While the gangbusters growth craft breweries experienced at the turn of the century has slowed, the overall health of hops remains strong, industry participants and observers say — and the Columbia suds scene bears out that belief.
Last summer’s closing of area pioneer Conquest Brewing Co. stirred fears of market saturation, but craft choice has not diminished in the aftermath. Construction is underway on a major expansion to downtown stalwart Columbia Craft Brewing Co., completed on a new 7,000-square-foot tasting room and bottle shop in Irmo and ready to ramp up on an ambitious project in West Columbia.
“Brewers are really being challenged in a way that has them have to look at their business model, their approach to their customers, and the approach to what they offer for beer,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based nonprofit trade group. That’s a change from the beer boom of the late 1990s, she said, “where what brewers would brew is often what they would just want to drink and see how their customers felt about that.
“The more you produce as a brewery, the more you have to approach it in a more mindful way that is geared toward giving your fans what they’re asking for versus what you think they might want.”
Andrew Strauss, co-owner and business development officer at Columbia Craft, has tried to strike that balance since opening the brewery tucked into the corner of Huger and Greene streets in 2016. As a family homebrewing hobby that began three years earlier blossomed into a business, Strauss brought his appreciation for sours and goses into an arena that he knew also needed to include popular lager and IPA options.
“We definitely learned a lot about the consumer and what Columbia kind of likes to drink, for sure,” Strauss said. “ … It’s just trying to hit on everybody’s palate, but being true to the beer is important.”
Columbia Craft’s ability to produce and market that beer, which includes its signature Famously Hopped IPA and Columbia Craft Lager along with a sprinkling of stouts, a seasonal doppelbock and abundant evidence of Strauss’ sour tooth, will soon grow. The brewery is in the midst of an expansion that will add a 1,200-square-foot rooftop bar and a 500-square-foot covered outdoor patio. The expansion, expected to be completed by May, will also include a large cooler room and a barrel aging room capable of housing close to 100 bourbon, rum and wine barrels.
“People, when they see that we’re expanding, it’s funny – they say, ‘Oh man, business must be good,’ ” Strauss said. “And we are blessed. Business has been good.
“But it’s more, we’ve got to provide — it’s not just about bringing great beer. You’ve got to have a great venue. You’ve got to have the ambience. You’ve got to be able to provide for the people that have families, and if they want to bring their dog. If it’s hot outside, you better be able to provide some comfort, or people are not going to come to your place.”
Columbia Craft is one of 82 craft breweries in South Carolina, according to 2018 statistics from the Brewers Association, which ranks 32nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. That’s up from 31 in 2014 and breaks down to 2.1 breweries per 100,000 adults age 21 and over (35th). Craft beer has as economic impact of $796 million in the state, which ranks 27th, and South Carolina produces 100,242 barrels of craft beer each year, 36th-most in the country.
Pennsylvania leads the nation, producing more than 3.7 million barrels of craft beer per year.
Herz said the country now boasts more than 8,000 breweries, up from a low of fewer than 100 in the late 1970s. While craft breweries are no longer growing at the double-digit rates of the past few years, “that growth in 2018 was still almost 4% by volume, (and) we also had 7% dollar growth for sales,” she said.
“Saturation is definitely relative,” Herz said. “You have had a few isolated breweries say that they have had to close due to increased competition from other breweries down the street. That said, the majority of markets still have brewers in those markets opening doors and opening new breweries.
“The environment is still ripe for any brewery that is positioned to provide beer lovers what they’re looking for.”
Across the Gervais Street bridge on Meeting Street, Phill Blair is trying to fill a niche in his hometown.
WECO Bottle & Biergarten, currently serving a rotating tap and bottle selection during its soft opening, is shooting for a Feb. 15 grand opening.
“I’ve lived in West Columbia my whole life, so I’ve known that we need to a place a) to buy beer and wine that’s not a grocery store, and also just a place to go get a decent beer that is beer-focused,” said Blair, part of the ownership group of erstwhile downtown dive bar The Whig. “A lot of the restaurants have drafts on tap, but it’s not the focus. It’s just what they have, and they typically only have flagships of the breweries, not the one-offs.
“This building in particular, I was waiting for it for several years, because it’s such a nice lot. It should have (always) been a bottle shop and a beer garden. That is what it was made for.”
WECO is situated on three-fourths of an acre and includes an outdoor green space with plans for a covered patio.
On nearby Center Street, site work is underway at Savage Craft Ale Works, which plans to brew beer in addition to featuring rotating taps and craft cocktails. A spacious outdoor beer garden is also planned for the renovated building, built in 1925, that has been home to city hall and a fire station. The Savage Craft investment team is awaiting a permit from the S.C. Department of Transportation to install a storm pipe. Once that work begins, investors hope for a July opening.
Blair is unconcerned about the proximity of potential competition, saying that a brewery fills a different need than a bottle shop.
“I’ve seen their renderings. It looks really cool. It’s the one thing we don’t have,” he said. “Cayce’s got Steel Hands (Brewing). Downtown’s got easy access to Columbia Craft and River Rat (Brewery). It’s time for us to have one, too, and it’s a pretty good location.
“It’s just like, the more the merrier. You get cross-traffic from all these places. We (at The Whig) were on Main Street by ourselves forever. When Bourbon opened, everybody was like, ‘Is that going to hurt you guys’ business?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was a like a dream.”
On the third Saturday in January, the only evidence of market oversaturation was in the tilted gait of a few bar patrons.
Folks lined up three-deep at the granite bar at Craft and Draft Irmo as staff quickstepped to change kegs. The second location of the popular Devine Street bottle shop and tasting room, after years of planning and several construction delays, threw itself a grand opening party, and just about everybody in town RSVP’d.
“Days like today are high-stress, but it’s very nice to see a bunch of new people,” co-owner Kellan Monroe said as he rang up yet another tab.
The sprawling space in the Irmo Village Shopping Center off St. Andrews Road roughly quadruples the size of Craft and Draft’s cozy downtown location and features a kitchen and a large event space complete with a glitzy chandelier.
Herz said bottle shops and tasting rooms serve a valuable role for both customers thirsty for new beer and brewers looking for a distribution avenue.
“It is more challenging and competitive than ever to get your beers carried at retail, on the liquor store shelves, on the restaurant menu,” she said. “ … Better (beer) providers are very important, and better beer providers that are frankly following the brewery model. If we look at data, why beer lovers are touring breweries, retailers can pay attention to that and it tells us what is popular and why beer lovers would want to purchase from a certain establishment. In other words, variety, a knowledgeable staff, clean glassware, fresh beer, all of that — and better beer providers have a great opportunity and are very instrumental.”
At Columbia Craft, Strauss hopes to expand distribution into untapped areas of the state including Hilton Head and Rock Hill this year.
“It’s just like any other market,” he said. “The craft beer market is evolving. If breweries aren’t willing to — I don’t want to say keep up, but you’ve got to continue to reinvest. As we say, we don’t want the grass to grow under our feet. We always want to keep planning.”
That could include another location in the future, Strauss said, though he has no specific plans yet.
“With brewing, it’s all a math game,” he said. “You know exactly what you can brew. You get to a certain capacity, and you have to decide which way you want to go. We always keep our eyes open. Right now, we’ve got a lot of room to grow.”
As does the area beer market, judging by the construction it is producing.
“The beer market here is great,” Strauss said. “The fact that other breweries are planned — that’s a good thing. We definitely want the craft beer market to keep evolving and growing.
“It’s the high tide lifts all boats type of feel in that aspect.”-