By Bobby Bush
It's been nearly five years since this column explored the beer scene in Charleston, South Carolina. Quite honestly, not a lot has happened in that time period. The Mill Brewery Bakery Eatery closed years ago, as did most of the Florida-based chain. Zebo's was shuttered for a while and resurrected by many of the same people as Mandalay Tropical Restaurant & Brewery. Southend Brewery & Smokehouse has new owners and recent personnel changes. Hops Restaurant & Brewery has moved into the area. Across the bridge in suburban Mt. Pleasant, T-Bonz Gill and Grill is still going strong, as is the first stop of this extended weekend stay in the port city called Charles Town in colonial days.
Palmetto Brewing lays claim to being the state's first pro-prohibition brewery. The Charleston microbrewery was founded by Louis Bruce and Ed Falkenstein in 1993. The duo's only prior exposure to the business derived from Louis's experience in the wine import business. But that didn't stop them from putting together a 25-barrel brewhouse complete with bottling line. The three man operation (a temp helps out in summer months) keeps four beers flowing to customers throughout South Carolina. Nearly two-thirds of the output is distributed in bottles, though keg Palmetto beers are easy to find in the Charleston area.
Mild and malty, Amber is the Palmetto's biggest seller. Pale Ale follows with a moderately assertive hoppiness that is far removed from the bitterness of California-brewed pales. With two months of fermentation and conditioning, Palmetto Lager is crisp and clean, mildly but noticeably hopped with Cascade and Czech Saaz hops. Porter rounds out the bill, though it is a candidate for replacement sometime in 2002. This dry finishing almost chalky tasting dark beer is somewhat reminiscent of a brown London Porter.
Brewer David Merritt prides himself with what he considers to be the "cleanest brewhouse in South Carolina." Not only clean, it's extremely busy. David brewed 3500 barrels last year. There's no time for even a fleeting thought of brewing a seasonal beer. Though the company is strictly low-profile - they screen all of their phone calls - Palmetto's beers are unforgettably good, too good for just South Carolinians.
Next on tap for this trip was Southend Brewery & Smokehouse. The Charlotte company's second brewpub has a great location on East Bay Street. Doors opened in May, 1996. Not as sprawling as its older sibling, the Charleston facility covers three floors of an old brick and timber building. Inside a large glass cubical, the shinning brewery takes center stage on floor one, bar to the left, glass-walled elevator and dining to the right. The second story houses restrooms and more dining area. A smooth ride to the third level reveals billiards tables and a splendid party room, suitable for cigar smokers and other obnoxious folks.
Frank Hughes was the brewer, with emphasis on was. Shortly after my visit in January he was relieved of his duties. He has accepted an assistant brewer's job at Palmetto and works weekends in a co-brewing position at Vista Brewing in Columbia, SC, about a hour's drive west. For the most part, Frank's beers toed the company line. Southend Light Blonde and Southend Blonde were both light, though surprisingly Light provided a more bitter finish. Ironman Wheat, served with a large slice of orange, was cloudy gold and smoothly flavorful, in no need of citrus assistance. Bombay Pale Ale provided chocolate undertones within its dry hopped exuberance, while Scarlet Red Ale was hoppier than expected. A nice sipping beer. East Bay Brown was strong caramel in taste though not overtly sweet. Full bodied and creamy, roasty O'Ryan's Oatmeal Stout was big, packing deep dark flavor. All in all, a nice selection of well-made beers.
Watching my sampler tray of beer disappear one by one, my water-drinking 17 year old daughter described her Southend experience this way: "I like it. The food was good. I like how it looks in here." Well, what more could I add to that?
There's more to Charleston. Follow along to Mt. Pleasant
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush