Craft breweries, aided by law changes, making impact on SC economy

beer flightColumbia’s craft beer scene is scheduled to grow to three breweries by this summer. With less-restrictive rules on serving beer in tasting rooms and possible liberalization of the rules for brewpubs, South Carolina’s craft beer industry is starting to produce economic benefits.

By Rebecca Johnson
May 6, 2014

Joseph Ackerman says that when he first made plans in 2008 to open a craft brewery in Columbia, he was pretty much taking a chance.

Joseph Ackerman and the equipment at Conquest
Joseph Ackerman, owner  of Conquest Brewing on South Stadium Road and its brewer, prepares for fermentation of a batch. Ackerman hopes to expand to another S.C. city.

“There was a big gap that needed to be filled because Columbia was the only major city in South Carolina without a craft brewery,” he says.

Now, not even two years after Ackerman opened Conquest Brewing Co., Columbia’s first production brewery, one more has opened and a third is on the way. With River Rat Brewery’s opening in March and Swamp Cabbage Brewing Co.’s plans to open soon, Columbia’s growing craft beer scene is making a community for itself.

“I want other people to be as excited about it as I am,” said former journalist Nick McCormac, author of the beer newsblog “Drink. Blog. Repeat.” The craft beer scene is benefiting at least in part from the growth in people who want to support local businesses and eat and drink local products, he said.

In states like Colorado and California, craft beer has become a billion-dollar industry. It added $254 million to South Carolina’s economy in 2012, according to an analysis by the Brewers Association, a national trade group, which defines craft breweries as those producing less than 6 million barrels, or about 186 million gallons, annually. There are also ownership restrictions.

Brook Bristow, a lawyer behind the “Beer of SC” blog who helped redraft the recently passed “pint bill,”  predicts that growth and market expansion will continue.

“Craft beer is huge right now,” he said. “We’re seeing such great economic benefits, and it was time South Carolina joined everyone else.”

customers at River Rat Brewery
The taproom at River Rat Brewery functions much like a bar, but as with taprooms at other breweries, is limited in how much it may serve each customer.

The “pint bill,” signed into law last year, allows breweries with tasting rooms to serve up to 48 ounces, or 3 pints, per customer each day. The limit had been 16 ounces a day in 4-ounce taster glasses. Selling beer by the pint can be up to five times as profitable as selling by the keg, according to Doug Boyd, co-owner with his brother Ed Boyd of Swamp Cabbage Brewing.

Those sales will be monitored for two years, with state regulators reporting back to the Legislature by May 2016 on any violations.

Five breweries opened in South Carolina in 2013, bringing the total to 15, and five more hope to begin production in the next few months, according to Bristow’s blog.

State law allows two types of operations:

  • Breweries, which can have tasting rooms
  • Brewpubs, which generally are parts of hotels or restaurants and are limited to 2,000 barrels a year for sale on-site.

But some state legislators are looking to expand brewpubs, in part to draw some big West Coast craft breweries looking to set up on the East Coast with brewpubs as part of their operations. Bills in the House and Senate would lift brewpubs’ limit to 500,000 barrels a year and allow them to sell to distributors as well. [Editor’s note June 4: The final version signed by the governor, H 3512, eliminates all limits for breweries and allows breweries to sell beer in an on-site eating area.]

At one of Columbia’s largest beer, wine and liquor stores, Green’s Beverages on Assembly Street, manager Gary Kangas said local beer is starting to sell more, even though until recently sales were limited to half-gallon growlers. Conquest just began bottling a few weeks ago, and River Rat plans to start soon.

Conquest Brewing Co. beer flight
Passage of the “pint bill” in 2013 allowed breweries with taprooms to sell up to 48 ounces to a customer daily instead of 16 ounces  in 4-ounce tasters. Taster flights remain a staple, though, so that customers can sample several beers at once.

At Conquest, Ackerman is trying to balance sales and production with demand, especially since the brewery just began bottling. But he worries less about the city’s awareness of craft beer now.

“Columbia’s not much of a big craft beer city, but that’s changing,” said Ackerman, who brewed at home for nine years before opening Conquest. “People are understanding craft beer more and turning to it.”

Ackerman said he is lucky because “most people don’t get to follow their passion in a business.”

McCormac said Columbia’s craft beer community promotes local business collaboration, and Ed Boyd said Swamp Cabbage will “try to support local as much as we can.”

Ackerman said he gets to work with food trucks, chefs and other businesses to be more locally focused. “I get to be involved in a community of artisans in the city,” he said.

Bristow predicts 20 operating craft breweries in South Carolina by the end of the year, as well as more development of “session beers” to attract craft beer newcomers. Those are flavorful low-alcohol beers that drinkers can have a few of to fill a “session” without getting intoxicated.

As of December, 2,768 of the 2,822 breweries in the U.S. were craft breweries, according to Brewers Association statistics. The number of barrels sold rose to 15.6 million from 13.2 million in 2012.

Swamp Cabbage Brewing Co. plans to open this summer on Brookwood Road. At the time of this photo, the site had just started testing equipment with water and electricity, and the restrooms and bar area was still under construction.
Swamp Cabbage Brewing Co. plans to open this summer on Brookwood Road.

The potential for South Carolina’s economy is significant based on industry studies for other states. Research by University of Colorado professors sponsored by the Colorado Brewers Guild estimated the state’s 232 craft breweries produced an $826 million economic benefit in 2013, up from $446 million two years before. The impact in North Carolina was over $791 million, according to Brewers Association estimates.

When Ackerman thinks about Columbia’s beer scene compared with Denver’s, or even Charleston’s, he says, “There’s a long way to go yet.”

Still, he said, “The more that beer is prevalent in the community, the more we’ll grow,” and McCormac thinks the future of Columbia’s craft beer “can only go up.”

Listen to Nick McCormac talk about his expectations for the craft beer scene in Columbia.
Hear McCormac’s take on the craft beer community.

Additional Information
Brewers Association estimates of state-by-state economic impact (PDF)
Directory of craft breweries and brewpubs in the Carolinas.

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