat ale (at a staggering 11 percent a.b.v.). Southend tapped it in mid September. Simply named High Gravity Wheat, it's paler and lower in carbonation and color than expected — a hazy orange-amber with a delicately foamy head. Malty-sweet with a whiff of caramel and butterscotch, it's more of an American wheat beer than the clovey Bavarian weizenbocks.
Charleston's oldest microbrewery, Palmetto Brewing Co., introduced a unique summer "pilot brew" last year made with local watermelon. This year, they pushed it as one of the new varieties in the Bocat series (a black alley cat adorns the fancy new labels). It's a spritzy golden ale with a surprisingly clean, dry finish — perfect for warm weather action.
Palmetto's traditional porter officially upgraded to Espresso Porter with a spiffy new red label of its own. Brewer/owner Ed Falkenstein recently experimented with adding espresso coffee from his Huger Street neighbor, Charleston Coffee Roasters. The final recipe is a robust, slightly smoky black ale with intense coffee and chocolate malt aromas, a roasty, grainy flavor, and a bitter, dry finish.
Owner/brewer Edward Westbrook recently offered samples of various ales from Westbrook Brewing Co., a production craft brewery that's opening soon in Mt. Pleasant. Westbrook's forthcoming signature ales seem far from typical. The most accessible "pale ale" type offering is the Belgian Amber, a malty brew made with an authentic Belgian yeast. The Thai-Spiced Wit is a crisp witbier seasoned with coriander, fresh ginger, and lemongrass. Westbrook's IPA is an extremely hoppy pale ale brewed and aged with a variety of domestic Centennial, Amarillo, and Cascades and imported hops (Sorachi Ace from Japan) and dry-hopped with Cascade. Another Belgian-inspired sample, the Saison, is flavored with fresh lemon, grapefruit, and orange peels.
North Charleston micro COAST Brewing Co.'s ever-growing list of flavorful seasonals reflects brewers and co-owners Jaime Tenny and David Merritt's eclectic creativity. In late summer, they issued a terrific ale called the Boy King Double IPA. They used six domestic hop varieties — Citra, Chinook, Nugget, Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus — and aimed for fragrant, citrusy/grassy hop accents in the aroma and flavor (they described the blend of hop flavors as "tropical goodness"), but they worked in enough malt to balance the wild bitterness and piney notes. At a mighty 9.7 percent a.b.v., it was one of the burliest brews of the summer. Hopefully, they'll keep making this delightful ale again and again.
COAST's latest small-batch shipment is the unusual Event Horizon Cascadian Dark Ale, which sort of falls into the emerging new style of India Black Ale (or Black IPA, which is an amusing oxymoron). Brewed with dark malts and a sturdy mix of Northwestern hops (Cascade, Citra, Centennial), it's like a hybrid between a classic IPA and a brown porter or stout. The term "Cascadian" refers to the hops grown in the regions along the Cascade Mountain Range in the Pacific Northwest.
Event Horizon Cascadian Dark Ale might be the most distinctive local beer of the season. If you close your eyes and take a few sips, the tingling shock of hop bitterness and grapefruit-like flavors will immediately imply a strong IPA. A complex malt character will gradually emerge during the tasting experience as the hop shock fades, but it won't suggest "dark ale" at all. Sneaky, but delicious.