Sep 20, 2018

Hilton Head Island

May 1999

By Bobby Bush

While exploring the east coast, off what is now South Carolina, in 1663, English Captain William Hilton sighted the sandy bluffs of an island he named for himself. The departure of the native Indian population from Hilton Head Island occurred simultaneously with the arrival of colonists. During the Revolutionary war, the settlers, many wealthy cotton, indigo and rice farmers, were subject to numerous raids by the British stationed less than a mile south on Daufuskie Island. Although South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, under invasion by General Ormsby Mitchell's armada, the Confederates quickly abandoned the settlement. Hilton Head became the headquarters for the blockade of Savannah and refuge for freed slaves.

In wasn't until the 1950s, that electricity arrived in Hilton Head. A bridge soon replaced the ferries which had served the island for centuries. Now the property of developers and still a somewhat pristine resort community, the island's population soared from 2,500 in 1970 to over 32,000 today. The influx of visitors, destined for golf and tennis vacations, creates a swell of activity from March through November.

Against this backdrop of captivating history, the Island - second largest on the east coast behind Long Island - welcomed its first and only brewpub in 1994. Situated in Hilton Head Plaza, just outside the gates of Sea Pines, a controlled-access beach resort, Hilton Head Brewing Company is well-equipped to handle the heavy tourist trade. However a well stocked bar and expansive menu aren't all this busy establishment has to offer.

From his seven barrel brewing system, head brewer John Watts, a nine year Hilton Head resident, is a jack-of-all-trades. When he's not involved with bar management, he's making some mighty fine extract-brewed beers. In fact, since taking over in January 1998, Watts has made a big difference in the quality of Hilton Head's beers. A former homebrewer and American Brewers Guild grad, Watts served an apprenticeship at Marin Brewing in Larkspur, CA. Although he claims only to have slightly modified the recipes, his beers have character and flavor, sometimes challenging inexperienced, vacationing beer drinkers.

Watts keeps five perennial brews on tap. His straw-colored Pub Light is a good starter beer, while South Atlantic Pale Ale, copper in hue, is crisp, medium hopped with Cascade. On the rich, malty side, is Calibogue Amber, which works as an accomplice to the fruity bouquet and tart finish of Raspberry Wheat. Topping out the core group is the smooth, low carbonated Old Duck Dark, a porter. Although Watts has to sync his seasonals with peak tourist periods, his Heritage Scotch Ale is full of chocolate and roasted malt flavors that intensify as the liquid's temperature rises. Other seasonals on the 30-year-old brewer's menu include Hefeweizen, Oktoberfest Dunkelweizen, Summer Wheat and IPA, his favorite style. He also makes an extremely popular draft rootbeer.

Watts contributes the improvements he's made to a new sanitizing regime. He longs for the day he can go all-grain. Hilton Head also carries a full line of bottled domestic, micro and imported bottled beers, a fact that causes the friendly head brewer little concern. With only himself and a small brew kettle to work with, he'd never keep up with demand if his were the only beers available. 1998 output was 312 barrels and he's off to a healthy start in '99.

Visit Hilton Head Island for fun, games and history. Hilton Head Brewing should be part of that experience. Stop in for peel-n-eat shrimp at the bar and share a brew with brewer/bartender/liquor manager John Watts.

Beers Facts
More interesting factoids from the daily calendar pages of "365 Bottles of Beer For the Year:"

Before the widespread use of thermometers, brewers tested the right temperature at which to add yeast by carefully poking a finger (usually their thumb) into the heated mixture. If it was too hot, the yeast died; too cold, it wouldn't grow. Today, "rule of thumb" is still used as a guideline when exact measurements are unavailable.

This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.

Bobby Bush


Recently posted
Tom Rutledge - Brewers' Friend

Brewpub reviews
- Travel to 100s of brewpubs across the U.S. and beyond.

Festival reviews
- Large and small, with beer in common.

Table of contents

Contact Bobby