If you've read any local or statewide craft beer press in the last decade, you've heard the Pop the Cap narrative. To summarize: before 2007, beer over 6.25 percent ABV could not be sold in South Carolina. In 2007, Pop the Cap successfully got the law changed. Now beer can be up to 17.5 percent ABV. The grass is greener. The birds are chirping. Life is good.
When it comes to local beer, that rubber first met the road at North Charleston's COAST Brewing. They opened in 2007 with two flagship beers, 32/50 Kölsch and HopArt IPA, along with their first seasonal, Rye Knot Brown Ale. HopArt clocked in at 7.7 percent ABV, making it the first area beer that would have been illegal prior to Pop the Cap. Those three were quickly followed by COAST's first special release: Blackbeerd Imperial Stout.
Blackbeerd is a beast. Although "high-gravity" is a term that left our vernacular as the hoopla of Pop the Cap passed, at 9.3 percent ABV, Blackbeerd was certainly the strongest commercially brewed beer Charleston, indeed South Carolina, had seen in the modern age. What's more, its deliciousness gave it staying power. COAST regulars and clued-in beer enthusiasts from faraway lands look forward to its periodic releases year after year. And geek-outs have increased over the barrel-aged version, which represented another milestone. Jack Daniels Barrel-Aged Blackbeerd was South Carolina's first commercially released barrel-aged beer in 2009.
The beer's origin story is a tale about a gaggle of loose ideals coalescing into something great and lasting. In the beginning, husband-and-wife co-owners David Merritt and Jaime Tenny wanted to make a Russian Imperial Stout because they liked the style, and South Carolina had not produced one yet. They knew they wanted to hew closely to their maritime theme. Merritt also knew he wanted to introduce smoked malt into the beer. Edward Teach (a.k.a. the notorious English pirate Blackbeard) was a natural inspiration.
During his day, Blackbeard called the coasts of both Carolinas home. As an added bonus, the stories of him weaving candle wicks into his beard was a sly wink to the brewery's smoked malt addition. COAST had already tapped Fuzzco for all things branding and gave them the general idea, specifying that they wanted a face, and they wanted the dread pirate to be carrying a barrel. "It's David," says Tenny about the end image, except the guy on their label is missing a tooth.
Tenny and Merritt did the first bottling run by hand in COAST's cold box over the course of two days. After narrowly skirting divorce, they discovered their efforts only yielded 96 bottles. The whole lot was sold at Ted's Butcherblock in March of '08 alongside the first run of HopArt bottles, thanks in no small part to Scott Shor, then-Ted employee and future co-owner of The Charleston Beer Exchange. In case you've forgotten, back in the dark ages of the '00s, South Carolina breweries could not sell beer directly to consumers.
From the start, Tenny and Merritt saw barrel-aging in Blackbeerd's future, and they fulfilled that prediction in late 2008. Friends drove in two Jack Daniels barrels from the distillery's gift shop. Once at COAST, the batch of Blackbeerd sat for three months.
A rough 30 cases were released at The Charleston Beer Exchange on March 13, 2009, to what would become huge acclaim. Beer traders on sites like BeerAdvocate took notice, and the popularity of the Jack Daniels Barrel-Aged Blackbeerd quickly skyrocketed.
At that time, barrel-aging was relatively new, and to this day Tenny says that "Russian Imperial Stout in bourbon barrels might be the best barrel-aged beer combo" the brewery has ever done. That said, COAST was so small and production so limited that they couldn't really capitalize on the buzz. In fact, they probably lost money on that first barrel-aged run. "We just did it for a test," remarks Merritt. Seeing the beer end up for sale on the gray market at huge mark-ups may have been flattering, but they were not happy about it. "I hate that. It drives me nuts. Beer should be for everybody," says Merritt.
Since that first release, Blackbeerd has made it into barrels every year except 2014, when COAST was undergoing an expansion. Jack Daniels was followed by Buffalo Trace barrels, then a blend from Buffalo Trace and second-used Jack Daniels barrels, then two years of Blanton's barrels. 2013 saw the longest aging of Blackbeerd, which spent 11 months in second-use Blanton's barrels. Chalk up another win for COAST's experiments.
This year, the entire batch of Blackbeerd is aging in 20 Willett Rye barrels, save a handful of casks that have been, or will be, popping up around town. This is by far the largest barreling COAST has done, and it's the first time Blackbeerd has touched staves that did not hold bourbon. While the scale is bigger, the sense of newness has not left the operation. It seems like only yesterday they were hand-waxing bottles of Barrel-Aged Blackbeerd.
Keep an eye out for that newest experiment in March, assuming it tastes as good as it sounds.