Columbia’s first production brewery to open since Prohibition will also be the first to cease operations. Conquest Brewing Company, which opened in the summer of 2013, blazed a trail for all of the other breweries that opened after it — just by being the first to do so.
The warehouse brewery put craft beer on the map in the Midlands, and while other breweries have grown up around it and expanded, Conquest continued to operate at a smaller size, dabbling in distribution, and upgrading its taproom slowly through the years. Located in a large warehouse bay, the brewing equipment is visible to the public when the bay doors are open or customers are in the taproom. Oversized games, a weekly slate of events including beer yoga and Game of Thrones viewing parties, kept the taproom busy, along with yearly releases of their signature beer, an imperial stout known as The Finisher.
“We set goals and standards for ourselves, and we know that we have met some of those and not others,” the brewery offered in a July 25 statement release on Facebook and on its website. “Sometimes it was a shifting target, too: we’ve watched the marketplace and the legal landscape evolve over the last few years — for the collective better, it should be said — and substantially so. Some really great developments were hard for us to capitalize on, given where we were in time and place. Others we jumped all over. In other cases, we could have done better.”
Personnel and timing were also cited as factors in the decision to close. The brewery faced personnel issues in the past, including the departure of one of its co-founders in 2015. On the production side, there had been difficulty meeting demand, leading some of the brewery’s flagship beers to be produced by Thomas Creek Brewing in Greenville for part of Conquest’s run.
“Sometimes the bear eats you,” Matthew Ellisor, one of the brewery’s co-founders, tells Free Times.
Ellisor was very heavily involved in getting the current craft beer movement going in Columbia.
“Someone had to go in and say, ‘We’re going to do it now,’ and not just waiting to see if it develops,” Ellisor says. “Is that the reason we only lasted this long, that we were the first? I can’t answer that, but there was value in doing it.”
Brook Bristow, whose law firm specializes in the craft drinks industry, has noticed a trend among the four breweries — one in Greenville, one in Fort Mill, one in Charleston, and now Conquest in Columbia — that have opened and closed during the craft beer boom of the 2010s.
“Interestingly enough in each of these scenarios, they were all small breweries closing, which could be for many reasons,” he reasons. “It could be the beer, it could be a need to grow to stay sustainable, but I find it interesting they were all small.”
Columbia’s first craft brewery closure is causing rumblings the potential burst of the local brewing bubble. The Midlands now claim 12 production breweries and brewpubs (restaurants that brew beer on premise) — the number swells to 13 if you count both locations of Hunter-Gatherer. Is the market oversaturated?
“I reject the thinking of the craft beer bubble,” Bristow says. “The craft beer industry is not immune to closings and economic pressures, but the prevailing thought is that cities can sustain quite a bit of breweries.”
Ellisor echoes that sentiment. He says he’s glad that people appreciate the craft of beer rather than seeing it as an alcohol delivery system.
Another change Bristow sees is that breweries are becoming hyperlocal, neighborhood-specific hangouts.
“If breweries can put out a quality product and tell a compelling story, there’s nothing to worry about,” Bristow offers. “But you never want to see anyone close their doors, especially someone who has been a pioneer for the area; that’s sad to see.”
Conquest, located at 947 S. Stadium Road, will remain open through the beginning of fall, serving beers, releasing new brews and hosting events (including a goodbye party that will be announced at a later date).