A steady flow of new breweries into Charleston over the past few years has not only added new social hot spots to town, it's also endowed local beer geeks with a variety of new and creative beers that go way beyond everyday American pilsners.
The salad days of Charleston's growing beer scene has brought us some go-to easy-drinkers like Coast's 32/50 Kolsch and Westbrook's One Claw Rye. But we've started to notice brewmasters trying out more and more beers that fall outside the realm of traditional pub parlance. There are more blends, sours, low-alcohol, and aged beers to be found in Charleston than ever before.
One thing that most recent brewing law changes have done is draw more loyal consumers directly to breweries' in-house tasting rooms. We're no longer at the mercy of retail inventory at big-box grocery stores; now we can get the good stuff directly from the source.
And that means more choice. Brewers can see what new brews work, and customers have access to the full line of what's on tap. When Tradesman Brewing opened last year, they invited customers to request beers they wanted the James Island brewery to produce. The response was so overwhelming that the brewery now lets people vote on Facebook for beers like Nutella Brown and Cucumber Cilantro Saison to determine their next brew. Tradesman co-owner Sarah Gayle McConnell says the customer input led to people getting even more involved in the brewing process.
"We'd have people tell us, 'Hey, I got a loquat tree. Do you want some loquats?'" McConnell says. Sure enough, a Loquat Quad appeared as a people's choice option in July.
At Revelry Brewing Co., the addition of giant barrel-like tanks called foudres (pronounced "foo-der") will soon allow the downtown brewery to ramp up its adventurous sour beer offerings. The Revelry guys say the foudres they have were likely used to produce rich red wines, like sangiovese in Northern Italy.
When they're used in brewing, the oak tanks impart similar flavors to beers kept in the smaller 30-gallon barrels that you're used to seeing stacked floor to ceiling at breweries.
Revelry is keeping their exact plans for the foudres close to their chest for now, but we're told to be on the lookout for some sour fruit brews in the next few months.
Revelry isn't the only place that utilizes vestiges of wine-making in the brew process. At Edmund's Oast, brewmaster Cameron Read is constantly experimenting to find out what works. Edmund's features at least a couple of in-house beers on tap that are blends of several different brews, arriving at sips that are distinct from their parent beers, similar to how the product of different grapes go into a blended vino.
"You'll find beers that are incomplete by themselves and you can blend them together," says Read. "Sometimes it needs a little more acidity, structure, or body."
One of those beers, Farrago: Mandarina is a blend of two beers created on their own and left to re-ferment together and then finally dry-hopped. The result is a dry but slightly citrusy beer that comes in late with a funky herb touch. Its big brother, Farrago: No. 2, is a blend of four brews to create a lightly sour beer laced with dark blackberry, orange, and oaky flavors.
Edmund's Oast also brews Lord Proprietor's, an English-style mild ale brewed with black tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation. This 4.3 percent brew deserves your attention. Unencumbered by the tang of its high-gravity neighbors, the natural flavor of the local tea comes out in the dark amber-colored beer along with a light nuttiness and smoky chocolate.
So walk into any brewery and look around. Inside each of those tanks and barrels is something new that one of those mad brewmaster scientists hopes will stand out. Us? We're happy to be their test subjects.