By Bobby Bush
It had been at least two years since my last beer excursion to Greenville, SC. The brewing landscape, I discovered, had changed a little. In fact one brewpub stopped brewing completely last year. But we'll get to that.
Our first stop was at the oldest operating Greenville brewpub, Blue Ridge Brewing Company, founded in 1995. We were greeted by an outgoing bartender in a very beer friendly establishment. Although memories of my previous visit were of only so-so quality, I knew when we saw a board listing budmillercoors as the "highest quality rice beers," that the Blue Ridge beers just had to be good. That's the attitude I look for in a brewpub.
A massive mash tun and brew kettle sat practically in the front door, with not even a rail separating diners from sweet malty steam. Saddled up to a long copper-clad bar, amidst pseudo-lodge decor, we tried all five of the Blue Ridge brews. Colonel Parris Pale Ale began fruity and ended with pleasant hop flower flavor delivered from its medium body. An ESB, Rainbow Trout Amber, was also medium bodied with chocolate malt in the background followed by a late hops bow. Thin but flavorful, Kurli Blonde Ale was more than a beginner's beer. Hurricane Hefe Weizen, served with lemon wedge, was cloudy yellow, with an estery yeasty taste somewhat diminished by the citrus sidecar. Thick, black and harsh from black patent malt, XXX Total Eclipse Stout took a bronze medal in the '98 World Beer Cup. All in all, head brewer Ryan Kurlfirk is doing a nice job.
Just down the street, we stopped in at Henni's, a longtime bar which added a brewery - in the far reaches of the kitchen - back in 1996 or so. Although the bar still served Henni's brews, we discovered that they were being contract brewed at a local microbrewery by the former Henni's brewer. Back in late '98, Tom Davis pulled out of Henni's to found his own brewery, Thomas Creek. Now he's busy selling kegs and bottles of his Pilsner, Multi-Grain and Amber to local stores and bars. The Pilsner packed a powerhouse of flavor in its clear yellow body. The Amber was malty with a smooth sweet hop finish and the Brown was done in suggestive, moderately hopped American Brown style. From all obvious signs (primarily the beer), Thomas Creek is off to a roaring start. So Greenville loses a brewpub, but gains a micro.
And over on East Broad Street, Big River Grille & Brewery, sire of the original Big River in Chattanooga, appears to be struggling. Though the establishment, housed in an old elevator manufacturing building, was grand, the beer was not. Several taps were dry. The brewer had been transferred, two months prior, to the Orlando Big River, located in a huge Disney resort. The bartender, who was trying to be helpful, didn't even know the new brewer's name. He speculated that they were sharing a brewer with the Chattanooga Big River and blamed that scheme for the dismal three beer selection: "that's how little he's here." We quickly tasted the thin Southern Flyer Light Lager, sweet Mudflap Brown and okay Iron Horse Stout and shoved on.
My previous stop two years back at this Big River had been equally disappointing. At that time, the young brewer admitted little beer or brewing knowledge, stating that he just followed company recipes. Other Big River facilities that I've visited - Chattanooga, Orlando and the Rock Bottom in Charlotte - do not have this same problem. Good beer, good food, nice atmosphere; except in Greenville.
One last stop before we had our fill of Greenville beer. Open since 1996, Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria was humming when we walked through the door on a hot Saturday night. The first cousin of the original Asheville Barley's, this restaurant/bar had 27 tap handles, most pumping good craft brewed and imported beers. Though Newcastle Brown and Carolina Blonde are the best sellers, there were also brews from Sierra Nevada, Pinehurst, Mendocino, Rogue, Wild Goose, Thomas Creek, Anchor, Bass, Spaten, Guinness and Hoegaarden to choose from. Along with delicious pizzas, calzones and sandwiches, Barley's is beer heaven.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush