Southend Brewery & Smokehouse
Lunch and Dinner
House-brewed beer: $3.75/pint
161 East Bay St.
The new generation of American beer drinkers have it good. As opposed to the dark ages of the 1970s and '80s, they enjoy a remarkable abundance of options. A boost in the availability of imported beer in the late '70s gave rise to the "Beer Renaissance," first led by pioneering homebrewers, microbreweries, and brewpubs.
More than 1,000 craft breweries have opened in the United States in the past two decades. Most of them produce top-quality beers that are less expensive than imports. Quite a few have more character than the originals. The beers currently causing the most excitement are very sophisticated British, German, and Belgian styles, whether made in Yorkshire, Bavaria, or Flanders, Boston, San Francisco, or Charleston.
The Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, downtown Charleston's only genuine brew-pub, has been featuring handcrafted ales, lagers, and specialty brews alongside their lunch and dinner specials and brick oven pizzas for years. After suffering a recent halt in production, things are rolling again in the brewhouse, with a young new brewer at the helm ready to solidify Southend's reputation for clean, smooth ales ... and to expand the beer menu.
Brewmeister Ahren Warf started brewing professionally a few years ago at the Blue Ridge Brewing Co. in Greenville, S.C., while attending college.
"To be honest, it just seemed like a really cool process that I wanted to learn more about," he says. "While working at Blue Ridge as a server, I got to be friends with the then-brewmaster Ryan Kurlfink, who taught me the fundamentals of brewing as well as how to operate a brewing system."
Warf officially made his first batch of Southend beer last July. He took over from the facility's previous brewer, Jay Coke, who stepped in as head brewer after a considerable lapse in activity at the brewery. For over a year, no one made any beer at all in the facility. They had it "contract-brewed" out of state and shipped in. Fortunately, production has returned and the sweet, bready aroma of barley malt is back in the air.
In the brewing trade, one "barrel" equals 42 U.S. gallons. Southend has a 10-barrel brewing system consisting of a series of tanks scattered throughout the first two floors. Three handsome steel vessels stand as a centerpiece behind glass in the middle of the dining room.
The mash tun is where it all starts and where the malted grains are steeped at specific temperatures. The lauter tuns (tall, stainless steel vessels with the V-shaped bottoms) are where the mashed grains are rinsed or "sparged" to extract the raw, sugary liquor or "wort." In the brew kettle, the wort is boiled with various hops (the seasoning and preservative in beer) for an hour or two, depending on the recipe. A tall line of fermentation and bright (serving) tanks line the bar, each holding 20 barrels worth of beer.
Southend currently maintains a menu of six house specialty and classic-style ales, from blonde and weizens to pale ales and stouts. A rotation of "seasonal beer" allows Warf the opportunity to experiment and be a bit more creative and offer customers something unique.
"High gravity" specialties and classic styles (beers with a higher-than-usual percentage of alcohol by volume) are hard to find in Charleston -- in fact, they're illegal. By law, such higher-alcohol brews aren't allowed to be distributed or sold in South Carolina. Current state law limits alcohol content in beer to no more than six percent by volume. There are only three other states with such archaic restrictions. Georgia and North Carolina recently passed legislation to increase their accepted alcohol percentages from six to 15 percent, which allowed for the distribution and sale of gourmet microbrewed beers and European specialties.
These stronger commercial examples are often called "high gravity" beers in reference to the higher level of fermentable sugars at the beginning of the fermentation process.
Last year, S.C. state Rep. James Harrison (R-Richland) proposed a bill that would amend the six percent alcohol limit on beer and raise it to the widely accepted 15 percent. Lawmakers pushed it aside to deal with other state budget matters, although the Senate may consider the bill again during the winter session. Not only will such an amendment provide bars, restaurants, and shops the opportunity to sell terrific specialty beers, it will allow local brewers the chance to produce and sell their own creative renditions.
Ed Falkenstein, co-owner of Charleston's sole microbrewery, Palmetto, recently told City Paper if given the option to create and distribute high gravity beers, "We would definitely offer them. It is a small niche to offer and it just opens up more variety."
"I think it would go over well at Southend," says Warf, who's anxious to explore some of the stronger classic beer styles. "I would really love to brew a high gravity beer as well, as soon as that law is abolished. I have my fingers crossed. I will certainly try to offer something bold and high gravity. I plan on brewing a bock [a dark brown, high-gravity Bavarian lager] at some point in the near future. I have had requests for a Belgian White ... we'll see."
Once Warf mastered the brewing system, equipment, and recipes at Southend, he developed personal goals as far as the consistency, personality, and character of the beers on the menu.
"I first started working at Southend in the summer of 2005 as a server," he says. "Jay decided he was ready to move on, and the general manager at Southend asked me if I would like to train with him before he left. So, drawing on my experience as an assistant brewer, I have been Southend's brewer ever since.
"I definitely want to present a polished, consistent beer," he adds. "However, at first, I was just focusing on the fundamentals and trying to hone my knowledge about brewing ... and not making any mistakes. I've tried to offer beers that are appropriate for each season, and once I've decided on something, I check the Southend recipe book and go from there. I've had to improvise on some of the beers a little bit in terms of designing a recipe, like the next seasonal, a Chocolate Porter [an almost black British-style ale]. With other beers, like our recent Harvest Spiced Ale, I've been able to draw from one of our recipes. I didn't put any chocolate or cocoa in the porter, but I'm thinking about adding some at the end of fermentation, kind of like 'dry hopping' a pale ale."
The Harvest Spiced Ale is a full-bodied, copper-colored ale with a malty, clove-y aroma and a caramel malt and spicy hop flavor. The brewery's porters and pale ales are all quite clean, smooth, and properly balanced.
"They're based on Southend recipes, developed by a previous brewer there," says Warf. "As far as the results, I have received a lot of positive feedback on the porters and Harvest Spiced, so I definitely plan on brewing them again next year."
Warf regularly brews two 10-barrel batches a week. What are the greatest challenges and rewards for a brewer in his situation? "Consistency has definitely been the most difficult aspect of brewing," he says. "Well, that and keeping up with demand. Whenever I get positive feedback; it is definitely gratifying to know your work is appreciated. It's also very rewarding to taste the fruits of one's labor!"