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Myrtle Beach area offers myriad choices for beer lovers

The days of Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light aren't ending any time soon.

But if you ask Andrew Handley, the next progression of beer drinkers is starting to grow dramatically. Handley, the co-owner of Handley's Pub and Grub in Carolina Forest, believes premium styles are grabbing hold of Myrtle Beach."It's the wave of the future," he said. "People are looking to expand their taste buds. Most people, they'll try something new, but if it's a special occasion, they might buy something nicer.

"They might not like 98 percent of these beers, but they might like 2 percent of them. There are so many flavors."

Indeed, beer drinkers on the Grand Strand have more options than ever. Between distributors bringing increased selection to the beach and the state approving higher-alcohol beverages, the standard domestics are not the consumer's only choice.

Still, there are some concessions to make when drinking beer in Myrtle Beach. Because of the tourist population, the majority of bars are geared more toward quantity than quality. Budweiser, Miller and Coors products line most of the city's beer taps.

"You look at the majority of our demographic tourists who come to Myrtle Beach; we're a blue-collar tourist town," said Matt Duke, the co-owner of Mellow Mushroom. "They [the bars] set themselves up that way.

"It isn't like we're Las Vegas or an upper-echelon vacation place. A lot of bars look at 'how can I turn the quickest dollar.'"But that doesn't mean you can't find a watering hole with higher-quality options.

Establishments like Handley's, Mellow Mushroom and Gordon Biersch have proven over the years (in this state and beyond) that patrons will pay not only for the standard domestics but also the premium beers. At Mellow Mushroom, for instance, Bud Light bottle sales double that of any other beer. Wheat beer Blue Moon (once considered a microbrew but now actually owned by Coors) is No. 1 among Duke's 41 draft options - none of which include standard domestics.

But Duke's crafted beer sales have increased steadily since he opened his doors in 2007.

Further evidence exists: Duke said each keg of premium beer he has tapped at Mellow Mushroom has been exhausted prior to the 40-day window in which it goes bad.

"For none of it to go flat or old, that's a compliment," he said, adding much of that has to do with having more than 300 members of the restaurant's beer club. "The craft beers have been growing in popularity. Just how many beer club members we have, we know people are really willing to try new beers."

As with many other products, you get what you pay for when it comes to beer.

What consumers are starting to pay for now, nearly everyone agrees, is high-gravity beers. Vendors in Myrtle Beach and around the state received a boost when the state approve "high-octane" beer sales recently.

Before the bill's passage, beer could not contain more than 5 percent alcohol by weight. That limit has been increased to 14 percent, meaning means high-gravity beers are distributed across the Palmetto state.

Green's Discount Beer and Wine beer manager Tommy Johnson has noticed the change. Since lawmakers lightened alcohol-by-weight restrictions in 2007, high-gravity beer sales have not only begun, but shown signs they will spike dramatically.

"It's still fairly new," Johnson said. "In the next five, 10 years, those Belgium beers are going to be moving up the charts. It's getting to be almost like wine."

Local brewer New South owner David Epstein are trying to take advantage of the increase in premium beer consumption. While New South has been brewing for almost 11 years, it is close to taking the next major step in the distribution process.

By October, Epstein expects canned versions of New South's White Ale to be on shelves at local grocery stores. That change should increase what Epstein estimated to be about 5,000 kegs of production in the last year via about 60 restaurants and bars in South Carolina and North Carolina.

"We've definitely noticed more of a trend toward our products or whatever premium products are out there," Epstein said. "The growth has come mostly in our own market. We're selling more beer."