Tour and taste
With glasses in hand, craft beer fans milled around the fermentation tanks and pallets of malt at Coast Brewing Co. in North Charleston, waiting to finally sample their favorite suds from the source.
As they tasted HopArt, Kolsch and a seasonal Belgian ale, they listened to brewmaster David Merritt explain how the beers they were sipping came to be. Others, having taken the tour, lined up to buy a few bottles to take home with them.
"I really like the product," said Mike Donnollen of West Ashley. "So I'm excited to buy it here and give my money directly to them to support their operation."
For years, this scene would have been forbidden in South Carolina, which barred breweries and specialty retail stores from hosting beer tastings.
A recent change to state law, however, has opened the door to limited tastings and allows breweries to sell their creations directly to customers for the first time, in conjunction with tours. This puts beer on the same footing as wine and liquor, which have enjoyed tastings rights for years.
It wasn't everything beer lovers were after, and the measure has spurred some confusion. Many customers assumed they could now wander in and sample anything off the taps in beer stores before buying a growler, or half-gallon jug of beer. Not so. Stores are limited to 24 tastings per quarter, and the events must be registered with the state 10 days in advance.
"They didn't want stores turning into bars, and we don't have a problem with that position," said Scott Shor, co-owner of Charleston Beer Exchange. "This is still a huge and necessary step toward treating beer culture with the same esteem given to wine and distilled spirits."
Supporters hope the measure also will boost beer tourism, help small breweries like Coast grow and lure prospective brewers to the Palmetto State.
Micro breweries have popped up all over the country in recent years, and beer connoisseurs travel far and wide to partake of regional tours and tastes, much like wine lovers flock to Napa Valley.
"Beer tourism is big," said Jaime Tenny, co-owner of Coast and president of the South Carolina Brewers Association. "It's like people who visit farms to see where their vegetables come from. People want to see how their beer is made."
Tenny was a leading figure in the Pop the Cap campaign that brought high-gravity beer to South Carolina in 2007. The state's taste for stronger, more challenging brews has steadily grown since that time, and craft beer now makes up an estimated 5 percent to 7 percent of the market. The state is now home to five breweries, with a sixth expected to open this fall in Mount Pleasant.
That East Cooper operation, the 18,500-square-foot, two-story Westbrook Brewing Co., will have a circular bar in a huge lobby that owner Edward Westbrook decided to build in anticipation of the tasting law passing.
The proposal initially encountered strong opposition in 2009 from wholesalers, some of whom saw the measure as a threat to revenues.
Julie Cox, executive director of the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association, said wholesalers were mainly concerned about "social responsibility" provisions to keep these tastings from becoming "happy hours for college campuses." Wholesalers were supportive of the final bill, which tied brewery tasting to tours, limited the number of tastings and limited brewery retail sales to about a case of beer per person.
"It's a good piece of legislation, and it will be a big help, especially for the new brewers," she said.
Merritt said it's been difficult for his family-run brewery to get loans to expand, and the change holds the promise of more foot traffic, attention and revenue. At the very least, it gives brewers, who take great pride in their craft, an opportunity to share their stories and beer philosophies with customers, he said.
Ed Falkenstein, who co-founded Palmetto Brewing Co. in 1994, said he and partner Louis Bruce want to study the law and its requirements before venturing into retail sales from their Charleston brewery. But he sees great promise in offering tours and tastings to show off the products.
"It shows people we are more than just a beer on the shelf," he said. "We are a local operation and we want people to come in and see what we are about, including tasting the beer. That's an important part of it."