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‘An explosion of people,’ NCAA March Madness Tournament tops off local breweries

If there’s any question whether people still want craft beer, in Columbia, they certainly do.

As 25,000 visitors ate, drank and cheered their way through South Carolina’s capital city for the NCAA March Madness Tournament, the city’s flourishing craft beer industry saw one of its biggest weekends yet, bar owners and bartenders told The State.

“Saturday was an explosion of people,” said Ashley Lambert, the marketing director at Steel Hands Brewing in Cayce. “I was kind of surprised to see people out here since this is kind of out of town.”

If the number of businesses is any indication, the industry is growing. Since 2013, six craft breweries have opened in or near downtown Columbia.

Hunter Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse, the city’s oldest currently operating craft brewery, even ran out of its popular pomegranate lager, something manager Rodney Loughney said has happened, but is rare.

“We definitely sold more flights this weekend than usual,” Loughney said, referring to the small, sampler glasses often used at craft breweries for patrons who want to try multiple beers.

Throughout the weekend, patrons wearing Duke jerseys, Oklahoma hats, Virginia tees and more could be seen in local breweries or bars ordering blonds, ambers, IPAs, lagers and more, many of which were brewed in the Midlands.

“I love to go to local breweries,” said Chandler Cissel, a 23-year-old Duke fan who lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL. As he finished his beer at Twisted Spur, he said he had also visited Columbia Craft and enjoyed its sour beer.

Emma Goodson, who came to Columbia to visit a friend but also ended up buying a ticket for the Duke versus North Dakota State game, had just finished a Columbia brewery tour Sunday afternoon.

Being from a much larger city, Philadelphia, “it was kind of surprising how many (breweries) there were,” Goodson said as she drank a Fruit 66 sour on the porch of Columbia Craft Brewing.

Columbia Craft, which isn’t normally open on Sundays, even held its own sort of March Madness bracket, where customers could vote on their favorite beers. A winner will be announced Monday, but the remaining two beers are the Columbia Craft Lager and the Market Price, said bartender Ricky Sharp.

Even outside local breweries, out of town patrons have been seeking local beers, said Celia Bader, a bartender at Casual Pint, which serves several local beers but does not brew itself.

Part of the reason out-of-town patrons may be visiting multiple breweries is because the craft brewery community in Columbia tends to support one another, Lambert said. For example, Lambert said many patrons told her they had heard of Steel Hands by visiting other breweries.

“It was nice to see the camaraderie,” Lambert said.