When Charleston's newest microbrewery Westbrook launched with three flagship ales last December, beer enthusiasts took their time warming up to them. Next to the ever-widening roster of craft brews — including well-established Charleston micros Palmetto and COAST — Westbrook Brewing was the scruffy new kid on the block. Seven months later, they're regarded with respect and appreciation.
Initially, Westbrook's copper-colored Belgian Pale and IPA (India Pale Ale) looked like standard fare, and their hazy-yellow White Thai wheat beer — seasoned with coriander, fresh ginger, and lemongrass — seemed like a curious seasonal treat. Since distributing their first kegs of ale, however, a buzz has developed, and locals are ordering them up all over town.
"I think there's a particular loyalty to the IPA and White Thai," says owner and head brewer Edward Westbrook. "A lot of IPA drinkers tend to be very fanatical about hoppy beer, so they seem to enjoy it. The White Thai has become quite popular, too. The Belgian Pale is definitely one of the more restrained Belgian styles of ale."
Westbrook sunk considerable time and money into the large brewery he built in Mt. Pleasant. Some locals assumed he'd settle in as a directing executive once he got rolling — an office man overseeing the basic operations from a distance. These days, he and his small staff handle every duty in the building, from hauling malted grains and hops and sanitizing the tall 60-barrel tanks to balancing the books and pouring samples as hosts in their tasting room.
"I knew I'd be doing a little of everything," Westbrook says. "Brewing is hard work. It's tiring and exhausting, especially this time of year. At first, we were still changing little things about the beers as we went. Like with the White Thai, the first baths were far more hoppy than we were aiming for. The first few times we brewed the IPA, we used a particular British yeast strain that would not clear up in the bright tank. We switched to a more flocculent strain and solved that problem."
Demonstrating consistency in quality and flavor was a top priority for Westbrook. "It's a bit of an adjustment, brewing the same three beers over and over again," he remembers. "When I was homebrewing, I'd always try different things with every batch, and I still get the itch."
Fortunately, making small-batch, limited-edition seasonal and specialty beers allows him to scratch it. One of his first ones was the Belgian IPA, released in January. Made with a unique ale yeast, it took shape by happy accident.
"We meant to make a regular IPA, but on the day we brewed it, we found out that the IPA yeast we had was no good, so we had to improvise," Westbrook says. "We added the Belgian yeast in there, and it turned out really well."
While his holding tanks can handle thousands of gallons at a time, Westbrook still tinkers with recipes in smaller five- or 10-gallon batches. In preparation for a beer dinner at Mellow Mushroom last January, he seasoned five gallons of oatmeal stout with chiles, cinnamon, vanilla, and cocoa nibs.
"I called that the Molé Stout. It was phenomenal — super chocolatey with a nice little spice. When it was gone, it was gone. We might make another one this winter."
Up next came a Belgian Tripel. "We made a full batch [1,000 gallons] of that one," says Westbrook. "We aged half of it in tanks and released it, but we put the other half in oak barrels to age for a much longer time."
Westbook's most recent specialty brews range from old-school styles to experimental hybrids. The very hoppy Citra Rye Pale Ale is made with the grassy and fruity Citra hops variety. Light-bodied but smoky, the Smoked Schwartz Ale is brewed with German pils, carafa, and smoked malts. This spring, Westbrook offered small amounts of very dark, cask-conditioned traditional English Mild ale, which came out darker than the UK versions. The new Cowboy Meets Farmer is a Belgian-style blonde ale, dry hopped with copious amounts of citrusy and flowery Amarillo hops.
A new Saison ale in the tank is due in August. It might be the first beer they've bottled since opening. "We've been too busy brewing to bottle," says Westbrook. "We can bottle, but it's really low-tech. There's no filtering or pasteurization. It's a six-spout, gravity wine filler. The beer is flat when it goes in, and we prime it with additional yeast and sugar."
The biggest and boldest of the bunch might be the very limited-edition Belgian Quad, a reddish/black strong ale inspired by the Trappist brewers of Belgium. At a hefty 9 percent a.b.v., the Quad is full-bodied, rich, and malty with hints of raisins and figs in the finish.
Coming up next, Westbrook has plans to craft an Americanized version of the traditional London-style bitter and a dark sour ale that will be a collaboration with the Charleston Beer Exchange.
The wild variety of specialties reflects Westbrook's open-minded approach. He's equally excited by the idea of designing an unusual new recipe from scratch as he is by putting a slight twist on an authentic rendition of a classic beer style.
Westbrook Brewing and Queen Anne's Revenge present a five-course beer dinner at 7 p.m. on Thurs. July 21. $35.