For beer lovers and partygoers, the S.C. Legislature is batting .500.
That would be impressive if it was playing baseball or checking its approval rating. Not so much when it comes to messing with our cold beer and good cheer.
Last July, our esteemed representatives from the great state of South Carolina finally made it legal for breweries to give tours and serve up free samples to visitors. Coast Brewing of Charleston spearheaded the effort to change the law, which also allows patrons to now commemorate their tours by buying half-gallons to go.
Yay, lawmakers, but more on that later. Before we could even pat our elected officials on the backs, the rocket surgeons in Columbia committed a major party foul.
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Last fall, while making changes to the state's temporary alcohol permit law, the S.C. Legislature inadvertently outlawed beer sales at festivals that are not non-profits.
That almost meant no 3rd annual Myrtle Beach Beer Fest, or at least NO BEER at the 3rd annual Myrtle Beach Beer Fest. Who sponsored that bill, Sen. Buzzkill?
"Yeah, that was a nice surprise," said Beer Fest director Mike Shank, relieved that this weekend's event at Valor Park won't be dry regardless of the weather. "They temporarily rescinded the law until June 30, so hopefully they will change it before then. They had no idea what they were doing. Fortunately, common sense prevailed."
So roll out the barrels for Beer Fest III, which will feature more brands (about 120), more breweries (40 to 50) and hopefully more attendees (4,000) than last year.
The 2011 event also will offer more hard-to-find beers and more brewery representatives on site, including Samuel Adams, Allagash, Thomas Creek and Highland.
Plus Gordon Biersch, a national brewery with an outlet at Market Common, and Myrtle Beach-based New South Brewing, which will add a local flavor to the festival.
"It's basically a celebration of beer and all the different varieties," Shank said. "It gives people an opportunity to sample different beers they wouldn't otherwise get the chance to taste if they were just ordering a beer at a bar. You can buy a special mug for $5 and try as many different beers as you want with discounted refills."
Brew pubs such as Liberty Steakhouse and Quigley's Pint and Plate have long been able to provide tours, but they are forbidden from participating in Beer Fest because of a state law that says brew pubs can only sell their beer on site. Gordon Biersch, also a brew pub, will appear via a loophole because its beer is nationally distributed.
But now you don't have to wait for an outdoor keg party to get a taste of our local brews. The new law allows Joe and Jane Six-Pack (but not Junior until he turns 21) to take tours of S.C. breweries, learn about the brewing process from grain to glass, try samples of the homegrown brew and even pick up a jug or two of their favorite beer.
"We only started giving tours last November and the response has been great," said New South owner Dave Epstein. "The craft beer market is changing. There are a lot more people willing to try something different and they're interested in how different beers are made. Now they can come in, check it out and take home a growler."
That's brewery talk for "jug", and you'll learn quite a few new beer terms when taking a tour. So first here's the Cliff's Notes to "Beer-Making for Idiots" (and state legislators).
Brew School 101
Old-school beer-drinkers know little more about their brew than how to open it. The tasty beverage inside might as well come from the Beer Fairy or the Ale Elves.
But the microbrew craze has created a new generation of suds snobs and beer nerds, probably kids who grew up playing with chemistry sets and Etch-a-Sketches.
Not that there's anything wrong with that: Some of my best friends are beerologists. But I've never felt the need to see where my beer comes from, or how it is made.
That all changed during my crash course on beer-making at four local microbreweries/brew pubs, where I watched water and what amounts to cow food magically transformed into the golden nectar of the beer gods. When I say cow food, of course, I'm talking about malts and barleys, but the leftovers really are fed to cattle.
But there's no fear of drunken cow disease because there's no alcohol involved at this point. Various strains of malts and barleys, which determine the type of beer, are cracked open in a grinder and cooked in a kettle known as a mash tun that separates the starches and sugars. That's called the wort, which is what we're after.
