CHARLESTON, S.C. — Like everything in this city, brewing beer has a long history.
Palmetto Brewery Co. in Charleston dates its founding to circa 1880. Prohibition put an end to the brewery, but its reincarnation opened in 1993 and still operates on the downtown peninsula.
Now, a new generation of brewers is reinventing the craft beer scene, making it just one more attraction for a cobbled-stoned Southern city that national publications constantly rank at the top of travel destinations.
Starting in June, South Carolina began allowing breweries to serve pints, not just 4-ounce tasting pours. The law is still onerous compared to North Carolina, limiting on-premise consumption to 48 ounces, or three pints, and only 16 ounces for beers above 10 percent alcohol content. The breweries are required to keep track; some use a logbook and others mark a wristband.
Jaime Tenny, co-owner at Coast Brewing in North Charleston, said it’s a welcome start. The crowds are increasing and so are the sales, she said. “I still hope to look back in five to 10 years and laugh about how silly these laws are,” said Tenny, who serves as president of the S.C. Brewers Association.
The excitement is energizing the scene, and more breweries are opening in the near future. “Charleston is an anomaly in the South,” said Chris Brown, brewer at Holy City Brewing in North Charleston. “I’ve never been in a city with more bars and restaurants in the South.”
“Charleston in particular is a real both food-oriented and local business-oriented city, so (craft beer) is a good combination,” added Tenny.
To hit the best Charleston breweries, requires planning. Most offer limited taproom hours and awkward times for those making the trek from out of state.
The three main craft breweries are located just off Interstate 526, the beltline of sorts that encapsulates the city. And it’s possible to make it a one-day itinerary on Saturday, saving time for the beach and good eating on Sunday. ( Charleston Brews Cruise, a tour service, will even do the driving for $50.)
Coast Brewing opens the earliest – at 11 a.m. It’s located in a warehouse district on the former Navy base in North Charleston. It’s not much at the moment, but it’s undergoing a massive expansion this fall, moving from a seven-barrel system to 30 barrels. (A barrel is 31 gallons.) It will allow them to offer more beer more consistently at the brewery, and an inviting taproom with a bar is expected to come next year.
Don’t linger too long at the first brewery; Westbrook Brewing to the east, in Mount Pleasant, is open for a short window Saturdays and you’ll want to catch what founder Edward Westbrook is concocting next. The brewery’s Mexican Cake stout is probably the state’s most hyped beer but its release is limited. Even still, the year-round lineup is great and available to take home in cans or bottles. Westbrook’s partnership with Evil Twin Brewing also adds spice to the tasting menu.
Across town to the south, Holy City Brewing won’t look like much from the outside, but inside it’s a delight. A lengthy tap list in June meant a tasting flight stretched across the upturned end of an old whiskey barrel that served as a table in the taproom. The Pluff Mud Porter is the mainstay, selling about 900 gallons a week citywide, but the pale ale is bright with hop flavor.
Open since 2011, the brewers have made more than 50 different beers. “It’s really kind of random,” said Brown, the head brewer. “We go off with whatever we want to drink at the time.”
Not far away, Frothy Beard Brewing, a nano-brewery with limited hours, awaits the diehards. The top craft beer bar in the city is probably Closed for Business on King Street, but more are beginning to embrace the movement.
If you get time to visit for more than one night, try hitting Holy City, with its generous taproom hours, on Friday or Sunday to lighten the Saturday load. Also, if you arrive Friday evening and can’t wait for the state’s nectar, visit Homegrown Brewhouse in Summerville, just off the interstate on the way into town, for all things South Carolina craft beer.