Minutes after 5:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of February, Shaun Piggott was busy.
Columbia Craft Brewing Company’s head brewer prepped the company’s newest canned release, the Hazy IPA, and waited patiently. Piggott took notes, glanced at the mash — the early stage of a beer in progress — and occasionally tinkered with various knobs to open up steam valves. The temperature of the concoction was shifting more than it should, but that was a small worry. Everything was going well.
It’s a scene Piggott has repeated countless times since Columbia Craft opened in 2017.
Brewing, after all, is largely made up of waiting. The process starts with physical labor to get all the ingredients, but then come the hours it takes to turn water, barley, hops and any additional additives to become something tasty and alcoholic.
It’s not a glamorous process, and Piggott, 30, doesn’t put up any pretense to the contrary. He looks like many 30-somethings in Columbia, sporting long hair — undoubtedly lengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on how we present ourselves — and a short beard that hides neatly behind his brewery-branded mask.
The dazzling array of IPAs, lagers, sours and other concoctions both traditional and far from it bely this demeanor.
His work has won accolades at prestigious beer festivals, including a 2020 gold medal for the Carolinian Blonde at The Great American Beer Festival, considered one of the two most prestigious competitions in the brewing world. It was the first time a Columbia brewery won gold at the Great American.
The brewery’s core selection of canned six-packs — the Carolinian, the Alien Hat Watermelon Sour, the Famously Hop IPA, the Columbia Craft Lager — have become a fixture on local taps and grocery store shelves, and the quickly rotating selection of taproom and limited package releases keep local beer obsessives coming back for more.
For proof of the popularity of Piggott’s beer, one need look no further than the exterior of Columbia Craft’s Vista building, and the in-progress rooftop bar and patio upgrades that continue despite a pandemic that has hampered craft breweries across the nation.
“He knows just about everything there is about beer and is passionate too,” shared Ran Minter, who works under Piggott as a production assistant and cellerman. “His passion for it kind of permeates the entire staff.”
‘Drinking Lots of Beer’
Like most, Piggott’s first experiences in craft beer were in consumption.
The Cape Coral, Florida native can’t quite remember what his first craft beer was. After some thought, he settled on something from Samuel Adams, which Piggott isn’t sure would still be considered craft in today’s world.
“I always wanted to try all the different beers,” Piggott said. “Then I just decided to try my hand at brewing it.”
Once he began homebrewing, it became another way for the Florida native and his fellow University of Central Florida friends to hang out, getting together to make a night of the process.
The early returns were promising, he recalled. A saison stood out, as did a Belgian tripel. But mainly he experimented in IPAs, contrasting with the early 2010s fad of high bitterness IPAs. These early efforts gave him enough experience to get hired to the production staff at Fat Point Brewing near Fort Myers in 2013.
There, he worked on a 15-barrel system, the same size system he uses at Columbia Craft Brewing, but it also had a half-barrel and a three-barrel system — meaning he could experiment in smaller quantities. He better learned how different ingredients work together and how flavors play off each other.
“We still do a lot of experimenting,” Piggott said of how that approach influences his work in Columbia. “There's so many combinations that can be used between all the different raw materials. So it's just a constant learning experience. Having that foundation was really good.”
In 2015, he then attended Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the U.S., to receive formal training. There, he learned and a small cohort of classmates learned about the intricacies of the field, including instruction in Germany.
Piggott was one of the few students in his class with professional brewing experience and displayed, like others, a dutiful approach to the program, said Stefano Annicchiarico, a classmate, former coworker and fellow brewer now based in California.
The two shared a view that craft brewers at the time were trading quality for novelty.
“We both agreed that although everyone should concentrate on the roots of brewing and the traditional styles that there is room for creativity but not so much that you risk quality,” Annicchiarico recalled.
After the program, Piggott and Annicchiarico worked together at the newly opened production facility of Big Storm Brewing Co. near Tampa in 2016. There, Piggott brewed only for distribution, leaving little opportunity to flex his creativity, but challenging him to learn a new, larger 30-barrel system and be more efficient.
It wasn’t what he was hoping to do, and he looked for other opportunities, ideally as a head brewer.
“I’m kind of an impatient person and also don’t like authority a whole lot, so I didn’t like working for other head brewers, so to speak,” Piggott said. “I always wanted to try and do it on my own. … Some might call it headstrong, some might call it arrogant, I'm not sure. I always thought I could do it better than other people. I just wanted the opportunity to prove it.”
