Everyone loves a sampler platter. Fried cheese sticks, potato wedges, hot wings — who wants to choose? Decisions can be tough, sometimes too tough to make. Especially when it comes to beer. There are just too many brews out there — ales, lagers, hefeweizen, porters, stouts, pilsners, saisons, kölsches, and sours. Fortunately, the fine folks at many of Charleston's best brew-minded bars and restaurants offer beer flights, where you can dabble in an IPA before moving onto a stout.
Take Closed for Business (453 King St. Downtown. 843-853-8466) for example. This rustic-looking establishment offers four five-ounce pours for $10. We dropped in for the Charleston Flight, a light-to-dark progression from Holy City Pilsner to Westbrook Saison, followed by Palmetto's Extra Pale IPA and the Holy City Pluff Mudd Porter. The saison and porter were the winners here, opening up the palate with a colorful medley after the lager, while the hearty porter made for relatively easy sipping, i.e. not too much bitterness. "It gives you a taste of things you wouldn't normally try," says bartender Nikki Jones of CFB's flights, which recently included a Colorado-themed offering and a selection of sour beers.
Up in the North Area, Park Circle's EVO Pizzeria (1075 E. Montague Ave. North Charleston. 843-225-1796) varies their lineup with the season. Summer means wheat beer and lagers, while the winters are likely to bring you hearty brews like stouts and porters. At EVO, flights are served on a wooden paddle ($11.75 for four six-ounce pours). When it comes to both food and beer, the pizzeria is big on local goods, so it's easy to put together your own Charleston-centric flight here as well, choosing from four of their six brews on tap (COAST and Holy City are generally on tap). They sell upwards of a dozen flights a night. And apparently, flights are contagious. "It's kind of funny, because once one person orders one, they sell like wildfire," says manager Ben Garbee. "Another table sees it go out, and we'll sell four more."
The "choose-four-out-of-six" model is duplicated at Oak Barrel Tavern (825-B Savannah Hwy. West Ashely. 843-789-3686) and the Folly Beach Brew Pub (34 Center St. Folly Beach. 843-588-0095). The flights at these two sister pubs are four five-ounce pours for $8. Along with a few standards like Avery Ellie's Brown Ale and Highland Gaelic Ale, the Julian Hard Cider was an eye-opener. A pint of this clear, sparkling cider is the last thing many hardcore beer advocates would ever order. First in line on the paddle, the Julian Hard Cider's crisp freshness compelled us to save sips of it all the way down the line. It was a testament to the power of the flight to introduce imbibers to new things. Oak Barrel is a perfect launching pad for a night of flighting in Avondale. Both Triangle Char and Bar and Mellow Mushroom offer rotating and impressive flight lists.
Across the street from Oak Barrel, it's worth ponying up to the bar at Al di La (25 Magnolia Road. West Ashley. 843-571-2321) for their Italian wine flights. Ranging mostly in the mid-$30 range, the flight offerings get you a quartino (about two glasses each) of three different Italian wines, selected by season to match the food menu. Owner Mark Kohn recommends the Pride of Piemonte, a trio that closely pairs with the overall northern Italian theme of the restaurant. In the winter, it's likely to include three reds, while in late summer it features a white Gavi. "It opens up our wine list and gives great exposure to strange Italian varietals that people may not know," says Kohn, whose favorite flight for late summer includes a Gavi, an Arneis, and a Barbera. "We serve from the lightest to the heaviest. You get more full body as you get into the meat course."
Even the heartiest beer drinkers may enjoy that type of off-the-vine education. But if you're simply a beer lover, continue your flight tour at Smoky Oak Taproom (1234-C Camp Road. James Island. 843-762-6268). Their 41 craft beers on tap change almost daily, and $10 gets you four five-ounce pours. The highlights of our excursion were the Allagash Fluxus, a powerful Belgian strong ale, and the Southern Tier Crème Brulee Stout. We puckered at the Fluxus' just-right hint of lemongrass, before reveling in the decadent milky richness of the stout. An honorable mention must go to Ballast Point for their Tongue Buckler Imperial Red Ale; everything from caramel to floral hops gets squeezed into this brew.
Although we're sure to have missed a host of other worthy beer flights in Charleston, our tour ended at the Coleman Public House (427 W. Coleman Blvd. Mt. Pleasant. 843-416-8833). Manager Ben Sugg deserves credit for the pure enthusiasm he has for their selection of a dozen-plus draft beers. Public House offers four four-ounce pours for $9, and the staff is more than able to drop a little knowledge about each brew. Our fave of the night? The Rodenbach Grand Cru, a sour ale dubbed "the Burgundy of Belgium" by the late beer critic Michael Jackson. It's a sour-face-inducing palate shocker. For folks not accustomed to tart beers, Sugg recommends the Monks Café Sour, a sweet Belgian brew that he calls a "beginner sour." There's even Weihenstephan on tap, a German beer made by the world's oldest continually operating brewery (since 768 AD!). Order one on your flight and chances are, you'll love it. If not, there's no pressure. You still have three more beers at your fingertips, eagerly awaiting your approval.
Bad Flight Ideas
The Street Wine: This bottom-shelf taster starts off with six ounces of Boone's Farm Sangria, followed by the MD 20/20 Blue Raspberry. Move on to the legendary Thunderbird before closing with a heavy red in the Night Train Express. (If these all sound familiar, check your liver).
You Got Iced: Surprise your unsuspecting friends with a sampler of Smirnoff Ice flavors. We suggest starting with the original, followed by Strawberry Acai, and then move on to Raspberry Burst before closing with the unforgettable kick of Green Apple Bite.
The Rot Gut Run: If only we could mix and match our rot gut beer at the grocery store. Start off easy with Keystone Light before moving on to the ageless classic Old Milwaukee. If you can find it, down a Southpaw before the show-stopping closer: shotgunning a Milwaukee's Best Ice, the beast of all beasts. It's a great way to make PBR-adoring friends feel positively bourgeois.