In June, the Pint Bill, as it became known, passed the South Carolina legislature and everyone caught Pint Bill fever. The beer blogosphere erupted with it. But what's the big deal anyway? Before, you could taste 16 ounces of beer at a brewery, and now you can have three pints. Is that so earth shattering? The state's breweries clearly thought so, or they wouldn't have put up another grueling battle for the bill's passage. The practical effects of the bill are already becoming visible with a boom of brewery tasting rooms.
Before the original tasting bill was passed in 2010, a tasting room wasn't part of a South Carolina brewery's business plan. It couldn't legally be a profit center, or even a loss leader since breweries could not legally sell or give beer to visitors. But that first bill allowed breweries to sell small samples (about $4-$5 worth), preach the gosp-ale, and connect with customers. A welcome but limited opportunity.
The new three-pint limit (plus some stipulations on higher a.b.v. beers) invites visitors to spend $15 or $20 drinking on the premises. Think of the modest $10 to $15 increase in terms of percentages, and you're looking at a whopping 200 to 300 percent increase per head. Suddenly, the tasting room is an entirely different — and much more exciting — animal.
Holy City Brewing has been first to embrace this shift in business. As the bill's passing approached, the North Charleston brewery added 15 taps, two dedicated to nitro (the gas, not the American Gladiator), and beefed up both indoor and outdoor seating. Now, they are open daily with food trucks parked on the premises four days a week. And they've hired two new crew members to man the tasting room.
"All of these things have been great additions," says Chris Brown, head brewer and co-owner. "And I think the fact that people can now hang out for more than 16 ounces changes the atmosphere in here in a good way. It's relaxed and people can enjoy the space and learn about what we do at Holy City Brewing."
In Mt. Pleasant, Westbrook has also been adding jobs, with four new tasting room employees, plus an additional two on the brew floor. Their post-Pint Bill menu includes the old 4-oz. taster glasses, as well as 8-oz. and 12-oz. pours, each of which come in their own glassware. They're also reviewing space and capacity issues in the tasting room.
"We have some very exciting plans for our cul-de-sac," says Morgan Westbrook, co-founder and owner. "People are recognizing beer to be just as gourmet as food, and we've really enjoyed sharing our craft. We just need more space. Our patio will be expanded to the curb. We will still have the Westbrook sign on the brick semicircle, the lovely trees, and plants. We live in such a beautiful area that not having a larger patio is a shame." The timing on the expansion has yet to be announced.
If COAST wasn't in the midst of a much-needed expansion at their North Charleston home base, they'd be working on their brand new tasting room space. According to co-owner Jaime Tenny, the plan is to add an entirely separate building adjacent to the brewery for tastings, with 1,500 square feet inside plus outdoor beer-garden-style seating and a stage. For now, all of their efforts are concentrated on increasing the brewing capacity by a factor of four, moving in seven new 30-barrel (930 gallon) tanks, a new boiler, and lots of other exciting toys. Once that system is up and running, they plan to add a day to their tasting room schedule even as they continue using their existing space.
Palmetto has been undergoing a serious facelift downtown since March — serious enough that they recently suspended their tasting hours. Even so, Palmetto's Chris Winn paints a pretty picture: "Our old loading dock will become an outdoor patio and beer garden, and the interior tasting room will be expanded from four seats to 20, with views of both the brewery and the [adjacent] Charleston Coffee Roasters facility." Once that's ready for primetime, tentatively in December, Palmetto will be open to all comers Tuesdays through Saturdays. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for live music on Fridays starting in October, with what will appropriately be called the Loading Dock Series.
The newest tasting room in the area is at North Charleston's Frothy Beard. The nanobrewery is becoming ever less nano, with additional fermenters, brite tanks, and new kegs being added all the time, according to co-owner Michael Biondi. With a focus on organically growing the brewing operation, allowing for more production of both flagship styles and new experiments, the tasting room facility will stay static for now. That said, they've doubled their tasting room hours, have a super-friendly staff, and there's a boat over the bar. Yes, a boat.
It's clear that 32 extra ounces means business to the area's five breweries, but you'll have to visit them yourself to fully appreciate it.
Timmons Pettigrew is the author of Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing and co-founder and editor of CHSBeer.org. Follow him on Twitter @CHSBeer.