“Is it time for the beer issue already?” Kevin Varner asks a little sheepishly as I pull up to the future site of Hunter-Gatherer’s production brewery at the historic Curtiss-Wright Hangar. He knows what I’m here to ask — when are you opening?
When we put out Free Times’ 2015 beer issue, a full two years ago, it had been over a year since a new brewery opened up in town. Varner had just announced plans to expand his longtime brewpub to a second full production facility at the hangar, a historic structure next to Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport in the city’s Rosewood neighborhood. We also reported that Cotton Town Brew Lab was in the works. By the 2016 Beer Issue, Bierkeller Columbia had launched to much well-deserved acclaim — although they are a contract brewery with no physical location of their own. That’s also the year we wrote about Columbia Craft Brewing Co. in the works at Greene and Huger streets.
Now here we are almost to the end of 2017, and we still have no new production breweries in town to hang out at. As Columbia’s reaction to the slow progress of the Bull Street property can attest, when someone promises Columbians they are bringing something new and cool to town, we want it, and we want it fast.
Varner understands the restlessness and has a good sense of humor about it.
“Our website was two years old, saying, ‘Coming in summer 2015, a new Hunter-Gatherer Brewery!’”
“That’s why I’ve been kind of strict with … not putting a date on anything,” says Shaun Piggott, head brewer at Columbia Craft Brewing Co. “You want to keep it quiet for as long as possible.”
So just how long does it take to open a brewery?
“If someone were to come into my office fresh and say, ‘Hey, I want to start a brewery,’ and they’ve done nothing to that point?” ponders Brook Bristow, an attorney and founder of Bristow Beverage Law, who has helped more than his fair share of South Carolina breweries wade through the legal waters of licensing. “That process is probably going to take anywhere from at best nine months and at worst several years.”
Piggott has a succinct way of putting it: “A brewery takes twice as much time and twice as much money as you expect it to.”
All the regular hurdles of opening a business are there, including incorporating, writing up a business agreement with investors, setting up a bank account, and getting financing, which Bristow says can often cause delays these days.
Finding a physical space provides its own challenges. There are zoning laws that define where you can open a brewery, and then construction itself, which can cause problems. That was part of the delay with Cotton Town Brew Lab, says Head Brewer and Director of Operations Brandon Evans.
“The city [approval] got done in May, then a two-month long renovation that didn’t go exactly as [it was] supposed to. The summer’s the worst time to find contractors.”
These real estate woes are frustrating, but getting a space just right is one of the most important aspects of the process, according to Varner.
“I didn’t have the motivation to just open a brewery,” he says. “The aesthetic of the place is just as important to me as the food and the beer.”
Once you have your space, the licensing begins. And there, things have eased as more breweries launch.
“The actual licensing side for breweries is getting better, both on the state and federal levels,” says Bristow.
First up is the most important and time-consuming step of getting your TTB, a license from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau.
“I’ve heard horror stories,” says Piggott about the TTB. “It took us 80 days, which is not record-setting, but it’s pretty good. Our owners are really thorough.”
Local city licensing has to happen after that, and finally approval from the state Department of Revenue. And it’s not like you can get a jump start on brewing while you wait.
“The way the system is set up, you are basically stuck,” says Evans. “When you don’t have a license, you cannot do anything.”
And once all the licensing is done?
“Then I have to make beer,” says Varner, and anything could go wrong with scaling up a recipe or the equipment.
“We could go start up that boiler and for some reason it doesn’t work, and then that sets you back a month,” says Piggott.
Luckily, it seems that good things are coming to those who wait. Touring each of these breweries for this story showed that each generally had all its equipment in place, almost ready to brew.
Piggott still won’t give a firm date for Columbia Craft’s opening, but says he’s “committed to the fall” of this year. They will be pouring from 12 taps and even offering growler fills at the taproom.
Evans and Cotton Town Brew Lab got their South Carolina Department of Revenue filing finished a couple days before our interview and should be brewing as you read this. They hope to open within four to six weeks of their first successful batch.
As for Hunter-Gatherer, “I’m pretty darn confident about Nov. 15,” says Varner. He laughs. “But I mean, I’ve said that before.”