By Eva Moore
Columbia Free Times
Mike Tourville expects quite a few people for the Soda City Suds Week launch party Saturday. It’ll be held at River Rat Brewery, the craft brewery he owns on Shop Road.
After all, says Tourville, some 500 people showed up for River Rat’s one-year anniversary just a few weeks ago. So the kickoff to the area’s first-ever independent craft beer festival should be a major event.
“I’m expecting a mosh pit — just a really, really huge crowd,” he says. “We’re going to have a beer representing every single South Carolina brewery under one roof.”
River Rat is just one of many Midlands businesses hosting events during Soda City Suds Week. And the fact that the area has so many craft beer-oriented businesses — and that the inaugural beer week consists of 27 different beer-related events — is a testament to just how far things have come in the short time since the beer scene here took off.
When you think about the Southeastern beer scene, you probably think about cities like Asheville, with its 18 or more craft breweries, free glossy pamphlets promoting the city’s beer tours, and tourists coming to town just for the beers.
And then there’s Columbia. A mere three years ago, the city had no production breweries at all.
For years, South Carolina law made operating a microbrewery all but impossible, because it barred breweries from serving beer for on-premises consumption. Without a taproom, it’s hard for breweries to gin up enough local buzz and money to gain a toehold in the market.
Those laws were loosened slightly with a 2010 bill allowing breweries to serve samples. Then, in 2013, the state passed the Pint Bill, which allowed breweries to actually sell pints of beer, sparking a wave of beer entrepreneurship.
Most recently, the Legislature passed what’s known as the Stone Bill, which knocks down the artificial barriers between brewpubs and breweries, allowing breweries to begin serving food and brewpubs to begin making beer for off-premises consumption.
In the two years since the Pint Bill, three breweries have sprung up in Columbia — Conquest Brewing, River Rat Brewery and Swamp Cabbage Brewing. And there are more to come.
So all the pieces fell into place for Columbia’s beer scene. But a full week of craft beer?
Is Columbia Ready?
Soda City Suds Week is, frankly, pretty ambitious. It’s not just one festival. It’s an entire week of parties, beer education, food-and-beer pairings and other events designed to celebrate craft beer in a big way.
It seems a lot for Columbia to handle, when just three years ago the city had no breweries. But the organizers of Soda City Suds Week think the city can support it.
“The past few years we’ve really grown as far as businesses that are supportive of craft beer go,” says Ashley Bower. “I feel like we’ve got enough now it’s worth it now having a craft beer week.”
Bower is president of Midlands Craft Beer Supporters, the registered nonprofit group putting together SCSW. For years, she says, Hunter-Gatherer was the only business making beer in Columbia; and as far as bars serving a wide range of craft beers, Flying Saucer was about it.
“Back in ’08, god, Saucer was the only thing around,” Bower says. “I think [World of Beer] came around in, what, ’11, and then after that it just kind of snowballed.”
Now, she cites not just breweries and bars but retail businesses that thrive on craft beer — Keg Cowboy, Craft and Draft, Krafty Draft, Vino Garage — which joined the old guard of Green’s and Morganelli’s, liquor stores that have also gotten seriously into craft beer. And there’s the new Brew Bus, which shuttles people between drinking spots.
At the same time, the city’s enthusiasm for craft beer has exploded. The World Beer Festival, for example, has grown each year since 2009, its first year in Columbia, when it drew 4,000 people.
And it’s not just Columbia. A mere couple of years ago a great brewery in Florence, South Carolina, would have been nearly unthinkable, for example; now, Seminar Brewing is churning out excellent beers in the Magic City. Benford Brewing in Lancaster is getting buzz. Charleston’s beer scene is booming.
The blog Beer of SC, which has tracked South Carolina beer legislation for the past several years, counts 21 breweries and 12 brewpubs currently operating in the state.
So the market is clearly there, Bower says.
Soda City Suds Week is all the more ambitious because it’s being put together not by a distributor, or hosted by a big company. It’s being run by a brand-new independent nonprofit run by craft beer fans.
The event grew, in part, out of Girls Pint Out. Bower and April Blake founded a local chapter of the national organization in 2013 to bring together women interested in craft beer. (Full disclosure: Blake writes for the Free Times food and drink section.)
The two teamed up with Nick McCormac, who runs the blog Drink.Blog.Repeat., to organize Soda City Suds Week. They’re joined by a few other board members, all sharing the organizational duties.
“We made sure to put the word ‘independent’ in there,” Blake says. “We want to make sure people know that there’s no impetus behind it other than we want good beer. … We want to make sure people knew that there’s not any financial motivation behind it.”
“It does seem weird to do this extra work for no real reason, but it’ll end up making the scene better,” says Blake. “It’ll make breweries want to come; they’ll see that we’re serious about our beer. It’ll make more people want to open; it’ll make better beer come to the region.”
What’s Going On
The committee isn’t so much ruling from on high as coordinating lots of events organized by others into one big weeklong festival.
“One thing I kept saying a lot was, ‘I want events that will make me leave my house,’” says Blake. “It’s hard to leave your house once you go home at nighttime. I want to be like, ‘That’s so cool I can’t miss it.’”
They’ve reached out to all the local craft beer businesses, as well as sponsors from other arenas. Push Digital, a boutique digital services firm specializing in conservative politics, is one; the company donated its services to help get the Stone Bill passed, and is a big supporter of beer entrepreneurship.
The festival is spread across the Midlands, with events in both Columbia and Lexington, sometimes as many as four per night.
While there are plenty of events for beer geeks, the festival is also targeting those who aren’t so sure about beer — hosting a cooking class at Charleston Cooks! and some smaller, less intimidating events.
“Hopefully we’ve got some events that people will be excited about even if they’re not into craft beer,” Bower says.
The week starts with a special edition of Soda City Market, the downtown local farmers market held every Saturday, focusing on craft beer and potatoes.
And the week ends with the Cream of the Crop Beer Festival, a massive beer tasting at City Roots urban farm in Rosewood.
“In Asheville I went to Brewgrass every year and loved it,” says Vanessa Driscoll, who runs Farm to Table Event Co., which is organizing Cream of the Crop.
She’d been planning a local beer event already, and when she heard about SCSW, she reached out to Midlands Craft Beer Supporters about scheduling the events to coincide.
“It just seemed like a natural fit for us to be able to partner up with them,” Driscoll says.
While the event is an all-out beer celebration, with more than 80 kegs, it’s not going to involve World Beer Festival-style crowds.
“We’re limiting it to 400 people. We want to keep it intimate. Four hundred may not sound intimate,” she laughs. “We want to keep it so it’s not a long-line festival. It’s more the experience of being able to talk to the brewers.”
Once the dust clears on Soda City Suds Week, the beer scene will only continue to grow.
An economic impact study released by the South Carolina Brewers Association suggests craft beer had an economic impact last year of $275 million in the state. Over the next five years, the association projects more than 600 more jobs created, with an additional $24.2 million in wages, assuming three new breweries open in the state each year.
Tourville says he wants to see more breweries in Columbia, even predicting five will open in the next five years.
“I encourage any entrepreneurs to put up a couple breweries,” he says. “It’d be nice to have five or six more breweries around. Then, I promise you, it would be its own tourism agenda for people coming to the state. Buying hotel rooms, buying food, visiting museums, and then of course hitting all the breweries and the Brew Bus tour.”
Is he OK with the competition?
“Hell yeah. Very OK with it. Look at Charleston, look at Asheville. … It’s just good for business; it’s good for everybody. We’re going to be a beer town.”