Craft beer is booming in Charleston — but how big can it get? 

The Breaking Point

click to enlarge break.jpg

Jonathan Boncek

Charleston, she loves to drink. But with 10 craft breweries in the area and at least nine more waiting in the wings, even some beer snobs are starting to wonder: How many breweries can this town really support?

Timmons Pettigrew, a City Paper contributor and co-founder of, has given the question some thought, and he thinks the industry's growth is healthy for the time being. But even Charleston has her limit.

"I think the simple math would tell you that yes, there is a point at which a town of X people can't support Y breweries," Pettigrew says. "The question is, what is Y?"

The consensus among the current brewers is that Y is still a long way off. Many of them point to the example of Asheville, N.C., a significantly smaller town that nonetheless supports 20 craft breweries in its area.

Here's another way of looking at Charleston's craft beer industry: The 10 existing breweries estimate that they'll produce up to 39,450 barrels of beer this year. At 31 gallons per barrel, that's nearly enough to fill two Olympic swimming pools. It's enough to sell 32 pints to every adult in Charleston County, or two-and-a-half pints to every adult in the state.

Even if you factor in a few Upstate teetotalers, Lord knows we can drink more beer than that.

It's also worth mentioning that all but one of the current craft brewers in town are still small enough to be classified as microbreweries or nanobreweries. Mt. Pleasant's Westbroook Brewing Company, with an estimated output of 15,000 barrels per year, is producing just enough to qualify as a regional brewery by industry standards.

Observers of the national beer scene have been predicting a pricing-war bloodbath as the craft giants (think New Belgium, Boston Beer, et al.) duke it out for market share and buy up smaller breweries, but on the local level, the Charleston brewers are still a tight-knit group who almost categorically refuse to talk about each other in terms of competition.

click to enlarge Revelry founding partner and brewer Ryan Coker says that the real money is to be made at a brewery's in-house tasting room - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Revelry founding partner and brewer Ryan Coker says that the real money is to be made at a brewery's in-house tasting room

Still, brewers have begun to encounter market forces that weren't a factor when they first got into the business. Shelf space for local beer is limited in grocery stores and craft beer shops, and gone are the days when the average bar could dedicate a tap apiece to every brewery in town.

Jaime Tenny, co-owner of COAST Brewing in North Charleston, says local breweries will continue to thrive or wither for the same reason they have all along.

"Quality will always be — and quality should be — at the forefront," Tenny says. "And I think that's going to happen no matter what. Whether there's a bubble that 'bursts' or doesn't burst, I think quality will shake breweries out, just like with restaurants."

Pressure points

At tiny craft beer stores like the Charleston Beer Exchange downtown and North Charleston's Brew Cellar, shelf space comes at a premium. Brew Cellar owner Ryan Hendrick has to balance his selection between local favorites and craft offerings from around the country. Still, even in his shop, he doesn't think the local brewers have reached market saturation.

"I don't think we're at that point necessarily. I think it's coming if there are people starting to make beer for the wrong reasons — cashing in on something as opposed to doing it for the love of it," Hendrick says. "I think that the craft beer enthusiast or customer is a little more educated about the product than most markets, so they do their research, they form relationships with the local guys and base their opinion a lot on that."

Shelf space is less of a constraining factor at Bottles, a Mt. Pleasant superstore selling beer, wine, and liquor. The beer section features gleaming end caps of cans and bottles from Palmetto, Holy City, Westbrook, and COAST, plus selections from Freehouse Brewery in the refrigerated section. According to Bottles manager and beer buyer Nick Long, nine of the store's top-selling beers are from local breweries, and tourists often come in with a familiar request: "Show me what's local."

Long says he still has space to add more local beers as they become available, but the market will tell if a local beer isn't up to snuff.

"The biggest issue when you start dealing with that many breweries is that it goes from a novelty to a true taste perspective," Long says. "You can have everything on the shelf and designated end cap space and display space for it, but if it's not tasting good, you don't want to put it on the floor."

The other pressure point where brewers can find themselves competing for territory is in bars and restaurants, where more local brews can mean more competition for coveted taps. Pettigrew says that even craft-beer havens with dizzying tap selections are not safe from the forces of competition.

