The outside thermometer read 95 degrees when the City Paper dropped by the newly opened Holy City Brewing Co. in North Charleston last week. Situated in a large space inside a generic warehouse off of Dorchester Road, there was nothing glamorous or fancy about the facade, but there was plenty to admire in the main brewing room — a wide-open facility with shiny new tanks and a painted blue floor. A Doberman puppy named Brewtus lounged by the oak barrels along the back wall. It was a hot and steamy brewing day for head brewer and co-owner Chris Brown and co-owner Sean Nemitz, but neither seemed distracted by the oppressive conditions.
Nemitz was raking spent barley grain from the bottom of the tall boiling vessel while Brown buzzed from one side of the tank system to the other. A lone pool table stood ignored at the other side of the room, near the stacked sacks of grain and the brand-new hop freezer.
"So far, we've done pretty well," Brown says during a quick break. He and his partners — Nemitz, Joel Carl, and Mac Minaudo — started putting the brewery together more than a year ago. As dedicated homebrewers, they shared a dream to open a full-scale craft brewery. They join an elite group of Lowcountry microbreweries: Palmetto Brewing Co., COAST Brewing Co., and Westbrook Brewing Co. Holy City's first kegs hit the local market last month with a "first tasting" session at Oak Barrel Tavern in West Ashley on July 21.
"We decided not to sell our very first full batch," Brown says. "We had a stuck fermentation, some minor equipment malfunctions, and some stupid mistakes. By the time we got the fermentation to restart, it had developed some off-flavors —nothing we wanted to send out."
Of the four partners, Brown has the most formal training. After graduating from the College of Charleston, he attended the American Brewers Guild and learned industrial brewing first-hand at the Gordon Biersch brewpub in Atlanta. Revered brewmaster Dan Gordon put Brown through his paces, making a variety of mostly German-style lagers and ales.
"Dan put me to work cleaning kegs and tanks and transferring beer right off the bat, but he promised to have me brewing within six months," Brown remembers. "He pretty much taught me everything I know. He threw me into the fire, and I was able to do it. The school was great, but brewing is all about experience, and that job gave me two good years of experience."
Holy City's debut features two very clean and nicely balanced beers — a dark, malty ale and a light, hoppy lager. The Holy City Pluff Mud Porter (5.5 percent a.b.v.) is a traditional English style with a very dark mahogany-brown color, medium body, and pronounced maltiness, especially the caramel and chocolate malt flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, the Holy City Pilsner (5 percent a.b.v.) is modeled after traditional Northern German Pils, with a pale golden color, medium-light body, and a balance of biscuity pale malt and herbal/musky hop flavors and aromas.
"With the first two, we wanted to deliver easy-drinking beers that you could enjoy all year-round," says Brown. "We wanted to aim for something balanced and not too over the top. I'm personally happiest with the way the pilsner turned out. That's a tribute to what I learned at Gordon Biersch, where they really did German lagers quite well. I think it's an appropriate style for this town. You can drink more than one in hot weather. We have a special lager yeast strain in-house, so we'll do Oktoberfests, Märzens, and other German styles down the road."
Two of the brewery's first "experimental" seasonals available this month are part of what they call their Fish Bowl series of ales. Brown and his colleagues plan to play around within the classic pale ale styles and come up with flavorful renditions of their own. The amber-colored Fish Bowl I (6 percent a.b.v.) is a full-bodied, very hoppy IPA with an unusually grassy character derived from the relatively new Summit hops, the only variety used in the brew. There's a ton of red grapefruit and tangerine in the flavor and aroma. The even newer Fish Bowl II (7.5 percent a.b.v.) is a stronger, darker "red ale" bittered with American-grown Warrior and Glacier hops. It's a big beer with a hint of sweet malt flavor and hints of pine and citrus bitterness in the finish.
"I want to make sure that people know that we are making real beer," says Brown. "It's nice to have a little fun making a bacon-infused porter or an oyster stout, but I want us to take pride in being able to make a style that's drinkable — not just a crazy or super-hopped beer that's trendy. I like that we're making these at standard alcohol levels."
In general, the Holy City Brewing team wants their styles to reflect the tastes of their favorite local bars and their closest beer-drinking pals. So far, it's a sturdy mix of European and American styles.
"Our philosophy from the beginning was to cater to the local beer drinkers," says Brown.
However, that doesn't mean they won't try for some off-the-wall brews.
"We don't want to simply stick with standard styles that everyone is doing. We want to do some strong standards and some unusual seasonals as well. We're already working on a Pecan Brown Ale for the fall."
If the next round of Fish Bowl specialties are as tasty and fresh as the first two, Brown and his team will stay very busy in the steamy brew house trying to keep up with demand.