COLUMBIA — On Oct. 8, only a day after Hunter-Gatherer Brewery’s 25th birthday, owner Kevin Varner didn’t seem to be in a celebratory mood.
Columbia’s brewery scene has changed considerably since he opened a brewpub on Main Street near the University of South Carolina, launching one of the city’s first craft beer brands. The small restaurant with brewing equipment shoved in behind the bar bears little resemblance to large-scale destination-and-production breweries such as Steel Hands and River Rat, which have opened.
“I opened a brewery because I basically wanted to do something that no one else was doing,” Varner said. “In South Carolina, that was true and it's not anymore … Now a brewery has to do everything rather than be in a niche.”
Varner opened a second location in 2018, setting up shop in a historic hangar near Rosewood’s small Jim Hamilton - LB Owens Airport, and establishing a production operation with ample outdoor hangout space to match the breweries that rose in Hunter-Gatherer’s wake.
Varner still stubbornly brews Hunter-Gatherer’s beer himself. It suits his skill set, he reasoned, calling himself a “brewer rather than a business person.” In opening the brewery’s hangar location, a move he made so he could “brew lots of beer and sell it all over the place.” So far, that hasn’t panned out.
“We just never figured out how to do it,” Varner said. “We’re going to keep on making it better.”
The competitive and popular local brewing scene is driving his operation to adapt. Long focused on non-hoppy, English-inspired offerings, Hunter-Gatherer has expanded into other styles — Varner points to a forthcoming barrel-aged series of ales called Nearly Wild as an example. The brewery has also flirted with other more recently popular styles, like sours, hazy IPAs, milkshakes IPAs and more.
Varner continues to hope these efforts will cement the brand as a “serious brewery” and bring in business by leaning into popular trends.
“This is a possibility of adding some success without going (to canning and distribution),” he said. “I have no clue how much this is going to add to our business.”
He readily acknowledged it’s needed, though. Business has been difficult for a couple of years, and circumstances, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped. Where many breweries relied on can sales to get by when they couldn’t have people drinking on premise, Hunter-Gatherer doesn’t can, and didn’t have that to lean on.
Varner reopened the brewery’s hangar location in the first week of August, with the downtown brewpub following suit in September. Business has been slow.
Over the years, Varner’s focus on English-style beer has waned in popularity. Local bottle shop Craft and Draft cofounder Kellan Monroe points to beer trends that have seen customers gravitate towards sours, hazy IPAs, milkshakes IPAs and more.
Varner is forthcoming on how these forays suit his skills as a brewer — particularly as it pertains to IPAs, perhaps the style most associated with craft beer’s 21st century boom. He said that he believes he can make one as good as anyone else, but knows little about how to improve it. Indeed, he recalled that before his recent explorations, he would look at the hop-forward offerings of craft brewing juggernaut Sierra Nevada and didn’t see a point in trying to compete.
Though Hunter-Gatherer’s stylistic imprint has expanded, Varner’s honest, common-sense outlook still shapes his brewery’s output and identity.
“It's trying to come up with a good balance of sticking to what you know and enhancing that rather than really trying to change it,” Varner said.
For as soberingly realistic as Varner can be about the business side of things, Monroe said he feels that Hunter-Gatherer was ahead of the curve when it first opened. Before the pandemic, many of the newer breweries were built in some ways to emulate his, emphasizing on-premise consumption and its better profit margins.
“When we started Craft and Draft, everybody was trying to get into packaging and kegs because distribution was your only real option,” Monroe said. “Kevin was probably ahead of his time in a lot of ways.”
Despite the ebb and flow of current tastes, Monroe thinks that Varner’s preference toward more traditional brews has staying power. He also believes his experiments with trendier styles are successful, too, specifically highlighting the brewery’s raspberry sour.
Monroe detailed that as a University of South Carolina college student, Hunter-Gatherer was a go-to spot to take parents and, once he came of age, to explore craft beer, particularly when it came to English styles.
“To me, they’ve always been super important,” Monroe offered.
Now 50, Varner reflected that half of his life has been spent owning Hunter-Gatherer. He signed a 30-year lease for the Main Street location, which he felt would last forever, but now there’s just five years left.
He is certain Hunter Gatherer will be around for that long — and much longer.
“I feel comfortable that we’re going to be here for another 25 years,” he concluded. “People talk about how they learn from their mistakes or learn from their failures in business. I don’t have that option, we have to make it happen.”