You've had it. Trust me. You might not remember, exactly, when or where or how or why. Not that it's forgettable, it's just so understated, the Palmetto Amber Ale. A classic that anyone will sip, from Bud boozers to Corona kids. It may have even been the first craft beer you ever tasted, actually, years ago before 40+ tap handles and grammable crowlers and tulip glasses were par for the course. Palmetto Brewing Co. and its signature amber are Harris Teeter household names, grand dames of the craft 'til you croak beer world. Straightforward, old reliable.
But all of that is about to change.
Palmetto has been, admittedly, evolving over the past few years. "While I have been here that amber ale has been behind three different labels," says certified cicerone and Palmetto marketing lead Collin Clark. He's been around since the beginning of the beer boom in Charleston; formerly in the IT industry, Clark started volunteering at the brewery for the Friday night concert series about five years ago, when there were but "four taps and a non-commercial, very residential quality dishwasher." From taking tokens to managing music acts to bartending, Clark has worn many hats during his time at Palmetto, but he says he's always felt that "we're a small craft brewery at heart." And he says that heart still beats the same way, even after the Catawba Brewery acquisition that took place in late 2017. "It's been really cool to watch our growth, especially with the Catawba acquisition, which was explosive growth."
Hop heads are, rightfully so, wary about acquisitions. (Need we rehash Wicked Weed's romance with InBev?) Anyone in the 'buy local craft' world — breweries, farms, restaurants, etc. — wants to champion the little guy, the business owner down the street. But before you start spitting out that beloved amber — Catawba is not InBev. Founded nearly two decades ago in Western North Carolina, Catawba Brewing is a family-owned and operated biz that cranks out killer small batch brews in Morganton, Charlotte, Asheville, and now, the Lowcountry.
"I think that's something unique about the Catawba/Palmetto relationship," says Clark. "These two breweries developed and evolved along similar paths in two different states, to see these companies merge together ... it's business, yes. But business has to grow. This is kind of a novel approach though, to combine these two family owned independent craft breweries to satisfy that need for growth. It's a unique situation in the beer industry."
Catawba co-owner Billy Pyatt (the other owners are Billy's wife, Jetta, and his brother, Scott) started out as a hobbyist homebrewer in the mid-90s when Jetta bought him carboys, pots, hydrometers, grains, and hops for a Christmas present. Billy and Scott found a spot outside of Morganton — a "cobbled together" brewery — selling kegs to Barley's, Mellow Mushroom, and The Bier Garden in Asheville, eventually opening (and upgrading) to their flagship Morganton location in 2009.
Pyatt said he'd always known of Palmetto, that he'd grab a Palmetto pint whenever his family came down for the Bridge Run, or just to visit the city. When a mutual friend of one of Palmetto's former owners, the Lipov family, and the Pyatts, heard that the family was ready to sell, the owners met up. "I think I came down here in March of 2017 and Larry [Lipov] and I talked about philosophies. We had a common ground, and even though I wasn't in the market [to buy another brewery] the more we talked about it, and the more I twisted the idea around with my wife and brother the more it seemed to make sense."
Now with four breweries across both Carolinas, the Catawba/Palmetto brand can operate on a whole new level. Clark says that while Palmetto has been through a couple of rebrands in the past 25 years, in 2019 the brewery will see a "drastic change." "There will be a lot more individuality and treating each beer as a unique product," says Clark.
Rick Rice, Palmetto's location manager, says that with the rebranding (we got a sneak peek of the new can designs and we can attest, they're lookers) "every can almost tells a story 'what is the beer about, what is the location about?'"
While Clark says they aren't at the point where they can really start publicizing the underhaul and shining up of Palmetto, he says to expect a new logo, signage, taproom, courtyard in the front, the works. And expect those core brands to be as good as ever, while small batch brews start making their way into the rotation. Rice says there will be a lot of tap turnover, "every three weeks the list will be different, we hope it will bring in locals a lot more."
You can get a taste of what's to come with Palmetto's 25th anniversary Imperial Amber Ale. "Our amber still remains very true to the original amber and that rationale for launching a brewery around it in the early '90s," says Clark. "The Imperial is taking it to the next level." Aged on oak with a 9.3 percent ABV (a clever nod to the founding year, '93) and notes of molasses and vanilla, the Imperial is as smooth as a beer of that level gets. "It's almost too easy to drink," laughs Rice.
To create these brews that go beyond the core Palmetto brand, brewers travel from Charleston to Charlotte to Asheville to experiment with the lab systems at each spot. "For us, we've always messed around with small batch beers," says Pyatt. "To be able to do that with another city, a coastal city, has just been a wonderful bonus."