Mike Tourville opened River Rat Brewery in January 2014 with a dream, a tight budget and a whole lot of hops and barley.
That first year, the craft brewery on Shop Road in Columbia produced 1,300 barrels of beer, which translates to 40,300 gallons. This year, Tourville expects to churn out double that — 2,600 barrels.
Next year, the brewery plans an expansion — adding another building and enough equipment to make 10,000 barrels.
“Next year’s expansion is going to be pretty substantial,” he said from the brewery’s tap room, the rich aroma of malt infusing the building with a boozy warmth. “The key is to make good beer, but also having good branding and distribution.”
South Carolina’s fledgling craft beer industry is doing pretty well, given its relatively slow start. The 40 craft breweries and brew pubs pump $443 million into the state’s economy annually, according to a study by the national Brewers Association, and has created 3,000 jobs.
“The small brewers are having a big impact in the state — especially with tourists,” many of whom consider visits to the local brewery akin to enjoying local cuisine or wine, said Julie Cox, executive director of the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association. “It started out as a trend, but it has become significant.”
Like all economic impact studies, the dollar figure comes from a formula in which the brewery’s purchases, payroll and sales roll around in the economy twice. And the jobs figure includes everyone from the bartender in the tap room to the guy who drives the truck for the beer distributor.
But expect that impact to rise with more and more breweries opening, mostly in Greenville and the Lowcountry, where the industry started and is more deeply rooted. There are presently 27 breweries in the state and 13 brew pubs. (Brew pubs don’t distribute their beer to retail outlets.)
“I know of at least 20 more that are in the planning stages,” said Brook Bristow, a self-described “beer lawyer” from Greenville who helps small brewers through the often complicated permitting process.
‘A good niche’
Breweries are deemed “craft” if they produce less than seven million barrels a year, are not owned by one of the large established companies like Anheuser-Busch or Miller Brewing Company, and use traditional brewing ingredients.
“Basically they don’t want you using rice,” Bristow said.
Craft breweries have been a double-edged sword for the beer industry as a whole, Cox said. It has cut into some of the larger company’s customer bases, but it has also brought more people to the tap.
“You have a whole different set of people who drink craft beer,” Cox said. “It’s provided a good niche for people to get into.”
Craft beer often has a higher alcohol content — up to 14 percent. And with so many local breweries, it appeals to foodies who like their fare locally sourced and produced.
“You get more bang for your buck,” brewer Tourville said.
The industry also is very social, he said. On-site taprooms provide ambience. Tourville rents his deck for parties for $150. He even has a wedding scheduled.
And sipping a couple of high-alcohol, heavily flavored beers can be more social than pounding a six pack of light, mass produced lager.
“It creates and environment,” Tourville said. “Your brewery becomes a community hangout.”
‘A very young industry’
Despite the industry’s growth here, it lags the rest of the nation, according to the Brewers Association. The state ranks 36th in the nation in barrels produced and 49th in barrels produced per capita.
Bristow, a 2003 University of South Carolina graduate who also writes the craft beer blog BEEROFSC.com, said the late passage of the state’s pint law has South Carolina playing catch up.
“It’s a very young industry in South Carolina,” he said. “But it’s come so far so fast.”
The General Assembly in the spring of 2013 passed the "pint law," which increased the amount of beer customers can consume in craft brewery tasting rooms to 48 ounces – or three pints – from four 4-ounce samples. It also allows patrons to purchase up to 288 ounces (the equivalent of a case of beer) in large jugs, called growlers.
A new law called the “stone law” now allows taprooms to sell more than three pints to a person if they serve food.
“Those changes were massive,” Bristow said. “Maybe we can do something in the future with things like taxes.”
Columbia has only three breweries now — River Rat, Conquest and Swamp Cabbage. Both Greenville and Charleston are in double figures.
Tourville said the city of Columbia and Richland County should do more to encourage breweries. “We get five more breweries and we’ll be become a tourist destination, I guarantee it,” he said.
Cox predicts the industry will continue to grow. But how long it can sustain itself remains to be seen, she said.
“It’s a phenomenon,” she said. “How long it will last depends on how good the beer is.”
SC Craft Beer Brewers
27 – Number of breweries in the state
13 – Number of brew pubs
56,000 – barrels of craft beer produced in 2014
35,000 – barrels of craft beer produced in 2012
$443 million – economic impact of industry in 2014
Source: Brewers Association