By Bobby Bush
Four-thirty A.M. is not typically the time you'd find a brewer at work. But Kevin Varner, brewer and owner of Hunter Gatherer Brewery-Alehouse in downtown Columbia South Carolina, had already agreed to the television appearance before learning the schedule. Though he takes a low-keyed approach to marketing - no logo, no website - free publicity on live television was too good of an opportunity to let slip by. So as the mouthy, local morning man interviewed the drowsy brewer, Kevin went through brewing motions, credibly pretending to brew in an empty kettle, spraying water and talking proper beer talk.
With financial help from family members, Hunter Gatherer opened its doors in 1995. From his ten-barrel brewhouse, Kevin keeps three beers on full time with one tap serving a rotating seasonal offering, usually a dark brew. Utilizing 30% wheat in the American-style recipe, Hunter Gatherer Wheat was served sans lemon, resulting in a crisp, refreshing drink that defies the word light. Cleanly golden, this flavorful ale exits with a brittle bitter bite. The lone brewer's Pale Ale is the brewpub's best seller. Well balanced with burnt caramel malt sensations, this medium bodied ale revealed bitterness only at final swallow. Very copper in color, decked with a lacy tan head, ESB was well-rounded with bitter notes. Dry on the roof of the mouth, bitter on the tongue. Though not on tap at the time of my visit, Kevin's makes several seasonal porters, one easy, one stronger. His Stout is built around a roasted malt taste base. Hunter Gatherer's special winter brew Ye Olde Bastarde was, luckily, available for tasting. This heavy bodied brew featured a complexity of flavors, flitting from prune danish to toasted oatmeal. Its entangling tastes did not, however, hide the beer's smooth mouthfeel and virtual deliciousness.
Located just one block from the State Capital, the small brick building once served as a fire station. It's definitely rustic, appointed with a collection of old, odd, mismatched tables and chairs. Adorning the walls is a more peculiar display of artifacts, capitalizing on Kevin's African ambassador brother-in-law's collection of hand-crafted art. The brewpub's name, Kevin explains, was chosen for its catchiness and has no particular meaning or story. The 100-seat establishment hosts occasional wine tastings and boasts a menu that runs from pizza and pasta to salmon croquettes, Irish lamb stew, made with beer, to filet mignon.
A fairly traditional brewer of English style ales, Kevin likes to drink his beer very fresh, right from the fermenter. Fresh is, indeed, best. Nothing fancy, nothing weird, Hunter Gatherer is about as simply stated as a brewpub can be. And that sentiment concisely describes its owner. Television stardom may not be in the stars for Kevin Varner. Instead, well-designed and expertly made beers certainly top his resume.
Prior to my stop in downtown Columbia at Hunter Gatherer, I had headed to the northeast section of greater Columbia to add another Hops Restaurant & Brewery to my list. Like all 73 other versions of this Tampa-based chain's brewpubs, this Hops - located of I-77 on Two Notch Road - featured rather uneventful beer. A new seasonal program, which includes Flying Squirrel Nut Brown Ale and Hoptoberfest, shows some promise for Hops. I skipped Hoptoberfest, which was nearly at the end of its seasonal run. Nut Brown was smooth, punctuated with semi-sweet caramel malt taste. Actually a nice drinking beer in the UK style. Other beers in brewer Rick Haskins' repertoire include Lightning Bold Gold, Alligator Ale, Clearwater Light and Hammerhead Red.
Unfortunately, serving beer in frozen glasses does nothing to enhance beer's flavor. Even the tiny taster glasses, straight from the freezer, were coated with ice glaze. There's another Hops on the northeast side of Columbia on Fernandina Road. Haskins probably brews there as well.
Though time did not allow on this particular visit, Vista Brewing is still alive and well on Gervais Street in downtown Columbia. The swanky restaurant-cum-brewpub hardly moves enough beer to justify a full time brewer. Instead, David Fowlkes of Mad Boar Brewing in North Myrtle Beach and Frank Hughes, formerly of Southend-Charleston and now with Palmetto Brewing, share Vista brewing duties, making the journey eastward every other weekend to keep Vista's taps flowing.
And that's it for Columbia.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush