It Takes a Village to Raise a Beer
If you peruse a craft beer menu in the Midlands you’re more likely to think you live in North Carolina than South Carolina. With big craft beer hubs in Asheville and Charlotte, the smaller budding market in South Carolina often gets overlooked. But there are several evolving communities bubbling around beer in the region.
When joining my neighbor, Adam Pazda, for a Sunday afternoon beer-brewing session, I quickly discovered that brewing beer is mostly about drinking beer. Homebrewing beer does not require multiple sets of hands; instead, multiple conversations percolate out of a drunken loitering, waiting for hops and barley to boil. The beer that’s created is only a secondary reward for a four-hour commitment to casual conversation.
Pazda frequently hosts people for a beer batch. It’s his way to get to know the community, while sharing a common interest, but Pazda is quite modest about his brewing talents. In fact, one of Pazda’s first friends in Columbia didn’t know that he brewed beer until months after they initially met. It’s an unusual omission considering the friend was Drew Walker, the brewmaster at River Rat Brewery in Columbia. Walker admits he could be the reason Pazda didn’t own up to the hobby, because of his cynicism about homebrewing, despite his own background in homebrewing.
Now a professional brewmaster, Walker believes one doesn’t really start understanding the ins and outs of brewing until pastimes include cleaning tanks and pipelines for days on end at a larger-scale brewery. He and Mike Tourville—the owner of River Rat Brewery—got their start as professional brewers at Abita Brewing Company in Louisiana. Walker remains adamant that learning the brewing process only comes after hours of contemplation, while scrubbing massive metal mash tuns.
During those hours of scrubbing contemplation, Walker concluded that haphazardly adding various ingredients for flavor does little to better overall taste of the beer; it is the hours-long ritual of brewing that determines the flavor. Cleaning, preparing, boiling the mash and fermenting makes the most difference—you can sacrifice different flavors on the altar of the beer gods, but the actions of the ceremony should always be the same.
In the same way I joined Pazda to down the dregs of his previous homebrew, Walker calls a constitutional convention with several neighboring breweries to craft a new beer. Having transcended from the colloquial craft of homebrewing to the big-city breweries, Walker believes it still takes a village to raise a beer.
“We always try to collaborate with as many South Carolina breweries as possible; there’s a fun collaborative group we have called ‘Boyz Just Want to Have Fun,’” Walker explains.
Boyz is a loose organization of brewmasters from Charleston’s Holy City Brewery, Frothy Beard, and Brewery 85 in the Upstate. They come together to experiment on beers in massive metal containers, rather than five- gallon homebrew buckets.
Last January, the Boyz met at River Rat Brewery to create “Smoke on the Lager.” The beer would become a River Rat product, but all three breweries contributed their intelligence on how to brew it. The group meets at the different breweries to learn how to brew in each other’s system. Every brewing system is a little different and, according to Walker, that changes the flavor of a beer more than the recipe or ingredients. The real achievement of Boyz is learning the unique processes of the other brewers. Of all of their creations, Walker’s favorite is Brewery 85’s Tropical IPA.
This process-driven philosophy holds true for another Columbia brewer. Hunter-Gatherer opened in 1995, and now, more than 20 years later, they still use the original recipes for their beer with only subtle variations. Owner Kevin Varner and his right-hand man Roger Loughney have mastered the ability of keeping the taste consistent even if they have to use different grains or ingredients.
“There was a point in time where the art of brewing beer was recreating the same beer over and over again,” Loughney said. “That is what was hard about it.”
The consistent flavors of Hunter-Gatherer will carry over to their expanded brewery at the Curtiss-Wright Hangar. They intend to bring new recipes to light at the new location (he mentioned a lager and an American-style IPA), but the focus will be on increasing the production volume of the beer they already brew.
Loughney and Varner work in a pretty tight workshop. They share a room with four tanks, a bar and a restaurant. “With the brewery being as small as it is, we can’t really work in there at the same time,” says Loughney. As a result, they’ve developed an organic dance of shifting roles to complete their brewing.
The small space at Hunter-Gatherer generates a familial aspect to their beer in which they pride themselves, seeping in from the staff and beer into the customers. It’s not uncommon to see the same folks at the bar each week who often order the same beer, Extra Special Bitter (ESB). “It’s what the staff drinks, it’s kind of what all the regulars drink,” which is convenient, as it is the beer he most enjoys brewing.
Back on Pazda’s back porch on a Sunday afternoon, we fell into the same ritual that Loughney and Walker describe; there hadn’t been much thought put into what we would brew until it was time to add ingredients. We had gathered to drink beer, enjoy the brewing process and our environment. Pazda noticed he had a jalapeño ripening on the vine. “
I think this guy escaped the caterpillars,” Pazda says, studying the pepper. “And we could add sage.” “
Toss in that basil too, let’s make it herby,” I add, as we turn our attention to what to call this new brew.
Naming a beer is no less difficult than naming a child, and requires much more wit. The naming ceremony can last several hours until the muses strike the brewing crowd with a brilliant pun. On this Sunday afternoon, the crowd of neighbors couldn’t come to a consensus.
Thinking about the ingredients, and worried the combination might be too much of a kick, we reconsidered the recipe, but just then, Pazda’s wife, Jannette, struck brilliance: “Just call it ‘Sage Against the Machine.’”