A Brief History Of Microbreweries In South Carolina

A Brief History Of Microbreweries In South Carolina

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It is no overstatement to say that South Carolina has a lot of places where you can grab a beer. For someone not born in the South, the availability of beer and wine at a gas station is mind-blowing, to say the least.

The opportunities to grab a beer are virtually endless in South Carolina. From restaurants and local bars to supermarkets and convenience stores, grabbing a beer is pretty easy.

The real treat comes when you can experience a beer that will quench your thirst, but has the special trait that it’s also made on premises. What we have then is magic….and it’s called a microbrewery!

Producing and selling beer at the same location is a relatively new occurrence in South Carolina.

You might not know it, but producing and selling beer at the same location is a relatively new occurrence in South Carolina. A little over a decade ago, it was prohibited in South Carolina to sell a beer with a higher alcohol content than a Budweiser (which is 5%). But in the ensuing years, legislation favoring local craft breweries has created an ever expanding business in the state.

A quick note here, there is a difference of alcohol percentages when measured by volume or by weight. Most listings are labeled on the bottle as volume. When it comes to the laws in the state, the regulation is actually done by weight, an important designation as we will soon see.

In this article, we’re going to trace the evolution of the brewing industry in South Carolina and give you a brief overview of what a microbrewery is and how they’re different from a traditional brewery.

SC Microbreweries

The important thing to remember is that a microbrewery and a craft brewery are different because of the number of barrels of beer produced.

The impetus behind the microbrewery boom was the passing in 2007 of the “pop the cap” law. This law lifted the 5% alcohol by volume limit and raised it to 14% by weight. This new level of allowable alcohol allowed local brewers to embrace experimentation with a more flavorful and innovative product as opposed to trying to copycat mass produced commercial beers.

At a microbrewery, everyday can be a science project in their quest for tasty, flavorful beer

The trend began in the United Kingdom in the 1970’s and made its way to the US in the 1980’s. As the term ‘micro’ might suggest, the difference between a microbrewery and a brewery is a matter of scale.

A traditional brewery like MillerCoors produces millions of barrels of beer, while a microbrewery (as defined by U.S. regulations) can produce no more than 15,000 barrels of beer a year.

Microbreweries are breweries that produce small batches of fermented grains that can be flavored with all sorts of things….from hops to fruits to chocolates to spices. Brewmasters love to experiment with different styles of beer, different ingredient proportions and different fermentation processes. At a microbrewery, everyday can be a science project in their quest for tasty, flavorful beer.

Try this for a little perspective - in 1980 there were 8 microbreweries in the US, 537 in 1994 and over 6,000 in 2019. And the craft beer explosion shows no sign of slowing down.

Some microbreweries in the U.S. have become so popular, and their brews are in such high demand that their production exceeds those limits. They then acquire national distribution, but when that happens, they lose their microbrewery status.

If they maintain their independence and their tradition of specialty beers, they become known as a craft brewery. The Boston Brewery Company (that produces Sam Adams) is a prime example.

The important thing to remember is that a microbrewery and a craft brewery are different because of the number of barrels of beer produced. Both produce craft beers and unique specialty tastes, but the microbrewery will stay close to their local roots.

Try this for a little perspective – in 1980 there were 8 microbreweries in the US, 537 in 1994 and over 6,000 in 2019. And the craft beer explosion shows no sign of slowing down. 

It took more legislation than just the “pop the cap”

Though late to the party (due to antiquated production laws South Carolina) breweries have been all-in since 2007. Today, there are close to 50 microbreweries in the state producing 110,000 barrels of beer, employing close to 5,000 people and (according to the South Carolina Brewers Guild) having a 780 million dollar economic impact on the state.

Obviously, those numbers are just going to continue to climb. As Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light and Budweiser lose market share nationally, the microbrewery business is thriving.

