In 1989, when Kevin Varner was a University of South Carolina history student, he decided to study for a year in Scotland to soak up that historic country’s culture.
When he arrived, he found that, in addition to enjoying the historic sites of Edinburgh, he could frequent the city’s many pubs, even as a 19-year-old. He discovered the joys of local craft beer at a time when, in America, local craft beers were a rarity. In South Carolina they were not even allowed by law.
Varner returned to USC in 1990 and began experimenting with a five-gallon kit in his apartment. After graduating, he immediately set out for Oregon and Washington, where craft breweries were beginning to take hold.
“I just knocked on the door of every brewery I could find until I got a job,” he said. “I fell in love with it and I knew when I went back to Columbia I wanted to open a brewery.”
After four years learning the trade from Seattle brewer Mike Hale of Hales Ales, Varner came back to the Capital City and in 1995 opened Hunter-Gatherer, the popular south Main Street microbrewery and pub. (The state legalized microbreweries in 1994.) Varner has personally brewed all beer produced at Hunter-Gatherer for the past 20 years.
Now, he plans to open a full-fledged brewery at the historic Curtiss-Wright Hanger at Owens Field.
The brewery will take up the entire 13,000-square-foot hangar and will include a tap room, event space, an open-to-the-public brewery and an observation deck overlooking the commuter airport near Rosewood Drive.
“On a nice day, I can’t think of a better place to be than the deck,” he said.
The brewery will feature a 527-gallon brew house (which is a cooker for the mash), a bottling and kegging line and about a dozen 10-foot-tall fermenting tanks. They will allow Varner to sell his beer regionally by the keg and bottle.
He also plans to conduct tours from the fermenting area to the laboratory, educating others on the brewing process down to the microscopic level.
He noted all of the operation would be open to view from the tap room area. He described the bottling process as “kind of a Lavern and Shirley operation,” referring to the popular television comedy in the late 1970s and early 1980s that featured two young women who work on a brewery’s bottling line. “I could sit and watch it.”
Hunter-Gatherer will bring to four the number of craft breweries in Columbia. Statewide, South Carolina’s 40 craft breweries and brew pubs pump $443 million into the state’s economy annually, according to a study by the national Brewers Association. The industry has created 3,000 jobs in South Carolina.
“It’s the perfect space for brewing beer,” Varner said of the vintage hangar.
The steel and glass hangar was built in 1929 by the Curtiss-Wright Co. at the advent of the Great Depression. It was dedicated as Columbia Municipal Airport in 1930. The company built only 30 or so of the vintage hangars across the country. Curtiss-Wright was a merger of Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers, who were fierce competitors in building aircraft in the early 20th century.
The hangar has hosted the likes of World War II hero Jimmy Doolittle and aviation legend Amelia Earhart. Varner said the hangar will include historic interpretation and pay homage to those and other famous pilots.
For Scott Linaberry, who along with attorney Robert Lewis has a contract to buy the hangar from Richland County, the brewery is making a three-year effort to save the historic structure more realistic.
“I started in 2012 out of my love for flying,” said Linaberry, who will lease the building to Varner. “So I’ve seen it sitting there, deteriorating, for the past couple of decades. I’ve always had a passion for that building.”
Linaberry originally launched a $5-million renovation plan for the hangar, and he had planned to turn it into a restaurant and a space for events. But eventually the renovation costs were too high. Now, with a brewery being essentially a light manufacturing plant requiring lots of open space and little interior renovation, those costs have dropped to less than $2.5 million, he said.
Also, the state recently added to its package of historic tax credits and additional abandoned building credits, which also is assisting with the bottom line.
“Robert found a great tenant and the tax credit market has softened, so it is much more viable now,” Linaberry said. “We hope to close by the end of the month.”
For Varner, his dream of having his own brewery and Linaberry’s dream of saving the hangar are a good match. And he noted the efforts of state lawmakers to loosen the brewing laws and enhancing historic tax credits, as well as the cooperation of Richland County Council and administration.
“It’s taking the efforts of government and private citizens working together to pull this off,” he said. “That’s nice to see.”
Brewing in South Carolina
▪ $443 million - The industry’s economic impact in SC
▪ 3,000 - jobs created by the industry
▪ 40 - number of breweries and brew pubs in the state
▪ 4 - number of breweries in Columbia