With the evenhandedness of an accountant and the mindful, scientific approach of a lab technician, brewer Edward Westbrook seems like a serious guy with big ambitions. And he is. But he's more excited by adding an extra dash of color, a complex hop accent, a hint of malt, or the zing of ginger to his craft-brewed beers than he is with the idea of making crowd-pleasing suds. His enthusiasm stems from a genuine love for the art and science of brewing, and his goal is to deliver tasty alternative beers to his hometown.
"We want to focus on pushing the boundaries and experimenting with new things," he says. "That's an important aspect."
Westbrook spent his spring readying the launch of the Westbrook Brewing Company, his state-of-the-art microbrewery located in Mt. Pleasant, just off Long Point Road.
This week, Westbrook's construction team is about two-thirds of the way through the job. Built from the ground up on a just-cleared acre of land, the facility is taking shape as an 18,000-square-foot, two-story structure featuring a full-sized brewing area, a fermentation room, a small bar, and a lobby area. Westbrook hopes to send out his first kegs of beer by September.
Surprisingly, the 25-year-old brewery exec admits he didn't even drink beer until he finished college. He says he dabbled in mixing martinis from time to time, but really wasn't much of an imbiber. "I didn't drink much at all until I started liking beer," Westbrook says.
He started homebrewing only four years ago, shortly after he and his family took a trip to London. "I really liked all the traditional cask-conditioned ales there," he says. "I especially loved the Theakston's Old Peculier on tap at the Museum Tavern in London by the British Museum. I remember that being a fantastic beer in particular. When I learned it was possible to brew it all at home, I looked up all the information and read all the books I could find and started from there."
In his final year at Furman University, he sought interesting brews at the specialty shops and grew familiar with the area's microbreweries: Blue Ridge, Thomas Creek, and RJ Rockers.
"I used to go to the Thomas Creek brewery and buy malted barley and homebrew supplies about once a month," says Westbrook. "The guys over at RJ Rockers in Spartanburg have been a great source for professional advice and guidance. They've been especially helpful as I've worked on things this year."
Westbrook grew up in Mt. Pleasant and attended Bishop England High School before attending Furman and grad school at Clemson, where he earned a master's degree in business administration. Technically, he's a rookie brewer, but he swiftly excelled as a hobbyist and has already refined his craft as a professional.
"I don't think I would have been as interested in starting a brewery if there was a 6 percent alcohol limit, for sure," says Westbrook, referring to the 2007 legislation in which S.C. state lawmakers voted to lift restrictions on the sale and distribution of beer with more than 6 percent alcohol content by volume. "Another thing that just happened is the microbrewing tasting bill that passed recently, which is a huge thing for us. Those are two things that made it more attractive."
Westbrook Brewing Company is certainly aiming for customers who avoid the mainstream and prefer the big flavors of craft beer.
"I think that drinkers are more adventurous now," says Westbrook. "Playing it safe is not really a good strategy, I think. I get bored with the same beer all the time, so the hardest thing for me as we get the recipes dialed in is brewing a really similar beer more than once. I'm used to brewing something different every time. So we will continue to experiment."
Westbrook is starting his brewery from scratch, designing everything from the ground up and customizing the facility to his wants.
"This wasn't the original plan," he admits. "We looked around at some warehouse properties in the neck area downtown and some places in Mt. Pleasant, and there was nothing ideal. We would have had to do tons of retrofitting and renovation to get things up to shape. We decided it was just as easy to go from the ground up. So that's what we did."
The financial situation is unusually ideal for the company — especially in the current economic state. "We're 100 percent equity-funded, so we've been very lucky in that regard," says Westbrook, declining to give specifics on where exactly the funds are coming from.
In the next few weeks, Westbrook plans to install a 30-barrel brewing system — including a mash tun, lauter tun, and main kettle — and a 60-barrel fermentation system with bright beer tanks and support equipment.
"We'll have a 20-gallon pilot brewery set up for new things," he says. "We'll play with wild yeasts and new recipes right there in the brewery. We'll have a climate-controlled room dedicated entirely to bottle conditioning and cask aging."
Westbrook ales will initially be available around town on tap, although bottled versions of each style will be on the way soon. Westbrook will focus on getting his beers to Charleston and the rest of the state before branching out across the Southeast.
The roster of beers will include three signature ales, including a crisp Belgian-style witbier spiced with coriander, fresh ginger, and lemongrass; a malty Belgian-style amber ale made with an authentic Belgian yeast, and a very hoppy I.P.A. brewed and aged with a variety of domestic and imported hops.
"When you start out as a craft brewery these days, you have a little bit of leeway in which the customer is a little more understanding. They know you're starting out with small batches and trying to get things dialed in. Even though [each batch] will be slightly different at first, we will be aiming for consistency and refining things as we go."