“Welcome to our taproom,” Jaime Tenny said, cracking a wry smile. We were looking at a giant rectangular hole, probably 25 feet by 10 feet by 5 feet and gaping, with concrete pipes and a puddle at the bottom.
“There is our giant walk-in cooler and keg storage,” the Coast Brewing Company co-owner continued, pointing to bare, mud-caked ground. “There will be a beer garden on that side. The building will start …” she trailed off, scanning the site for something. “Ugh, the markers are gone.”
A truck rumbled by on Noisette Avenue to our left. To our right stood the squatty brick building Coast currently calls home. It was originally built by the Navy in 1952, and looks it. A trailer full of spent grain parked out front broiled in the August heat.
As far as taprooms go, Coast Brewing doesn’t really have one yet. But it will, soon. Hopefully. Ideally. Probably.
“This has to end at some point,” said Tenny dryly, gesturing to the trench. “You would think.”
The Lowcountry’s brewing scene was just getting started 12 years ago when Tenny and her husband, Coast co-founder and head brewer David Merritt, first began making organic craft beer on this out-of-the-way lot on North Charleston’s former naval yard.
Back then, South Carolina law barred craft brewers from doing a whole host of things that contemporary drinkers consider de rigueur today. For one thing, breweries couldn’t produce beers above 5 percent alcohol-by-weight (a little over 6 percent alcohol-by-volume, or ABV), which limited local producers from playing with then-popular styles like imperial stouts and barleywines.
For another, South Carolina’s craft breweries couldn’t sell their beers at their breweries.
“We couldn’t have a taproom when we opened,” said Tenny. “The laws have changed.”
It should be noted that the laws didn’t change themselves. Along with fellow craft brewers, advocates and beer-benevolent lawmakers in Columbia, Tenny was on the front lines of a string of legislative wins that paved the way for the Palmetto State’s craft beer boom.
"Now, running a brewery in South Carolina is actually a viable business," South Carolina Brewers Guild executive director Brook Bristow told the Charleston Regional Business Journal in 2018.
Thanks to those efforts, brewers in the Palmetto State can open taprooms, and they have — in droves.
"Every brewery that’s opened in the past five years starts with the taproom," said Tenny. (One exception that comes to mind is East Island Brewing Co., the company behind the widely distributed Island Coastal Lager.)
The brewhouse taproom has become a dominant business model for craft breweries across the Lowcountry and beyond. A brewery can establish itself as a community hub, interact directly with its drinkers and closely monitor the conditions in which its beer is served.
It can also make better money. In South Carolina, craft brewers are not able to self-distribute their own liquid wares. (Thirty-seven states, including North Carolina, permit some form of self-distribution.) Breweries in the Palmetto State can sell beer one of two ways: to a distributor, a legally mandated middleman who resells the beer to stores and bars, or in a taproom, directly to consumers. Guess which one offers small brewers a better margin?
As craft beer’s sales growth has cooled in the back half of this decade, craft breweries have leaned into taprooms as a means to shore up their revenues and control their positioning in a crowded market. As veteran beer journalist and author Josh Noel told USA Today in December 2018: “Taprooms are now completely the engine of craft beer.”
“It’s just a different landscape,” Tenny told me. "We knew for a while we were going to have to do something.”
As that national trend swept through the Lowcountry brewing scene, Coast’s setup appeared increasingly antiquated by comparison. The pioneer in policy and beer quality (it was one of the first in the state to brew organic beer) lagged behind in the increasingly important “on-premise experience.”
I should pause here and point out that Coast technically does have a taproom. Walk through the industrial-height doorframe that looms over its loading dock (the one that doubles as a porch) and you’ll find yourself in the belly of a brewhouse. Stainless steel fermentors and mash tuns loom. A massive shop fan works overtime to keep unconditioned air moving through the space.
It’s a room, and there are taps in it. Personally, it’s one of my favorite "taprooms" in the entire Lowcountry: a barebones but unfailingly pleasant place where you can sip an unfussy beer and enjoy the hum of the brewery around you.
Still, it has shortcomings. There’s no kitchen, and only one bathroom. Instead of the reclaimed barn wood and custom light fixtures that adorn newer, purpose-built taprooms, Coast offers lawn chairs and folding tables. The aesthetic is heavy on the industrial; chic, not as much.
“Luckily, people keep coming out,” said Tenny. Because the brewhouse doubles as a taproom right now, it’s only open a handful of hours a week; the rest of the time, Merritt and his crew are making beer.
She said curtailing production to allow drinkers into the brewhouse was a logistical challenge, likening it to a game of Tetris or Jenga. Her point was made several times over as we chatted when brewery workers (including her son, Kai) had to finagle cartloads of spent grain past us.
When Coast’s new taproom opens, customers won’t have to contend with brewery equipment for elbow room. The 5,000-square-foot space will boast a spacious outdoor deck studded by the property’s original magnolia trees (construction crews have painstakingly maneuvered around them for now). A 2,000-square-foot cooler will connect the taproom with the original brewhouse. A kitchen will serve some kind of food, too, though Tenny’s not sure about that part just yet.
“We know beer,” she said. “I don’t know the other part at all.”
Unfortunately, she has time to figure it out. The project, planning for which began in earnest at the beginning of 2015, has dragged on for more than four years. Progress is mostly subterranean, invisible ... to the extent that it’s been made at all.
“It turns out this property was pretty much the worst one to build on,” she said. “It would have been better to try to build on a nuclear waste zone.”
The trouble began almost as soon as they broke ground. There were utilities to replace, and storm drains. A water main on the property blueprint flat-out didn’t exist.
“As soon as we thought ‘it can't get worse’, it got worse,” Tenny told me, laughing gamely.
The project is on pace to quadruple its initial budget, and Tenny and Merritt are on the hook for it. They spoke with outside investors for the project, but ultimately decided to go it alone to protect Coast’s autonomy.
“It’s just us,” Tenny said.
When I visited in August, Tenny was ebullient because her contractors had just given her good news. Soon, the lot (which Coast purchased two years ago) would be “back to square zero,” she said. Then, taproom construction could begin for real.
“The second phase will be much quicker than the first phase,” Tenny told me. “I’m going to say by my birthday in March, I’m going to have a beer, on a barstool, in that freaking building.”
Following Charleston Beer Week, as I began prepping this column, I sent Tenny an email to check in on Coast's progress since my visit.
“If only I had some sort of update,” she replied. “It looks only slightly less of a disaster than when you saw it.”
They were waiting on one more approval, she explained. She promised to send me a picture of “the battlefield” in its current form. Then she was off to do more battle with the contractors and utility companies.
I’m no expert on construction snafus, but I suspect Coast will have its taproom. Given her experience coaxing Columbia lawmakers, Tenny knows a thing or two about pushing boulders uphill. The hole will become a taproom, the vanguard brewer will be laggard no more, and Tenny will have a happy birthday come March.
Construction has to end at some point, you would think.