Growlers and gravity

Q: What is craft beer?A: This is beer produced by a brewer that is small (6 million barrels or less annually), independent and traditional, according to the Brewers Association. These brewers often use traditional ingredients like malted barley but with an eye toward innovation and unique interpretations.Q: Why are they referred to at times as high-gravity beers?A: High-gravity beers are stronger brews that tend to have higher alcohol contents, such double IPAs, imperial stouts and the like. Not all craft beers are high-gravity. In fact, a good number are at or below the booze content found in your average Bud.Q: How many breweries are there in South Carolina?A: The South Carolina Brewers Association lists a dozen, with four in the Charleston area and a fifth set to open in the coming year. More are rumored to be in the works.Q. Why have the number of beer offerings grown so much in recent years?A: In 2007, the state lifted its prohibition on beers containing more than 5 percent alcohol by weight. That opened South Carolina to a wave of stronger, more exotic beers and encouraged the arrival of breweries that avoided the state because its laws limited what they could sell.Q. What is a growler? A: A growler is a half-gallon jug filled with draft beer from a tap. Some consider it the best way to sample fresh beer. Q. Why is sterilizing tap lines and growlers so important?A: Residual gunk can render a premium beverage flat, sour, headless or worse. Growlers also should be bottom-filled from a tube attached to the tap to preserve the beer’s character. “A poorly filled growler results in an inferior version of that beer going into your glass when you open it,” local beer writer and historian Timmons Pettigrew said. “Maybe it’s a just little inferior, or maybe it’s a total mess, but regardless it’s not fair to the consumer, or the brewery.”

Stainless steel kettles, empty kegs and a grain mill sit ready near a ping-pong table covered with invoices at the new headquarters of Frothy Beard Brewing Co. in North Charleston.

Charleston-area breweries

Coast Brewing: 1250 2nd St. N., North Charleston. Tours, tasting and sale hours are Thursdays, 4-7 p.m.; and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Contact: 343-4727.Holy City Brewing: 4155 C Dorchester Road, North Charleston. Tasting room open Monday and Tuesday, 4-6 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 4-7 p.m.; and Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Contact: 225-6089Westbrook Brewing: 510 Ridge Road, Mount Pleasant. Tasting room and tours on Thursdays and Fridays, 4-7 p.m.; and Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Contact: 654-9114.Palmetto Brewing: 289 Huger St., Charleston. Tours are Wednesdays and Fridays, 3-5 p.m. Contact: 937-0903.

The three bewhiskered principals have spent six years getting to this point, concocting beers, refining recipes and hosting tasting parties at their Charleston home to build a buzz, so to speak. Now, they’re ready to make the leap from homebrew hobbyists to commercial brewers at their industrial digs off Peppermill Parkway.

“We all started brewing because we fell in love with craft beer and wanted to make it at home,” partner Michael Biondi said. “About two years ago we began working on a concept to try to take it to the next level.”

When the suds start flowing sometime after the first of the year, Frothy Beard will become the fifth brewery based in Charleston and the latest addition to the Lowcountry’s growing craft beer scene.

In the span of just five years, Charleston has gone from rather hapless and hopless beer town to one with an increasingly sophisticated palate. Microbreweries, specialty beer stores and beer-centric bars have popped up around the region; supermarkets, restaurants and even gas stations are hawking growlers, or half-gallon jugs of beer; and the number of brew festivals has multiplied with each passing year.

Events like February’s Brewvival festival draw beer tourists to the region, and local brews are getting some national props as well. Holy City Brewing in North Charleston recently scored a gold medal for its Pluff Mud Porter at the renowned Great American Beer Festival in Colorado.

“Charleston is definitely becoming a hub for good beer,” said Matt Williams, a craft beer lover who works in the food and beverage industry.

Seeds of change

The change stems from the Pop the Cap campaign that brought high-gravity beer to South Carolina in 2007. The state’s taste for stronger, more challenging brews has steadily grown since that time, and craft beer now makes up more than 5 percent of the market. The state is home to a dozen breweries, with more in the works.

The growth mirrors a craft beer boom nationally. While overall beer sales were down 1 percent last year, craft beer sales jumped 13 percent by volume, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association. Retail sales for craft beer were up 14 percent in the first half of this year, and the total number of breweries, 2,126, is at a 125-year high in the United States, the association reported.

