Want to try COAST Brewing Company's new summer seasonal ALTerior Motive altbier? Don't go stopping by the brewery at the old Navy Base at Noisette. Legally, they're not allowed to offer you a sip.
Fortunately, that might soon change, bringing COAST and South Carolina's four other breweries into line with the majority of the country. From California to Maine, microbreweries are a thriving industry, and tours and tastings draw visitors from around the nation to sample a region's specialties.
Here in S.C., however, we still utilize the post-prohibition three-tier system that was designed to control the flow of alcohol to the public. Brewers, distributors, and retailers are all required to operate as separate entities. The growth of craft breweries in the last 20 years has led to the demise of that structure around the country, allowing breweries to sell their own product directly to the customer.
In 2009, state Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R - Beaufort) introduced House bill 3693, allowing breweries to offer samples and limited sales on site. The legislation faltered under strong opposition from the wholesalers, who saw direct sales by a brewery as a potential cut into their revenue.
COAST co-founder Jaime Tenny, who led the Pop the Cap campaign to allow high-gravity beers in S.C. in 2007, hasn't given up the fight. Last summer, she and other representatives of the S.C. Brewer's Association met repeatedly with the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association, hammering out a compromise bill that could soon pass in 2010.
Last month, H. 3693 whizzed through the S.C. House of Representatives without opposition. On Thurs., May 6, the Senate version goes before the Judiciary Committee, followed by a full committee hearing on May 11. If it goes uncontested, Tenny expects it will pass.
If H. 3693 becomes law, people will be able to visit COAST or Palmetto breweries and sample up to four four-ounce samples and purchase one case of beer on site. Tenny says that the impact of having visitors goes beyond the money made by selling a case of beer.
"It lets us directly talk with the people who drink our beer. Right now, we feel very removed. This is our pride, and we send it out, and we're lucky if we get to hear some feedback on what people thought about it," she says. "It's important to us to be able to talk to consumers directly."
A friendlier environment for craft breweries could also lead to more brewers locating here, generating jobs and tourism. COAST hasn't grown much in its three years, due to both maxing out their equipment's production capacity and the limitations of not being able to operate a brewpub or offer tours. If visitors do generate extra income for COAST, Tenny says they hope to pursue an expansion loan to increase production and hire employees.
"Craft breweries are never going to be Boeing, but they bring more than that — it's culture," says Tenny. "I kind of consider us artists, representing something that we work hard on and people are happy about."
Julie Cox, executive director of the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association, says she sees no issue with H. 3693 passing, even adding that she thinks it'll be good for tourism. Cox cites the social responsibility clauses added to the bill as the main impetus behind gaining the wholesalers' support. H. 3693 includes language that allow samples only in conjunction with tours and prohibits samples from being offered to those who appear intoxicated. The Brewers Association also conceded the right to sell kegs directly, but if H. 3693 passes, it will allow on-site growler sales.
Rep. Herbkersman sees the gradual acceptance of the wholesalers as the natural evolution of a local industry. His family owned the state's first brewpub, on Hilton Head, and he says he looks forward to visiting breweries around the state to sample their brews and witness their operations.
"I think the change (since last year) is the fact that the wholesalers understand there is change and that this industry is moving forward and being progressive," says Herbkersman. "There is no real reason to oppose it once you read the bill. We have support from the wholesalers, the distributors, and the breweries."
North Carolina has 42 breweries to South Carolina's five, largely in part to friendlier laws that don't restrict craft brewers' ability to make a profit. Tenny says her peers in other states laugh when they hear how hard they've had to fight to allow tastings, but that she's happy with the compromise and hopes it soon comes to a close. She's optimistic it will pass this session, but is asking supporters at the S.C. Brewer's Association website, southcarolinabeer.org, to contact the Senate Judiciary Committee members this week and express their support.
"Just for a brewery to be able to sell one bottle, let alone a case, to a person directly is huge," says Tenny. "I don't know if people understand how big that is. The wholesalers have fought for the three-tier system to the death. This is changing that, and a door is opening that was completely sealed shut."