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South Carolina's Milwaukee? Beer tourism hopping in North Charleston

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Holy City Brewing sits behind a motorcycle store and a painting shop on Dorchester Road in North Charleston. 

Its customers must traverse a long gravel driveway, past an automobile collision repair shop, scattered shipping containers and stacks of wooden pallets to get the to tap room. 

Holy City brews beer here and sells statewide and to Charlotte-area retailers, restaurants and bars. Spokesman Paul Pavlich said Holy City also has a tap room that serves beer and food and is open to the public.

"We brew six days a week, year-round," he said.

The brewery is in good company. Ryan Johnson, North Charleston's economic development coordinator, said the city is now home to five craft breweries: Holy City, Freehouse Brewery, Coast Brewing Company, Snafu Brewing Company and Lo-Fi Brewing.

And three more are on tap to arrive soon.

He thinks craft beer is now North Charleston's biggest tourist draw after the city's coliseum and neighboring Performing Arts Center. 

Of course, the emergence of small breweries is also a local and national trend. The greater Charleston area has at least 16 of them.

"They're popping up in cities everywhere," Johnson said.

But North Charleston — with its central location and affordable real estate — is one of the most popular local destinations for them.

Breweries, unlike many other businesses, can set up shop in industrial areas, Johnson said. The city has a lot of that kind of property and it's relatively inexpensive, he said. "It's due to property values and lease rates." 

Johnson said breweries bring a lot to the city. In addition to attracting tourists, the breweries improve the quality of life and promote economic development.

People who come to the city to taste some beer often learn more about what's available in North Charleston, he said, so they are more likely to come back and try a restaurant or shop.

And breweries bring people to parts of the city they might not otherwise visit. For instance, he said, Freehouse Brewery sits in back of the Stark Industrial Park, which is off of Azalea Drive near Leeds Avenue. Despite the industrial location, the brewery offers a great view of the Ashley River.

"It's quintessentially Lowcountry," he said. "But the average person in the Lowcountry has no reason to go to the Stark Industrial Park."

The presence of craft breweries in a city is becoming a sign that the area is thriving or at least on an upswing. The Atlantic's March 2016 issue listed 11 signs that a city will succeed. Having at least one brewery was noted as "perhaps the most reliable" marker on the list, author James Fallows wrote.

"You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception," he added.

Craft breweries are working both as a tourist draw and to satisfy thirsty locals in Asheville, N.C. The city has 26 of them and there are about 60 breweries in the larger region. 

Johnson said he and a group of friends recently took a trip to Asheville to sample beer. "People one day are going to be doing that in North Charleston."

Pavlich of Holy City said the brewer last year produced more than 6,000 barrels of beer. Each year it offers 60 to 75 different styles.

"The Southeast is looked at as the last to the party in the craft beer revolution," he said. "But that's changing and we're glad we're part of it."

Summerville resident Billy Starrett, who was enjoying a beer and some food at Holy City last week, said he frequents craft breweries.

"Instead of Bud Light and Miller Light, people want a good beer," he said. 

And Matt Hamiltion, who also is from Summerville, said he's not surprised the craft beer movement is taking off in North Charleston.

"It think it's a national trend," Hamilton said. "It's the in thing to do."

Jaime Tenny and husband David Merritt for the past 10 years have owned Coast Brewing Co. on the former Navy base in North Charleston on land owned by the city. Tenny hopes in the next few weeks to complete a deal to purchase the property, so the company can expand.

Now, she said, it has to shut down the brewing operation to offer tastings in the same space beer is made.

But her team has rolled with the limitations over the years. They have set up tables outside during tasting hours. And on a nice day, more than 100 people might visit during a three-hour session.

When the deal goes through, Coast plans to expand and add a tap room and kitchen, she said.

In the meantime, the brewery has had tremendous support from the community of people who appreciate good beer, she said. 

The couple's business also sells to restaurants and retail outlets statewide, she said.

"Whether it's a dive bar or fine dining, if they care about beer, you can find us there," she said.

She said she's excited about the brewery's next phase and its future.

"We're doing a slow and steady wins the race type of deal. It took longer than we had hoped, but we're making it."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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