What’s good here?
In sight of the back side of the State House is a relatively nondescript 101-year-old brick building with climbing roses creeping up its sides. Inside is massive stainless steel brewery equipment that generates 400 barrels of beer annually.
Since 1995, Hunter-Gatherer has been offering traditional English-style ales. There are typically at least four fresh, unfiltered beers brewed regularly: pale ale, wheat, extra special bitter, and a seasonal beer. Owner and brewmaster Kevin Varner says it takes about three weeks to make a new batch of beer.
The food is a slight variation on some comfortable favorites – with a distinct taste.
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The goat cheese salad, for example, has spiced almonds, dried cherries, goat cheese croutons and is served with a tasty lemon vinaigrette.
The Prince Edward Island Mussels are steamed in the Hunter-Gatherer Pale Ale and served with a chorizo sausage, celery and garlic butter.
The ESB Pimento Cheese Spread is made with smoked Gouda, cheddar, and Peppadews (a sweet pepper) and is blended with the house ESB beer. There are large juicy burgers, gyros and a Hunter-Gatherer BLT that has apple cider-smoked bacon, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise and the ESB Pimento Cheese.
How did Hunter-Gatherer get its start?
When he was 19 years old, Varner went to Scotland and obtained an unexpected education in the culture of beer.
“I discovered that beer wasn’t just something you bought in a can from a grocery store,” he said.
Since he was “of age” in Scotland, he tasted different beers and bought a home-brewery kit to bring back home.
After experimenting with brewing techniques, Varner was so enamored that he took a job in Seattle at Hale’s Ales the summer before his senior year at USC. After graduation, he went back to Hale’s Ales and worked for two and a half years, even traveling around Europe for the company to gain more of a beer education.
In 1995, shortly after South Carolina passed a law to allow microbreweries in the state, Varner opened Hunter-Gatherer and began brewing beer as its master brewer. He plans to open a larger-scale tap room in downtown Columbia by this spring, and he recently completed a trip to Belgium to stay abreast of the latest ingredients and techniques.
Varner plans to begin “branching out” and trying a few different types of hops as the culture of craft brewing becomes more creative.
Chef Daniel Wood, who washed dishes for Hunter-Gatherer 14 years ago and then went to culinary school to hone his talents before rejoining the restaurant, keeps the menu interesting and sophisticated.
And Varner said his mother, Nancy Varner, has done “anything and everything” for her son’s business for the past 15 years.
What does the place look like?
Inside is a quirky mix of a taxidermied wild African dog, wood ceilings, tiled floors, a balcony with a wrought-iron railing and large frosted glass and iron light fixtures.
Nightly, there is lively conversation and flowing beer. Thursday nights are popular jazz nights, while other rock, blues, punk and “experimental” acts are booked periodically on Fridays, Mondays and Tuesdays. The restaurant seats 100 inside and 25 outside.
Who eats here?
Over the years, the demographics have changed and expanded to include a wide range of patrons, including native Columbians.
“Many of our customers are regulars, and many choose us over a chain restaurant,” Varner said.
Hunter-Gatherer is at 900 Main St. (803) 748-0540 or huntergathererbrewery.com.
PRICES: $4 to $15 for food; handcrafted beers are $4.25.
HOURS: 4-10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 4-11 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays.
Deena C. Bouknight, Special to Go Columbia