The puritanical age of beer in South Carolina is over, and the pales, porters, and stouts are making their way into Charleston's bars. On May 2, Bill 3218 became law, lifting the six-percent cap on beer alcohol content that stood for over 30 years, thanks to the grassroots work of Palmetto brewmaster David Merritt and his wife Jaime Tenny.
Inspired by North Carolina's successful Pop the Cap campaign to lift its alcohol content regulation, Tenny took on organizing a similar effort in South Carolina. With the help of a lobbyist hired by Total Wine, a blog, an e-mail list of several thousand recipients, and parties and events, the bill passed in their second year of trying. "Senators' phones were going off the hook from Pop the Cap callers," says Tenny.
Now that the cap's gone, the couple has leased a former document warehouse on the old Navy Base at Noisette and begun renovations for Coast Brewing Company, a new microbrewery that won't be limited in the beers it can create. They've installed fermenters and hope to serve their first pints this fall. Merritt plans to brew an IPA and a Kölsch as their primary, year-round offerings, delving into Belgian ales and stouts in the winter.
"I like the way hoppy beers balance spicy food, and the sweeter, malty side of Belgians," says Merritt. "They're really a diabetic's nightmare. And I love imperial stouts. There's not a beer style I really don't like, honestly."
Merritt brewed his first beer at age 18, when he discovered an ID wasn't required to purchase the ingredients. He went on to attend a brewer's school in California in 1998 before returning home to serve as assistant brewmaster at Southend Brewery on East Bay Street. "I was a scumbucket assistant, scrubbing kegs, floors, and tanks," he says.
After polishing his skills brewing at Southend and Palmetto, Merritt is looking forward to the creative freedom he'll have at Coast. "I've been dreaming about this since I brewed my first beer," he says, excited about experimenting with the "farmhouse" beers native to the France/Belgium border region. "They used to ferment them out in the barn during the winter, like wine in wooden barrels," he says. "They're a little rustic, and not so tight and clean. They're lighter in volume, but refreshing for a bigger beer. The spices make them snappy."
At Coast, Merritt can brew a 12-percent Triple Bock if he's so inclined, but other state laws still hinder what he's able to do with it. If a brewery wants to distribute outside of their walls, they're not allowed to sell beer on the premises.
"What's the point of having a tasting room if you can't sell a pint of beer to a customer?" asks Merritt. Pop the Cap hopes to take on that law in the future, enabling beer lovers to purchase a bottle at the store or go enjoy a glass at the source. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the many new brews showing up on grocery store shelves and at restaurants and bars around town. Cheers to popping the cap!