Beer boom in Columbia to stay?

Colatown is on the cusp of a beer boom.

The city has been late to the party as the micro-brewery trend first hit Greenville and Charleston. But Columbia’s first brewery that makes craft beers for the commercial market opened earlier this year and a second is slated to open early next year.

South Carolina’s new pint law, which lets patrons sample more beer at tastings, only will help fuel that trend, some say.

“There will be more,” said Joseph Ackerman, who opened Conquest Brewing on South Stadium Road in January with business partner Matthew Ellisor. When Conquest’s tasting room opened July 1, it had 700 customers in one day, Ackerman said.

“The craft-beer culture here in Columbia has grown a whole lot” in recent years, Ackerman said.

Still, the trend has been slow to catch on.

For example, Hunter-Gatherer Brewery, which sells its beers only at its bar on Main Street, opened 18 years ago. It was followed by Flying Saucer in the Vista 10 years ago, which sells a range of craft brews. Vista Brewing, also a brewpub, opened in 1997, but fizzled after it changed its name and stopped brewing beer about eight years ago.

But craft beer finally is gaining steam in Columbia.

The World Beer Festival has been hosted here for the past five years, and World of Beer opened in the Vista in late 2011, bringing a range of craft blends for beer lovers and newbies to sample, as well as an educated staff.

Columbia’s Board of Zoning Appeals earlier this week approved a craft beer store, next to Dano’s Pizzeria, in the Publix shopping center on Rosewood Drive.

The store will sell mainly craft beer from the Carolinas and Georgia and some select wines, said Andrew Johnson, who owns the as-yet-unnamed store with his business partner, Kellan Monroe. The store also will feature a growler station with more than 10 beers on tap and will offer tastings, he said.

“It’s amazing” what’s happening in Columbia’s craft-beer scene, Johnson said. “It’s a testament to what happens when the laws change. It shows that the love for craft beer was in Columbia already.”

The introduction of the commercial craft-beer breweries – which have been popping up in the Upstate and Lowcountry for several years – is contributing to the trend.

In addition to Conquest, River Rat Brewery is slated to open at 1231 Shop Road early next year.

Owner Mike Tourville plucked Mark Walters from Abita Brewery in Louisiana to be his brewmaster. Walters, who has been brewing beer since 1995, was working in the research-and-development department at Abita when he met with Tourville and decided to move to South Carolina to open River Rat, a reference to a historic Midlands name for the working class and the area’s rivers.

Both Conquest and River Rat will offer tours and tastings. The state’s recently passed pint law allows patrons to sample up to three pints – rather than one – during a tour, though driving afterward would not be advised. The breweries also will sell up to four 64-ounce growlers to go.

“Because of the law, you’re going to see more and more breweries opening up in South Carolina,” said Tourville, who started out as a home brewer and decided to open River Rat after getting out of the family business, Zeus Industrial Products, which has a plant in Orangeburg.

Conquest’s Ackerman and Ellisor also recently quit their full-time jobs to focus on the brewery – which they estimate will bring their 90-hour workweeks down to 60 or 70.

Conquest’s beers are distributed by Budweiser Columbia and sold in some area restaurants, including Yesterday’s in Five Points, British Bulldog Pub in Irmo and Liberty Tap Room in the Vista. Conquest is working to expand to other parts of the state.

Tourville said once River Rat is up and running, he hopes eventually to take his brews national and even have them exported to other countries.

“It’s hitting Columbia hard, and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Johnson, who is opening up the store on Rosewood, said of the beer boom. Johnson and his business partner were home brewers for five years when they decided to open the store.

“We’ve watched the Columbia beer market grow,” he said. “This is here to stay.”