Indigo Reef Brewing Company is on Daniel Island

Indigo Reef Brewing Co. is on Daniel Island and a destination of Charleston Beer Week. Dave Infante/Staff

Teetering in Lucite heels, emcee Patti O’Furniture called out questions about queer culture to a taproom full of teams competing under cheeky names like “They/Them,” “Pence’s Nightmare” and “The Bisexual Space Pirates”.

What state recently elected the country’s first openly gay governor?

“You know you have a 1 in 49 chance,” vamped O’Furniture with a smirk. “Because here in South Carolina you know we don't have no gay governor.” The crowd jeered in apparent disdain for Henry McMaster. O'Furniture later pointed out the S.C. governor had not wished Charleston's LGBTQ+ community a "happy Pride." More jeers.

The seventh annual running of Charleston Beer Week concluded Sept. 14. (It happened to coincide with the 10th annual installation of Charleston Pride Festival; hence, Drag Trivia.)

As a CBW first-timer, I was determined to get to as many events as possible. I even set a goal for myself: two events per day, including at least one at a venue I’d never been to. It was a pell-mell seven days of swigging beers, shaking hands and schlepping all over the Lowcountry. And, boy, am I glad for a break.

(I’ve included my self-reported tally of visits below; I came up short, but that just means there’s room for improvement next year.)

While I was dragging my besotted body from one Charleston brewery to the next, posting Instagram stories and generally making a fool of myself, there was some decidedly sobering stuff unfolding on the national craft beer scene.

In response to some really nasty racism directed at a beer blogger and woman of color, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham , the diversity ambassador for the Brewers Association (craft beer’s national trade group) started the Twitter hashtag #IAmCraftBeer. She encouraged denizens of “beer Twitter” to use the tag to tweet selfies with brief autobiographical sketches.

To wit: My name is Dave Infante. I’m a journalist, a fiancé, an NYC transplant and a large adult son. #IAmCraftBeer

The idea, wrote Jackson-Beckham in her initial tweet, was to “create a huge enduring reminder of the incredible diversity in our (craft beer) community!” And beer Twitter obliged in spades, deluging the hashtag with thousands upon thousands of tweets in a week's time.

(For the uninitiated, “beer Twitter” is a loosely defined, brew-centric digital community of journalists, brewers, gadflies, barflies, etc. who use that platform. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably better off, honestly.)

#IAmCraftBeer was on my mind throughout CBW, and especially at Snafu’s Drag Trivia event. (I wasn’t able to attend, but I heard The Brew Cellar’s #PourProudly party with Brooklyn Brewery was also a rousing success.) I got to thinking: How many LGBTQ+ people feel like #TheyAreCraftBeer here in Charleston? How many women and people of color?

I probably took a dozen trips by Uber/Lyft this past week. Why is it that so many of my Uber drivers had never been to, or even heard of, the breweries from which they picked me up or dropped me off?

These are tricky questions that require deep local knowledge to answer honestly. I won’t try to answer them here; they’re too nuanced, and I’m too hung over from my seven-day suds sprint. But in my coverage for the paper, these are some of the angles I’ll work to examine Charleston’s craft brewing scene as a cultural institution.

Why? For one thing, I’m not a beer critic. I don’t review beer or evaluate its merits to advise your drinking choices. So I can only write so much about the product itself before I get stuck in a death-spiral of hidebound terms like “mouthfeel.” You don’t want this, and Lord knows I don’t either.

For another: I’ve always found that craft beer provides a remarkably clarifying lens through which to understand ourselves. I suspect it will tell us a lot about the Lowcountry. I look forward to finding out.

It’s more interesting than telling you about yet another brut IPA or for-charity tap takeover. Ms. O’Furniture’s comfortable command of a taproom full of LGBTQ+ Charlestonians is cultural, political stuff. With respect to Snafu’s brewer, I’m more curious in the brewery’s choice to host a Pride event than I am in the beer they brewed for it.

But enough with the weighty stuff for now. The fact of the matter is I went on a work-sanctioned beer bender that took me all over town last week. Here are my top-line takeaways from CBW 2019:

Quantity vs. quality

There’s some really terrific beer in town. There’s also some really off-flavored, inconsistent and straight-up lousy stuff being poured in Charleston. There are reasons to lament increased competition in the craft brewing industry (loss of camaraderie, etc.), and I’m not one to root for breweries to close.

Still, I think Charleston’s brewery boom has actually hurt overall beer quality coming out of this town rather than helped. In America’s first craft beer boom, a collective degradation led to a nearly decade-long market depression starting in the late '90s. I don’t think that will happen here. I do think that breweries making anything less than spectacular beer are going to struggle in the Lowcountry soon enough.

Parties or prestige

CBW producer and self-avowed “chief cat-herder” Chrys Rynearson told me that he was keen to incorporate more education-oriented events for future runnings, and I can see why. This year’s schedule was heavy on experiential outings for which craft beer played a supporting role (kayaking tours, beer brunches, Mario Kart tourneys …) but pretty light on events where the beer was the explicit focal point.

The Edmund’s Oast events, both led by advanced cicerone Brandon Plyler, were exceptions I saw that proved the rule. Pulling Nails (the EOBC sour-blending event) sold out both sessions at $30 a head, but I’m not convinced there’s enough thirst for knowledge in the general Charleston drinking community to sustain a week of programming like that. I don’t think that’s good or bad, necessarily, but if Charleston’s brewing scene is to become the national destination draw that its culinary scene has, it will need a stronger, more intellectual pitch.

(Whether that should even be a goal for the Lowcountry’s brewing industry is another question that I won’t get into here. Soon enough, though.)

Have beer. Will travel?

Much has been made of Charleston’s emergent “brewery district” that creeps northward from North-Central and up the Neck Area. The cluster isn’t exactly walkable, but it’s all pretty centrally located. Because I was determined to see new breweries, though, I spent much of CBW in the car, driving from Mount Pleasant to Daniel Island, Johns Island to North Charleston.

I can’t fathom the next time I’ll have a beer at Fat Pig, not because it wasn’t good, but because it’s a solid half hour from my house. But it can be a tremendous community asset for beer lovers who live in that area, like Indigo Reef can be to Daniel Islanders or Snafu to Ashley Phosphateers.

Something I felt missing was the chance to interact with the whole craft brewing community en masse. There was no massive rally in celebration of full-flavored brews; no farewell fete to cap a successful CBW. Geography and scheduling dictate this decentralized experience: You go to the CBW event at this or that brewery, you hang out there and you leave. Veterans of the beer scene speak wistfully of Brewvival, the erstwhile Lowcountry brewing festival that organizers (including Rynearson) discontinued in 2017. It sounds like it might have scratched that itch, but no more. So inter-brewery travel is the name of today's game.

It was literally my job to do this, so I did. Reader, it was fun. But how many Charlestonians can afford to bounce between breweries all week, racking up ride-share fares and bleeding time in traffic? And how many will?

For the record, here's where I was this past week:

  • Saturday, Sept. 7: Pawleys Island Brewing Co.; The Brew Cellar
  • Sunday, Sept 8: Ghost Monkey Brewing; Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co.
  • Monday, Sept. 9: No events (couldn’t handle it, man)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 10: Edmund’s Oast Exchange; Snafu Brewing Co.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 11: Indigo Reef Brewing Co., Tradesman Brewing Co., Fam’s Brewing
  • Thursday, Sept. 12: Holy City Brewing Co.
  • Friday, Sept. 13: Fat Pig Brewing Co.
  • Saturday, Sept. 14: Low Tide Brewing Co., Commonhouse Aleworks

Reach Dave Infante at 843-937-5320. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.