A warm welcome in the 50th state
South Carolina offers a proclamation, plus plenty of breweries
How many beers does it take to reach The Fiftieth State? About 5,000 is my guess, but I long ago lost count. The state to which I refer is not a transcendental condition. In my case, it was South Carolina.
When I first drank a beer in America, nearly 30 years ago, I did not realise that my thirst would take me to every state in the Union.
Things were quiet for the first ten years, but in the last two decades it has been scarcely possible to keep up with the new breweries, currently numbering about 1,300. At one stage, a couple of trips a year were enough; more recently it has been six or seven. There was no geographical logic: I visited the breweries as the clusters grew, and whenever I could.
I was in an open-beam building that was a gunpowder magazine during the Civil War, and more recently a tramshed.
That is how I recently came to find myself having a beer by the Reedy river, at a crossing point that was once a Native American trading post. The waters that tumble from the Blue Mountains later powered mills making cotton fabric, and the town of Greenville grew up around them. I was in an open-beam building that was a gunpowder magazine during the Civil War, and more recently a tramshed. With "antique" street lamps outside, this building has been smartly restored and turned into a brewpub in the Big River chain. The grandly-named Big River Grille and Brewing Works (211 East Broad St) is on the western edge of downtown Greenville.
There were five clean but tasty beers on tap, all unfiltered, among which my clear favourites were the India Pale Ale and the Stout. The I.P.A. had no fewer than four additions of hops, the varieties being Hallertau, Cascade and Mount Hood. It was also dry-hopped, emerging with lots of texture and taste, and a leafy bitterness. The Stout started smooth and soft, with dark-chocolate flavours, developing toward a bitter finish (less roasty than hoppy). I fancied a burger, steak or game of pool, but had more beers to taste.
Greenville is in the northwest of the state. Having depended on the textile industry, it has endured some tough times, but in a determined, 15-year, programme has made great efforts to revive its downtown area, handsomely planted with dogwood trees. As in many American cities, a brewpub is at the heart of the revival. This one is Blue Ridge Brewing, in a 1940s building that was originally a hardware store, between the Christian Science Reading Room and a bistro, along a row of pavement cafés (217 North Main St).
Blue Ridge's owner, Bob Hiller, was originally a building contractor, working on bars and restaurants. His first shareholding in such an enterprise grew out of a bad debt, "and it go under my skin." He designed his brewpub to have hints of an Appalachian barn, but it also has a handsome back bar made from the yellowish Brazilian softwood Guatambu, with mahogany trim. There is a map of American breweries, marked with bottles, on the wall, and stained-glass booths. Customers include beer-lovers, office-workers and family shoppers, who might equally fancy rainbow trout, smoked ribs, wild boar chop, or just a cup of coffee.
He took me through half a dozen crisp, refreshing beers: an apple-ish Wheat Ale; a crisp, dry Pale Ale; a very complex Amber; a smooth, malty, but well-balanced E.S.B.;
a firm, dry, Pale Ale; a fruity, toffeeish, delicious Stout; and a syrupy, banana-ish Hefeweizen, made with a Weihenstephan yeast. I especially liked the Stout and the Hefeweizen.
While at Blue Ridge, I also sampled beers brought along by two other local brewers. From the textile nearby town of Spartanburg, the brewpub R.J.Rockets (117 West Main St) brought a light, smooth Kšlsch; a spritzy, dryish, Altbier; and lightly creamy Golden Ale, closer to bronze in colour.
Kerry, previously worked in computers, and was a home-brewer. Since turning professional, he has brewed in his garage, and sold his beer in five-gallon mini kegs.
Adjoining Spartanburg is village of Moore, on the Tyger River, where Kerry Henderson's micro, the Appalachian Ale Works, has a tiny, two-barrel, brewhouse. He brought the malty, perfumy, dryish, Tyger River Red. Kerry, previously worked in computers, and was a home-brewer. Since turning professional, he has brewed in his garage, and sold his beer in five-gallon mini kegs.
My next stop was the state capital, Columbia. This city is more centrally placed in the state. Half a block from the statehouse is a brewpub in the stable block of a former fire station, a turn-of-the century building (900 Main St). The building has impressive pillars and ceiling-decking in heart pine, bare brick walls and additional seating in a galleried area. All the remodelling was done by owner Kevin Barner, his brother Dean and two of the kitchen managers. This led them to the brewpub's self-sufficient name: the Hunter Gatherer.
The sense of a primitive community is heightened by masks, shields and spears around the room. These were supplied by a Barner family member who was a diplomat in Africa. The ambience suits the customers from the university next door, though Kevin does encourage a mixed clientele. He himself studied history (his thesis was on the Sandinistas), in Edinburgh. There, he became enthused by cask ale: "Something that was alive and changed from one day to the next".
He first brewed as a vacation job at Hale's Ales, in Washington state (another British connection: Mike Hale learned to brew at Gale's of Horndean). The house yeast originates from Gale's. The Hunter Gatherer's big, malty, ales are all unfiltered. As in most American brewpubs, the beers are served under pressure, but in this instance, special care is taken to keep the C02 as low as possible. I sampled a dry, orangey-tasting, Wheat Beer; a perfumy Pale Ale, with a lingering East Kent Golding character; a peppery E.S.B; and a peaty Porter. "Fresh beers and fresh foods" is the motto, with salads, sandwiches and pizzas featured.
If it sounds like the kind of place a CAMRA members might enjoy, indeed it is. The beer is the hero, rather than the brewery being an afterthought. In the U.S., and even sometimes in Britain, the latter is too often the case. The brewer who made, a crisp, hoppy, IPA at Vista (936 Gervais St, Columbia) was clearly working hard, but there was no sense that his work was really appreciated. The place is really a jazz lounge, and people go there for the music (which I also enjoyed)
In a late 1930s or early 1940s fishmarket building, a seafood and steak restaurant and brewpub has developed a following for business lunches or evening dates.
In a late 1930s or early 1940s fishmarket building, a seafood and steak restaurant and brewpub has developed a following for business lunches or evening dates. This is Columbia Brewing (931 Senate St). At first sight, the interior reminded me of a TGI Friday's, but I soon warmed to the place. I was amused by the smoothly fruity Kochshur Red Ale (a gamecock is the mascot of the university), and enjoyed an oily, hoppy IPA, though I was disappointed when brewer-owner Martin Herbkersman told me that it was usually less intensely bitter.
What truly won me over was the Smokehouse Lager. This brew, made with Rauchbier malt from Bamberg, Germany, had the smokiness of bacon. To complete the gastronomic experience, it comes with a wedge of smoked Gouda cheese. I have several times urged pubs to offer appropriate snacks with very special beers, but this is the only time I recall seeing it done.
As I pondered this, the pub's door opened to admit Rick Quinn, a member of the state's House of Representatives. "We discussed you and voted on you on the floor of the General Assembly," he told me. Then, posing me for a photograph, he presented me with a framed, gilt-mounted, gold-sealed, certificate, featuring the word "whereas" in bold no fewer than four times. It marked a House resolution formally to welcome me to the state.
An hospitable gesture, I thought - and they they did not know that their state was my 50th.
Next month: Michael Jackson heads for Charleston.
Published Online: AUG 22, 1999
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing
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