Of course, it took more legislation than just the “pop the cap” law to arrive at the current thriving microbrewery business. The original law only allowed beer to be made at higher alcohol levels….drinking it on premises was a whole other story. In 2010, a law was passed that allowed limited, on-site sampling of a microbrewery’s offerings.

A consumer could taste a serving (2 to 4oz. depending on alcoholic content) of up to 4 brands, as long as they took a tour of the facilities. The law also allowed customers to purchase up to 288oz. of beer to go, the equivalent of a 24-case of 12oz. Cans. This legislation enabled breweries to expand their scale, while hopefully boosting tourism in South Carolina as a beer destination.

Despite all the progress and optimism, there are some impediments to the future growth of microbrewery businesses.

2013 saw the biggest gains, with the passing of the “pint law” whereby customers were now allowed to buy and consume up to 3 pints on site.

This, coupled with a 2014 law allowing microbreweries to serve food, transformed the industry. A microbrewery now became a destination, a place to go for an afternoon or night out.

So how did this all happen? Being an observer of the microbrewery craft beer movement, I can point to three markers. Simply put: fuller flavor, greater variety and more intense support for local businesses.

South Carolina ranks 34th in the nation for barrel production

A lot of communities in the state realize what a brewery can do for them. When a brewery comes into a neighborhood, other businesses tend to come as well. Breweries can revitalize areas, attract real estate developers, and create an economic impact and jobs. A brewery becomes part of the community. It gives people a place to meet and talk with family, friends and coworkers.

Yet, despite all the progress and optimism, there are some impediments to the future growth of microbrewery businesses. One doesn’t have to go any further than looking at national production amounts. South Carolina ranks 34th in the nation for barrel production, while neighboring North Carolina lies 5th.

Make sure to read our guide to the Best Outdoor Bars in Bluffton! 

River Rat Brewing – Columbis SC – Pic From Facebook

It hardly takes a degree in economics to see that the consequences are problematic for a microbrewery owner.

It’s only natural to wonder why the differential is so large. The answer is relatively simple. In North Carolina, they have eliminated the middleman. North Carolina allows small breweries to sell directly to grocery stores and restaurants.

In addition, a brewery in North Carolina may move their product between any facility they might own without a middleman. However, in South Carolina, a state law mandates a three-tier system involving distributors. Taken to extremes, the three-tier system means that a microbrewery on the outskirts of Charleston, with a taproom within city limits, cannot transfer its beer without first selling it to a distributor to deliver it to their own taproom!

They then would need to buy it back at 40% to 50% markup! A microbrewery in Columbia, wanting to sell its beer to a supermarket (which maybe only a half-mile from its facility) must follow the same protocol we just described. It hardly takes a degree in economics to see that the consequences are problematic for a microbrewery owner.

There are great microbreweries in the upstate and in the midlands, and we would love to see taprooms in Hilton Head, Charleston and Myrtle Beach representing these microbreweries but under current law this cannot happen.

To fully understand this in plain terms, a microbrewery cannot open a stand-alone taproom in another city without having to go through the same distributor network as a retailer.

There is another outdated regulation when it comes to microbreweries here and that is the limit of 288 ounces that can be taken home for personal consumption.

If you read between the lines, it seems like the distributor network in the state of SC just has more political sway currently than the individual microbrewery. There is no good reason to limit these localized businesses other than the distributors trying to keep more money in their pockets. You can read a great article about it here.

Don’t fall for their line that it’s about safety and consumer protection….they sell liquor after all! Over the years, distributors have made large capital investments and have a huge stake in the economy of South Carolina and it’s easy to see what is going on behind the scenes. Let’s hope that all parties can reach a workable solution with the goal to bring a quality, free market product to the consumer.

There is another outdated regulation when it comes to microbreweries here and that is the limit of 288 ounces that can be taken home for personal consumption.

Definitely not enough for a binge or family gatherings! It’s like going to a farmers market for a dozen eggs and only being allowed to buy seven!

For now, we are on the hunt for our favorite microbreweries in the region. We will report back to you on where the best of the best are in the Palmetto State!

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