Crafting in Columbia
In 2016, he got what he wanted.
Piggott began consulting for the Strauss family as they prepared to open Columbia Craft Brewing Company. They were connected through craft beer website ProBrewer.com's job board. He designed the brewing facility and began interviewing for the full-time job as head brewer.
Co-owner Andrew Strauss reminisced that in interviews Piggott came across as humble and strictly wanted to focus on the beer. Additionally, the family had a desire to feature sours, something Strauss believed that not many breweries accessible to Columbia were exploring at the time. Piggott was excited about that.
“I felt like he was wanting to go somewhere to create something,” Strauss said. “That’s what we wanted to do.”
Piggott recalled a 2016 visit to Columbia during his interview process in the brewery. At the time, he believed, based on his experience in Florida, that people should stop inundating the land with local breweries. There were already too too many.
But seeing beer-focused bars like The Whig, Craft and Draft and the now-closed Flying Saucer, he realized there was a hunger for craft beer in the Midlands. And when he noticed that the taps in these places were frequently filled with North Carolina products or staples from larger craft brands like Dogfish Head, he saw an opening to do the kind of brewing he wanted.
“The city will drink craft beer and will drink a lot, but there's not a whole lot of breweries that are actually local breweries,” Piggott remembered at his initial trip, which came a time when current favorites like Cayce’s Steel Hands Brewing and Lexington’s Hazelwood Brewing Company had yet to open. “They're getting craft beer and drinking it, they just don't have super local craft beer outside of a handful.”
The next year, Columbia Craft opened with Piggott, then 26, in charge of brewing operations. The three years since have been a whirlwind, as the brewery has become a hit with the masses and beer snobs alike, drawn in by a reliable balance of creativity and quality.
Strauss, Columbia Craft’s co-owner, said his head brewer’s attention to detail as being key to the business’ success.
“He has very high expectations for everything he does,” Strauss posited.
Annichchiarico, Piggot’s former classmate, offered similar praise. He and Piggott keep in touch and trade thoughts on emerging beer styles — they once discussed thoughts on how to brew trendy hazy IPAs. He described Piggott as confident in his work.
“He’s very sure of all the things he makes,” he said. “I think he has a very strong grasp on what he wants from his beer and what he wants from the industry in general and he just goes after that.”
True to these observations, Piggott acknowledges that self-assurance is key to his success.
“I think it kind of takes a tad bit of arrogance to be a brewer or a head brewer, because you're basically putting something out there for the world to criticize,” Piggot said. “If you’re not confident in what you do it will probably destroy you.”
Bright Spot in a Rough Year
The brewery’s gold medal at The Great American Beer Festival was one of a few bright spots in a year marred by COVID-19. The brewery also won a silver medal at the highly regarded U.S. Open Beer Championship for its New Zealand-style IPA.
Columbia Craft’s brewing schedule has been sporadic due to up-and-down demand from restaurants and distributors, and their oft-busy taproom has been similarly stymied.
Piggott lamented the extreme difficulty of figuring out what to brew at what time when the data from previous years has been rendered useless. He was also breaking in his two current production assistants when the pandemic hit.
But the recognition for the Carolinian was a reminder of what Piggott is doing right. Kevin Varner, owner and head brewer at Columbia’s Hunter-Gatherer Brewery, which operated a brewpub for more than 20 years before opening a production facility in 2018, noted the underappreciated difficulty of getting a blonde ale right.
“The lighter your beer is, the more it needs to be perfect,” Varner explained. “If you’re brewing a beer that’s lighter in flavor … you’re going to notice technical differences, or technical flaws more readily.”
For Piggott, the medal was a validating benchmark, and one of the few specific goals he set for himself when he became a head brewer.
He and his girlfriend are looking for a house in Columbia, and he talked with genuine excitement about the next year for the brewery. By the end of the month, the owners hope to open their expanded patio and, ideally, they plan to open the rooftop expansion in April or May.
But it’s the people who continue to drink and enjoy his beer that truly affirm his positive outlook.
“Being able to appreciate the fruits of your labor literally in drinking the beer, but then also have other people do the same thing is pretty cool,” he concluded. “And it makes it all worth it.”