Joey Siconolfi brews unusual beers in tiny batches at Frothy Beard - JONTHAN BONCEK
  • Jonthan Boncek
  • Joey Siconolfi brews unusual beers in tiny batches at Frothy Beard

"Even at a bar like Closed for Business, with 40-plus taps, they want to run lots of local beer, but also beer from other parts of the country, cool imports, etc.," Pettigrew says. "For the sake of argument, let's say 12 taps are going to be local. With four breweries, it's easy to spread the love. Now we have eight breweries, so if they're all represented, some of them are only getting one tap. If we have 12 breweries, at best they're all just getting one. More than 12, and someone's definitely not making the wall that night.

"Most bars have nowhere near that many taps, so the competition for space becomes even tougher. In short order, 'local' is not enough of a selling point in and of itself."

As long as bars are serving yellow beers from national conglomerates, the local breweries will have a common enemy to fight, according to Jay Daratony, a partner at Revelry Brewing Co.

"There's a lot of Coors Light, Bud Light taps out there," Daratony says. "I think there's enough of those taps out there to hold 15 breweries in Charleston. I really do."

When it comes to bar taps, even the national craft breweries have bullseyes on their backs in Charleston, according to Holy City Brewing founder Chris Brown. "I'd never tell our rep, 'Take Westbrook off the wall,'" Brown says. "I'd tell him, 'Take New Belgium off the wall.'"

Finding niches

Rather than go toe-to-toe for taps and shelf space, some nanobreweries like Frothy Beard Brewing in North Charleston make much of their money selling pints directly to customers, cutting out the middle men in charge of distribution and retail. To keep customers coming back to his out-of-the-way location in an industrial area off of Ashley Phosphate Road, Frothy Beard co-founder Stephen McCauley keeps his tap offerings in constant rotation, rarely making a batch larger than seven barrels.

click to enlarge Revelry taproom - SHELBY DEL VECCHIO
  • Shelby Del Vecchio
  • Revelry taproom

Style-wise, Frothy Beard is known for brewing off-the-wall experimental beers like the Horchata Stout, the Hominy Cream Ale made with grits, or a recent American wheat made with heaping helpings of cucumber and thyme. Hidebound traditionalists they are not.

"People want the interesting things," McCauley says. "There are breweries that already do red ales and wheats and all that stuff, so our idea is to keep it small."

Another brewery, Revelry Brewing, has taken advantage of its downtown location, which is across the street from a field used by an adult kickball league. Much of the company's revenue comes from its in-house tasting room, according to founding partner and brewer Ryan Coker.

"You're not making money off of distribution unless you're doing it in volume. Distribution provides you exposure, which is a plus," Coker says. Like Frothy Beard, Revelry keeps a constant rotation of new and unusual beers on tap, including some technically impressive ones brewed with wild yeast strains.

Summerville's Oak Road Brewery, which recently held a soft opening on June 5, plans to sell strictly in-house at first, according to CEO Ben Bankey. Located beside the bustling Coastal Coffee Roasters, Oak Road has one segment of the market cornered: It's the first and only craft brewery in Summerville.

"The demand up there has been insane ... People from outside Summerville treat Summerville like it's Kentucky: 'Oh, that's way too far,'" Bankey says. "So, in essence, they tend to be a lot more proud in Summerville. They kind of have an outsider attitude, and when they have something that is their own, I think they're going to gravitate toward it."

Outside of Summerville, one way that breweries in a crowded scene can peacefully coexist is by carving out niches, whether in terms of geographic areas or beer styles. North Charleston's Freehouse Brewery, for example, is building a reputation for using organic ingredients — and also for brewing arguably the best saison in town, the delicious and dry Ashley Farmhouse Ale.

"Beer is the sum of the ingredients you put into it, and then it's also how you make it," says Freehouse owner Arthur Lucas, a former home-brewing hobbyist who opened his brewery in November 2013. "We try to have the best ingredients possible on our side."

Niches abound. Westbrook employs three cellarmen and is building an entire separate barrel-aging warehouse next to its brewery, looking to expand on its reputation for barrel-aged beers. "We're going kind of crazy with the barrel-aging thing," says co-founder Morgan Westbrook.

