In the two years since high-gravity beers found their way onto local store shelves and bar counters, a beer renaissance has been taking place in South Carolina. When the high-grav bill became law in May 2007, it dissolved the 6-percent cap on alcohol content in beer that had stood for over 30 years, and a small flood of microbrewed and imported ales and lagers came into the state. For serious beer enthusiasts and homebrewers, it's been an exciting period of new discovery, a golden age of imbibing.
Now, drinkers have so many choices it's almost overwhelming. Here we've compiled a list of eight sturdy beers — domestics and imports — that are fairly new to the Charleston market. Some are strong in flavor, some are strong in alcohol. Others use unusual ingredients. They're all remarkable and worth checking out.
- Allagash Brewing Co., Alcohol by volume 5%
It's great to see new, well-crafted low-gravity ales like this sneaking into the market. Hazy-tan in color, this lively warm weather ale is a cool take on the traditional spicy Belgian "witbier" (a wheat beer brewed with spices and citrus seasoning). Well conditioned, bottled with yeast, and highly carbonated, this mildly tart and refreshing find is a solid rendition of a delicate style. Slightly maltier and fruitier than expected, it's a great new beer on the local scene. See if you can detect any coriander or orange peel.
- Magic Hat Brewing Co., ABV 4.5%
You gotta hand it to the experimental brewers at the Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, Vt. They boast some of the "most mysterious" and unusual ales around. Their zesty #9 Not Quite Pale Ale is their most popular brand locally, but this new "summer seasonal" (as the label reads) might catch on. Wacko is an oddity for sure. While some of the major brewing companies have recently released beers with lime, lemon, orange, and other fruit flavors, Magic Hat goes in a different direction here, adding beet extract, which imparts a slightly earthy flavor and a bizarrely pinkish-red color to the beer. Light, dry, and fizzy, it's more like a beet wine cooler or a beer 'n' beet shandy. Definitely one of the Hat's weirdest summer offerings ever.
- Stone Brewing Co., ABV 6.9%
Thankfully, the bite of the hops in the aroma and flavor of this tasty India Pale Ale isn't as vicious as the mean-looking gargoyle on the bottle's label. The San Diego-area Stone Brewing Co. recently made a splash in Charleston with its Arrogant Bastard ale. This one's big, too, but it's not over the top with hop bitterness, nor too strong in alcohol. Light amber in color, medium-bodied, and nicely balanced, it's less bitter or chalky than some of the recent arrivals doing the IPA thing. Very drinkable and clean.
- Private Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn, ABV 8.2%
Old-school Bavarian brewing company Schneider is best known here for its Schneider-Weisse, one of the best traditional wheat beers from that European region. Named in honor of Bavarian historian Johannes Aventinus, this noble, red-brown doppelbock is pretty dry and drinkable for its high strength. Like any good bockbier, darker malts dominate the flavor, with hints of molasses, caramel, burnt bread, and roasted nuts; implied hints of clove and banana peep through in the aroma and flavor as well. Pour carefully; it's a thick, delicate, well-carbonated treasure.
- Founders Brewing Co., ABV 9.4%
Founders Double Trouble
This Michigan micro's strong "imperial IPA" is almost impossibly hoppy, from the first sniff and bitter sip through the long-lasting pine-y aftertaste. Definitely an excellent one for the local hop-heads who go for the grapefruity/grassy aroma and flavor of the hops grown in the Northwest. With a golden-orange hue, there's evidence of some dark malts here, but their nutty, bready flavors come through only after a few gulps. It's deceptive, though, with a sneaky alcoholic warmth that increasingly intensifies.
- Avery Brewing Co., ABV 10.54%
The Maharaja Imperial India Pale Ale
Colorado's award-winning Avery Brewing Co., a microbrewery specializing in traditional English and Belgian style ales, has made a name for itself in Charleston as of late. Boasting an impressive alcohol content and a huge hop bitterness level, the Maharaja is a seasonal "imperial" India Pale Ale that packs a big punch and ventures way beyond most British renditions of the style. Grassy, fruity, and intensely bitter, with just enough support from a variety of malts, the Maharaja is among the royalty of such IPAs.
- Victory Brewing Co., ABV 8.5%
Victory Hop Wallop
Described on the bottle as a "very hoppy ale," Pennsylvania brewery Victory's Hop Wallop is like a burly, reddish-golden cousin to its signature Hop Devil ale. Initially released as a seasonal fall-winter ale, it's currently available year-round. Skillfully balanced with chocolate/caramel malt flavors, and not nearly as harsh and acidic as some of the other high-gravity "big hops" ales on the market, Hop Wallop is surprisingly complex, pleasantly bitter, and highly drinkable.
- Southern Tier Brewing Co., ABV 9%
Big Red Imperial Red Ale
The N.Y. brewing company etches "fueled by creativity and imagination" on the side of each bottle of this spicy, assertively malty ale. Utilizing different strands of the "noble" German hop variety Hallertau, Big Red actually resembles some of the malty beers of the Rhein region, like the altbiers of Düsseldorf or the exports of Dortmund. Big Red lives up to its name. Strongly alcoholic, it's a complex, full-bodied ale with not-so-faint hints of roasted almonds and spicy pumpernickel bread. The brewer suggests pouring it into a snifter to get a good whiff. Sip carefully, no matter what vessel you use.