Senate, House pass bill to boost South Carolina's craft beer industry

State lawmakers approved a virtual sea change in South Carolina's beer laws Wednesday, lifting restrictions to help craft breweries grow and attract outside beermakers with the potential to invest millions and hire hundreds.

The House voted 96-0 to approve the bill and the Senate, 43-1. Sen. Phil Corbin, R-Greenville, cast the lone dissenting vote.

"It's a huge win for the industry and for economic development in South Carolina," said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. "Craft beer is up and coming in our state and is a cottage industry. This is going to allow us to compete with North Carolina and Georgia."

The bill now heads to Gov. Nikki Haley for her consideration, and supporters predict she will quickly sign the measure into law. A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return a request for comment.

The bill would allow breweries to produce an unlimited amount of beer and also operate on-site restaurants that serve food. They would not be able to sell liquor, but could offer their brews, other breweries' suds and wine in their restaurants.

That's important to attracting breweries like Stone Brewing, supporters argue, because their operations are destinations for beer aficionados. In addition to tours of its plant, Stone offers a restaurant, an elaborate garden, upscale bars, a store and other features.

The Escondido, Calif.-based craft brewery, the 10th largest of its kind in the United States, had said it plans to expand its operation to the East Coast this year - a move that promises to bring nearly 400 jobs and a $29 million investment to the host city that lands it.

State Commerce Department officials reportedly traveled to California in recent days to court Stone, and the Palmetto State is said to be a strong contender to land the new brewery with the bill's passage. Senators said that Stone is looking at the Greenville, Spartanburg and Charleston areas.

"By doing this, it turns up the heat in terms of our courtship in a way that wouldn't have been possible," Merrill said.

Brook Bristow, general counsel for the S.C. Brewers Association, called the bill's passage "a historic day for craft brewers in South Carolina."

"This not only sends a message to the breweries of our state that South Carolina is going to foster, nurture and help you along," he said. "It also sends a message to other brewers out of state that we want your business, we want you to come here and we will support you."

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, said the bill's passage in such a short time period was nothing short of a "miracle."

While South Carolina has a conservative streak when it comes to all things alcohol, Bennett said, the possibility of Stone or a similar company setting up shop in the Palmetto state helped push the bill quickly through the process.

"Is there still in South Carolina an anti-alcohol, blue laws mentality?" Bennett asked. "That's breaking down. People are becoming a little more comfortable."

The bill seemingly came out of nowhere at the tail end of the legislative session. It was attached to an innocuous measure that allows customers to redeem alcohol-related coupons at the cash register instead of having to mail them in. Few outside observers gave it much chance of passing.

Beer distributors had some reservations about the measure undercutting their business, but they eventually came on board in a compromise that added safeguards to their interests.

Legislators also approved a provision that would do away with a ban on Election Day alcohol sales in exchange for a ban on Christmas Day sales.

The Pearlstine family, longtime beer distributors and recent investors in Palmetto Brewing Company on Huger Street in Charleston, threw their support behind the bill. Susan Pearlstine, one of the owners, said she has seen both sides of the business and thinks the change will be a benefit for all involved. "Now we can move forward as a group and grow collectively," she said.

For Jaime Tenny, co-owner of Coast Brewing in North Charleston and president of the S.C. Brewers Association, the bill's passage was the final linchpin in a multi-year effort to ease restrictions on the state's Prohibition-era beer laws. That effort began with the successful Pop the Cap campaign that brought high-gravity beer to the Palmetto State in 2007.

Tenny said the incremental improvements made in the years since, such as allowing limited pint sales, paved the way for the big change approved Wednesday. "Those things had to happen to get to this point," she said. "But this is what we have all been waiting for."

Coast is already in the midst of an expansion, but Tenny wouldn't rule out adding a food component to the operation at some point. She and her husband, brewmaster David Merritt, love to cook and he might be partial to adding barbecue to the mix at Coast at some point, she said.

"It's nice now to have options," she said.