At Tradesman Brewing Co. on James Island, owner Chris Winn says he's going for a "rustic, low-key vibe." This applies both to Tradesman's no-nonsense beers and the workmanly aesthetic of the on-site tasting room, complete with raw plywood, corrugated steel, and a diamond-plated bar top that was salvaged from the old Navy hospital.

Winn says he sells about 50 percent of his beer in the tasting room, and while he's hoping to double his tap distribution this year, he realizes it's an uphill battle. "Those tap lines are highly competitive territory," Winn says.

Finally hip

For a variety of reasons, a thriving beer scene almost certainly could not have taken root in Charleston in the early 2000s. Jason Caughman realized that when he left the Holy City 10 years ago for the then-nascent craft beer scene of greater Asheville, where he was the co-founder of Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain.

click to enlarge Brewer Scott McConnell works long hours to meet the demand at Tradesman - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Brewer Scott McConnell works long hours to meet the demand at Tradesman

"Charleston is hipper than it was 10 years ago," Caughman says. "Ten years ago, everybody had a Bud Light and a Grand Ma shot in their hands — and that's OK, I've had both of those products in the last few days — but now people are a little bit more savvy to the craft beer market."

Today, with beer culture on the rise in Charleston, Caughman is in the process of renovating property on Meeting Street Road to put in an ambitious 20-barrel system for his second brewery, Lo-Fi Brewing.

Aside from the priceless intangibles of coolness and good taste, the recent surge of craft breweries in Charleston was largely made possible by a series of changes in state law.

In 2007, after a lobbying effort by COAST co-founder Jaime Tenny's Pop the Cap initiative (which later became the S.C. Brewers Association), state lawmakers lifted the alcohol by weight (ABW) limit for beer from 5 percent to 14 percent. It's hard to overstate how important this change was for the industry. Without it, iconic brews like the COAST Boy King Double IPA (7.8 percent ABW) and Westbrook Mexican Cake (8.4 percent ABW) would be contraband, not the commercial crowd-pleasers they are today.

Tenny opened COAST with her husband David Merritt in 2007, but she and other beer advocates didn't stop lobbying after that. In 2010, a new tour-and-taste law allowed consumers to try out beers on the premises of breweries. The 2013 Pint Law allowed breweries to sell beer for on-site consumption. And the 2014 Stone Law, billed as an attempt to lure Stone Brewing's East Coast expansion to the state, lifted the limit on on-site beer consumption and allowed breweries to open restaurants on their premises.

Brook Bristow, a Greenville attorney and part-time beer advocate with the S.C. Brewers Guild, says the changing regulatory climate has helped fuel a boom across South Carolina, but especially in the Charleston area, which currently accounts for almost half of the beer brewed in the state.

"Every tweak that has been made, we have seen an increase in the number of breweries opening," Bristow says. Case in point: The business partners behind Ghost Monkey, a brewery in the works off of Long Point Road in Mt. Pleasant, say they only started having serious conversations about opening a brewery once it looked like the Pint Law was going to pass in 2013.

Bristow says there's still plenty of room to improve South Carolina's beer laws, which could in turn set off a new wave of brewery openings. Like beer advocates in many states, Bristow would like to see a repeal of the three-tier system, post-Prohibition law that requires beer producers to market their wares via distributors, who then sell to retailers. He also thinks the state could stand to lower its seventh-highest-in-the-nation beer excise tax of 77 cents per gallon.

"In some circles, some people are still for prohibition, but beer is no longer a dirty word," Bristow says. "Beer is about jobs, it's about community building, it's about bringing people together and kind of turning these brew pubs and brewery tap rooms into the new town halls of America."

'The biggest peak'

We find ourselves in a rarefied cultural moment when folks with strong opinions about hop varietals and yeast strains have a certain cachet, but there's no getting around the fact that brewing on a commercial scale is hard, technical, often janitorial work. It may sound fun to work with beer, and most brewers will tell you it is, but these are people whose sweat might outweigh the beer they drink on a summer's day, hauling sacks of grain and scrubbing out fermenting tanks in stiflingly hot warehouses.

