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The State of the Brewnion

When it comes to beer fests, growler stations, and high-grav brews, too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing

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One could say we live in a foodie town. One could also say we live in a drinking town. And one could even say that we're all going to die a slow death from following trends in both departments, eventually melting into a pool of locally grown, wood-fired, pre-Prohibition lardcore cocktails. Of course, you could also argue that we will all have fun doing it, but that's neither here nor there.

Craft beer was once a cresting fashion in these parts too, and we owe the first big bump to Pop the Cap SC, now the S.C. Brewers Association, for advancing legislation that coaxed us ever-so-slightly away from the land of nonsense. Beer was defined in post-Prohibition state law as having no more than 5 percent ABW (alcohol by weight). The Palmetto State was not exactly awash in Russian Imperial Stouts and Barleywines in the early-to-mid 1900s, but by the early 2000s, South Carolinians didn't have access to the stronger beers that some of the country's top breweries were beginning to put out. To make matters worse, these same breweries were reluctant to distribute their products in South Carolina because they would only be able to sell some of their beers. Thanks a lot, dead white guys.

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Pop the Cap successfully got the percentages changed in 2007, and immediately strange and sometimes beautiful new beers started showing up on local store shelves and in taprooms. As if strong beer was a style unto itself, menus got rearranged and ads got new WordArt. It was new. We like new. And so was born the fad of the high-gravity beer.

Unfortunately, the term doesn't make much sense. "Gravity," in a nutshell, is a measurement of density in liquid — in beer's case, the density comes from sugar. A beer's "original gravity" measures that sugar before fermentation, with a higher number indicating a stronger beer to come. "Final gravity," measured after fermentation, should be quite low if the yeast has done its job, otherwise you're drinking sugar-water. But I digress.

Luckily, like all fads, the high-grav fad has largely passed. It's a sign of maturity in our local beer culture that businesses no longer advertise craft beer as a means to induce a coma. Fostering long-term craft consumers requires much more than a list of beers with big percentages. Furthermore, equating high-gravity with "craft," or even with "good," is bad. ABV is a byproduct. People become lifelong craft beer drinkers for a lot of reasons — community, supporting the artisan underdog over the corporate behemoth, and the myriad taste experiences — but not because two beers make their belly feel warm. Hopefully.

Of course, in a fad vacuum, other fads took its place, some of which are still hanging around. To paraphrase the sage words of Paula Abdul: We took two steps forward, and then took two steps back.

When the Charleston Beer Exchange opened in 2008, they had the state's first permanent growler station. In a matter of months, everyone wanted a growler station. Beer stores were installing them and bars were filling jugs from their tap banks. Growlers were new — we like new —and so was born the growler fad.

Unlike pushing super-strong beer on new, unwitting craft consumers, a bunch of growler stations alone is not destructive to a beer culture. Taking draft beer home is a good thing, allowing the drinker to try draft-only beers they may not otherwise get. The fad's downside all comes in the form of neglect — neglect out of ignorance, thrift, or laziness, but neglect nonetheless. In a nutshell, we're talking about a lack of carbonation and a lack of sterilization. (See the sidebar for more details.)

"Beer events" seem to be following the same, age-old fad formula that growlers have: a handful of well-thought-out, successful events have begotten dozens of others. Some of the begotten are equally well-thought-out and successful, but many others are doomed for failure in one or more departments.

Poor planning is generally the culprit for a beer event's failure, but the approach that organizers take can also play a part. If the event is organized with intentions other than bringing a glorious craft beer experience to attendees (and turning a reasonable profit), you've got a potentially poor event on your hands. If you ever get the feeling that you've paid to take part in an elaborate, lame commercial for a particular brand or brewery, then chances are you are at one of the area's craft beer busts.

For consumers, the reasons behind a bad event are immaterial. A bad experience is a bad experience, and it's not something folks are keen to repeat. There are few things in this world worse for a budding craft beer culture than a long line of paid but disgruntled customers that showed up to a beer event with enthusiasm, ready to try something new. Their chances of trying new brews have decreased dramatically, and the waves of ill will and discouragement are sure to wash over the organizers on the shores of the interwebs.

Those same interwebs reach well outside the Lowcountry. Every bad event, every cruddy growler filler, and every bar that hypes Double IPAs like they are King Cobra work against what should be every Charleston beer fan's goal: to make our city not just a decent beer town, but a serious beer destination. Tourism sustains our economy, and beer tourism — a very real and significant thing — will ultimately bolster our local beer culture. It's not so much about a dollar today, but the dollars that await us once travelers return home and spread the word. We've got a taste of that already, but there is more to come if we play our cards right. If people travel here for beer, we all win. If they find a flimsy cardboard cutout of a beer scene, or catch wind and don't come at all, we all lose.

That's the destructive nature of fads in a culture striving for the long haul: standards that would sustain it crumble at the hands of hype. In the rush to be a part of the “next big thing,” small details like the consumer experience, and the effect it will have on building something made to last, fall by the wayside. The blame does not always lie with the purveyor, but sometimes with the consumer willingly accepting something inferior just because it’s “cool.”

Unfortunately, the Three Little Fads are not our only issues. We have to deal with many other offenses thanks to the providers driving the 2012 Fadwagon and consumers riding shotgun: frosty glassware, dirty glassware, dirty tap lines, frosty tap lines, misspelled menus, under-educated staff, under-rotated kegs, etc. In a state where you still can’t buy a proper pint of beer from the folks that made it, we have legal issues as well.

Gloom and doom aside, there’s no need to fear, my friends. We have an ever-expanding network of craft beer-focused businesses run by people doing things right for the right reasons. We have people dedicated to bringing a quality craft beer experience to their customers, all while converting and educating the next craft beer drinker one at a time. We have four local breweries, each with their own approach and personality, and each fully deserving of our pride as Charlestonians. Thanks to major legislative progress since Pop the Cap, as of two years ago our breweries can offer on-premise tastings and direct sales. We clearly have a thirsty populace, or we wouldn’t see the explosion of availability (regardless of quality) that we have in recent years, or the rousing success of nationally acclaimed events like Brewvival. So where do we go from here?

First, foremost, and overall, if we as a city grant the same deference to craft beer that we have to food, everything will turn out just fine. Supporting local food producers and learning about the origins and seasonality of ingredients seem to go without saying in today’s Charleston. Beer that’s produced with the same care, clarity of mind, and intention, is equally deserving of our respect, and the respect of those who sell it.

Beyond that, educate yourself. Seek the utmost quality and accept no substitutes. Support the little guy or gal that’s doing it right, and amicably help the little guy or gal that’s doing it less-than-right. If it sounds silly to you to drink Brunello or Pappy with Burger King, don’t drink the equivalent of McDonald’s with your grilled deckle. Lastly, if we want a sustainable, continuously growing beer culture, we’ve got to lose the “more is better” mentality when it comes to bars, stores, ABV, growler stations, events, tap list lengths, and everything else. A town with 200 Applebee’s does not a food culture make, and the same principle applies to beer culture.

More is not better. Better is better.

Timmons Pettigrew is the author of Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing, and co-Founder/editor of CHSBeer.org. Follow him on Twitter @CHSBeer.

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