By Bobby Bush
Like many a Southern city, downtown Spartanburg, SC leaves a lot to be desired as a marketing and entertainment center. On May 1, 1997, even while the recently-approved urban renovation project was still a pipedream, R.J. Rockers Brewing Company opened on Morgan Square. Inspired by Wynkoop Brewing, which opened in Denver's wasteland LoDo section over ten years ago, owner Mark Johnsen chose this near-ghost town to begin his first brewing venture. On a small scale, he made the downtown renovation challenge a personal project.
Johnsen's first exposure to "real beer" occurred during a long stint in the army. Following five years in Germany, the anxious New Jersey-born homebrewer found himself in Idaho, where Penny Pink, owner/brewer of Portneuf Valley Brewing, took him on as an apprentice. As her "malt boy," he learned to brew in a two barrel system, dreaming of his own brewpub. When the time came, Spartanburg was chosen from among several impoverished downtowns.
An aging four-story building in the city's center has taken on new life. A long faux-granite bar embraces one wall. Dining area fills the void, from front and rear of the elongated, high-ceiling street-level room. A ten barrel brewhouse, which includes three glycol chilled fermenters, greets passersby from its front window-shopping perch. The basement, still mostly unfinished, houses a walk-in cooler, complete with five serving tanks. Grain, and the equipment to mill it, is positioned on the third story, directly above the mash tun. One more level up reveals the dusty confines of a long defunct financial business.
R.J. Rockers is big and homey. Johnsen's beers are just as hospitable. As presented by J.C. Cudd, "General Manager and bottle washer," the brewpub's nine beers were intriguing and flavorful. Starting with Carolina Kolsch, a 4.5% abv German style ale and "the closest thing we served to a domestic lager," we made the rounds. A seasonal Razzberry Wheat entered sweet before fading to a nicely sour finish. Buck Wheat, another special brew, was cloudy and surprisingly hopped for a wheat beer. At 5.7% abv, Horse You Rode In On Amber Ale was medium bodied with sour-to-bitter aftertaste. In bold Irish Red-style, Big Red Johnsen pushed the scale at 6.0% abv, malty though pleasantly hopped with Cascades and East Kent Goldings.
Panther Pale Ale, a big seller, was a medium body English style pale, while Downtown Brown Ale also worked the UK approach with deep copper color and subtle finish. A variation on the Brown called Mr. Hankey's Hazelnut Brown Ale was nutty indeed. And Spartanburg Stout, which along with Kolsch are the brewpub's most popular brands, was full bodied, smooth with a long-lasting brown head. R.J. Rockers' other seasonals include The First Snow Ale, Daniel Morgan Maerzen (for Oktoberfest) and a springtime Belgian pale ale ominously named Panther Pete's Fish Paralyzer.
R.J. Rockers serves lunch and dinner- pasta, burgers, sandwiches and enticing entrees - Monday through Saturday. (The state prohibits alcohol sales on Sunday, except resort areas). Wednesday and Saturday, Johnsen hosts a live Trivia Night, an extremely popular event.
As the cityscape revitalizes around them, R.J. Rockers has already seen one measure of success. When the establishment first opened, domestic bottled beer was outselling the housebrews three-to-one. Today, with over two years of educating their public, the ratio is now five-to-one R.J. Rockers beers. And their regulars' Mug Club lists over 280 members. How's that for a turnaround? The rebuilding of Spartanburg should be just as remarkable.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush