Beer is brewing in Columbia’s Curtiss-Wright hangar. Here’s when you can drink it

Look inside brewery at Curtiss-Wright Hangar

Kevin Varner who owns Hunter-Gatherer is brewing beer and preparing to open his brewery in the renovated Curtiss-Wright Hangar at the Owens Field airport in Columbia
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Kevin Varner who owns Hunter-Gatherer is brewing beer and preparing to open his brewery in the renovated Curtiss-Wright Hangar at the Owens Field airport in Columbia

Kevin Varner, owner of Columbia’s landmark Hunter-Gatherer brew pub, has fired up his tanks in the historic Curtiss-Wright Hangar and hopes to start filling kegs and pints later this month.

“My wife put Dec. 21 on the Facebook page,” said Varner, a University of South Carolina graduate who honed his love of beer in Scotland, worked craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest and brought his talents back to Columbia in the early 1990s. “That’s the winter solstice. But maybe I mean the summer solstice.”

Varner is joking.

He has his wholesale operation up and running, and hopes to start selling to the public soon.

“I’m getting closer,” he said. “We’ll have beer ready by the end of the year.”

The opening of the new Hunter-Gatherer brewery in the renovated Depression-era hangar at Jim Hamilton – L.B. Owens Airport represents a big step for Varner.

He founded the brewpub on South Main Street in 1995, but could only sell his beer in-house. Now, with the advent of new laws in recent years opening local breweries up to the retail trade, he is ready to take his porters and ales to the street.

Varner plans to begin shipping kegs to bars and restaurants in January, and to bottle his brews for retail stores in February.

“We’re going to start small,” he said.

All the the beer will bear the Hunter-Gatherer label.

The brewery takes up the entire 13,000-square-foot hangar and includes a tap room, event space, an open-to-the-public brewery and an observation deck overlooking the commuter airport near Rosewood Drive.

It features a 527-gallon brew house (which is a cooker for the mash), a bottling and kegging line and, eventually, about a dozen 10-foot-tall fermenting tanks. They will allow Varner to sell his beer regionally by the keg and bottle.

Varner also plans to conduct tours from the fermenting area to the laboratory, educating others on the brewing process down to the microscopic level.

The opening of the brewery is also a milestone for the hangar. Aviation enthusiast Scott Linaberry and his partners purchased and renovated the hangar for $2.76 million after it had deteriorated at Owens Field for decades.

It was not a simple job. For instance, only about three dozen of its 1,644 panes of window glass had survived by the time the work began two years ago.

“It started out as a labor of love,” Linaberry said, laughing. “Then it was just labor. I might love it again when I can have a beer in there.”

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 some historic interpretation and pay homage to those and other famous pilots.

For Linaberry the brewery is making a five-year effort to save the historic structure possible.

He had first envisioned a restaurant and event space, “but the cost was over the moon,” he said. “When Kevin came along it all made sense. “It cut the renovation costs in half.”

For Varner, the cathedral-like, open hangar is the perfect location for a brewery.

“The building is a great asset,” he said. “The way to get people involved (with a brand) is to have them out (to see the brewing process). And this is a space that is special to be in.

“We want people to come and learn something,” he added. “We want to give a people a reason to say, ‘Wow. That’s cool.’”