That would surprise no one waiting to fill their growler at Holy City’s Dorchester Road brewery last week. On a Tuesday evening — hardly a key party night — folks stood in three lines, six-deep waiting for fills of the honored porter, an oyster stout and other seasonal pours. The brewery’s gold medal hung on a peg above the taps.

“It’s exciting not just for us as a brewery,” Robin Riebman, Holy City’s marketing and sales rep, said of the award. ‘It’s exciting to see Charleston’s beer scene getting some recognition.”

Beer aficionados see plenty of room for continued local growth. Consider that nearby Asheville, N.C., has roughly the same number of breweries as the entire Palmetto State. Sure, beer culture has a firmer footing in the Asheville area (resulting in it being named Beer City USA in one survey last year), but it still has about a third fewer people than Charleston.

Scott Shor is co-owner of Charleston Beer Exchange, which opened the state’s first retail growler station in 2008. Shor said the Lowcountry is “nowhere near the point of saturation yet” for new breweries. And there are ample markets beyond South Carolina’s shores for breweries that catch on, he said. “There are 49 states and the whole world waiting for these kinds of beers.”

Shor’s business partner, Rich Carley, agrees. “Every brewery around Charleston is at capacity and they are selling every drop they make. That proves there is room for more.”

Challenges remain

Jaime Tenny, co-owner of Coast Brewing in North Charleston, was a leading figure in the Pop the Cap campaign. Tenny said changes to state law to allow for stronger beers, tasting events and direct brewery sales to customers in conjunction with tours have all helped nurture Charleston’s nascent beer scene.

“Overall, we’re on the right path,” she said. “But it’s still really tough to make it as a small brewery with some of the restrictions that are still in place.”

Most notable is the inability of breweries to sell beers by the pint, Tenny said. State law now limits breweries to four, 4 ounce pours at tastings.

The South Carolina Brewers Association, which Tenny heads, wants state lawmakers to revisit those limits, which she and others contend are hampering efforts for growth.

The Asheville area recently landed large new East Coast breweries for Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues. That sort of thing won’t happen here unless the pint law and other restrictions are eased, Tenny said.

Timmons Pettigrew, author of “Charleston Beer: A High Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing,” said North Carolina’s craft beer industry has blossomed, with north of 60 breweries and counting, because its laws treat breweries more kindly. The pint option alone gives Tar Heel State breweries “a significant form of cash flow that South Carolina breweries simply don’t have access to.”

“Likewise, North Carolina breweries can choose to distribute their own product up to a certain amount, while South Carolina breweries have to sell through a distributor to get their wares into the market outside of their own four walls,” he said. “If you were ready to open a brewery, which sounds like a better business plan to you?”

In the long run, that equates to lost tax revenues, jobs and tourism dollars, Tenny and Pettigrew said.

Beer connoisseurs, after all, travel far and wide to partake of regional tours and tastes, much like wine lovers flock to Napa Valley. Others happen upon a taste they like while in town and go in search of the source.

Such was the case with Hillary Brown and Reid Adams, who were vacationing in Charleston last week from West Virginia. After one sample of the Holy City porter at The Griffon downtown, they set out to find the brewery and sample some other flavors. “We had a day to kill, so we looked them up on the Internet and decided to see what it was like,” Brown said.

Biondi and his partners at Frothy Beard, Joey Siconolfi and Steve McCauley, hope folks will soon be seeking them out as well.

The three friends are starting out small — they initially plan to produce about seven barrels a week — but with big ideas in mind. They’ve been studying up on larger scale production techniques and taking pointers from those who have gone before them.

Other area brewers have been helpful in that regard and don’t see the new start-up as a competitor as much as a fellow pioneer in expanding the region’s beer culture. “There is a lot of room for everyone to grow in,” Biondi said.

Pettigrew, the local beer author, said as the craft beer scene grows, it’s important to do so “in a sustainable, quality-first fashion.” He doesn’t want to see progress derailed by sub-par festivals, cruddy imitation brews and growler stations manned by people who don’t what they’re pouring or how to properly sanitize their systems.

“The danger, in my opinion, is in saturating the market with low-quality, cheap substitutes for the craft beer experience that ultimately turn people off from the whole thing.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.