Nobody in Charleston knows this reality better than Palmetto Brewery owner Ed Falkenstein, who co-founded South Carolina's first brewery in 1993 — well before the Pint Law, before the Stone Law, and before anyone else in the state had the guts to try it. Cross-legged on a barstool in Palmetto's air-conditioned tasting room, he sports a gray beard and wears a tattered polo shirt and shorts — more or less the industry dress code. He's in a position of repose that belies the 22 years of sweat and grit that got him where he is today.

Falkenstein and co-founder Louis Bruce were originally inspired to open a brewery after taking a windsurfing trip to the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and sipping beer on a deck at the Full Sail Brewing Company. Back home in Charleston, he says it wasn't easy getting a bank loan to build a brewery.

"The banker, he goes, 'We've got three high-risk loans in front of us: an ostrich farm, a clam farm, and you guys, and we're not sure which ones we'll do,'" Falkenstein says. The bank granted Palmetto the loan, which has since been paid back.

Craft beer was more or less a foreign concept in Charleston at the time. "When we first started, everybody judged beer thinking it should taste like an American pilsner," Falkenstein says. "They had narrow paradigms about how beer should taste ... We thought we were really going out on a limb when we came out with a porter."

Palmetto has changed with the times. The brewery experiments with new beers in addition to its old standbys now that the Charleston market has a taste for craft beer, and changes in state brewery laws have allowed Palmetto to host events like its Loading Dock concert series.

Early in his business venture, Falkenstein says his father-in-law asked him a question that would haunt him for years: "Do you think it's a fad?" As it turned out, craft beer was much more than a fad — it was a sustainable career.

"Over the 20 years, there have been peaks and valleys," Falkenstein says. "There were peaks and valleys, but we're in the biggest peak I've ever seen."

Planned Breweries, location TBD

Edmund's Oast new taproom
Location: Upper Peninsula
Opening: Fall 2016

The Lowdown: The owners of Edmund's Oast announced June 3 that, after hearing customers ask where else they could buy the gourmet brewpub's beers, they had secured a building for "an offsite, freestanding brewery" to make beer for retail and wholesale on local, national, and international markets. Edmund's Oast brewer Cameron Read will lead the project, and the new brewery will include a small taproom for tastings.

Olde Charlestowne Brewing Company
Location: TBD
Opening: TBD

The Lowdown: Co-founders Matt Lagor, Jack Pitts, and Taylor Pitts have a combined 15 years of home-brewing experience. They are currently based in West Ashley, which they say is "ripe for a brewery," but they haven't chosen a site yet and are still seeking investors. Specialties include a double IPA, a honeysuckle Belgian blonde, and a lavender and peppercorn ale.

Blue Root Brewing Company
Location: TBD
Opening: TBD

The Lowdown: Currently brewing on a commercial-grade pilot system, the guys behind Blue Root have been holding tasting events including an upcoming one at Seanachai. Co-founders Reece LeMay, Scott Trottier, and Joe Butler say their goal is to become a regional brewery distributing throughout the Southeast. Current favorites include a cream ale with roasted jalapeños, a chocolate milk stout, and a red ale brewed with peach tea.

Twisted Cypress Brewing Company
Location: TBD
Opening: TBD

The Lowdown: Twisted Cypress brewmaster Scott Kottman is currently contract brewing out of a facility in Greenville but is looking for investors to build a location in the Charleston area. He says his goal will be to brew balanced beers. "We're trying to bring out a little bit more of that malt and keep those hops in check," Kottman says. "We want them to be noticeable because we love hops, but at the same time we want the character to be defined." Co-founder Rich Gubsch says, "We have aspirations to become as big as Samuel Adams."

Drifter Brewing Company
Location: TBD
Opening: TBD

The Lowdown: James Islander Hunter Eisele says his company is still in the planning and research phase. In addition to distributing, Eisele says he would like to have an on-site tasting room and perhaps a restaurant. "We're just a hopeful newcomer at the moment," Eisele says.

*Yearly barrel outputs are based on brewers' maximum estimates for 2015. 1 barrel = 31 gallons.

Special thanks to Berlin's Restaurant Supply for the (now shattered) glasses used in this week's cover image.

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