The wort is washed and often filtered into a kettle called the copper, where special blends of hops are introduced to the mixture to add bitterness, aroma and flavor.
The boiling process takes 1-2 hours and allows the water to evaporate, preparing the wort's starches and sugars for the most important step - the fermentation stage.
That's when the most magical phase of the process occurs, thanks to a handy little critter known as yeast. It's more than something your granny puts in her dinner rolls.
"Yeast is a living organism that eats sugar, pisses alcohol and farts carbon dioxide," said Liberty Steakhouse & Brewery brewmaster Mike Silvernale. "Give them sugar and they do the work."
So the yeast has its own sugary keg party for a week or so, until all the starches and sugars have been converted to alcohol. The batch is then cold conditioned at 35-40 degrees, killing off any micro-organism that survived the yeast feast. Lagers are kept at a lower temperature for a longer time than ales, for about two to four weeks.
In all, the brewing process takes about three to six weeks from grainy start to foamy finish, when it's time to tap into the holding tanks to make sure the final product meets the brewmaster's standards. It's also the best part of the process for those who take the tour and get to taste test the frosty brew, and it's well worth the wait.
But before we take a virtual tour of our local beer-making facilities, here are a couple of important points and pointers: One, for all the fancy equipment, you'll still see a kayak paddle for stirring the brew or a snow shovel for loading grains. In the high-tech world of beer-making, there's still a need for practical tools to do the job.
And two, the brew pubs also have restaurants to run. Request a tour during their down time, usually 2 to 4 p.m., not when they're in the weeds, for a better experience.
"I'm always happy to show people around and talk to them the brewing process," Quigley's Pint and Plate owner/brewmaster Josh Quigley said. "But your chances of getting a tour are better in the afternoon during the week than, say, on a Friday night at 7:30."
Now that you know the birds and the bees of brewing, it's time for a behind-the-scenes look at local beer being born. Even if you're a local, now you can a be beer tourist.
GORDON BIERSCH BREWERY RESTAURANT, 3060 Howard Avenue, Myrtle Beach
The Grand Strand's newest beer-maker, Gordon Biersch at The Market Common, is also the oddest when it comes to drawing a line between microbrewery and brew pub.
The restaurant is by definition a brew pub since it makes beer on premises, but it's also associated with a nationally-distributed beer from a successful microbrewery.
Based in San Jose, Calif., Gordon Biersch bottles and ships its beers across the country, but the suds you will taste at The Market Common site are made there.
Unlike small, independent microbreweries and brew pubs, where brewmasters can experiment with their beers, consistency demands strict adherence to the recipes at Gordon Biersch.
Enter brewmaster Michael Grossman, who moved from the Washington D.C. area to join the upstart Myrtle Beach store last year. He loves his new job and location.
"I've got friends back home who will call me up to tell me about all the snow and I'm outside wearing shorts and a T-shirt," joked Grossman, who worked in the brew pub industry in his native Michigan before heading south. "It's a great area and I love working here. I knew a lot about brewing before I came here, but I've learned a lot, too."
Gordon Biersch follows the German Purity Law of 1516 known as Reinheitsgebot, and also imports many of its ingredients from the beer motherland.
Namesake Dan Gordon, who studied beer-making in Munich, imported all the knowledge he needed to brew some of America's top exports, winning four World Beer Cup gold medals.
Now with stores on both coasts and in between, Gordon Biersch serves up grade-A suds that span the beer scale. It's proof the little guys can compete with the Buds.
"America used to be all family-owned microbreweries that served a small area until Budweiser, Miller and Coors took over the market," Grossman said. "Now it's going back the other way. Smaller microbreweries are popping up and being successful in their regions. It gives beer drinkers more options, and that's always a good thing."
Surprisingly, Gordon Biersch's brew room is hidden in the back corner of the expansive restaurant. It doesn't have to show off its shiny equipment; the proof is in the pint.
The Golden Export lager is similar to what most Americans are used to, but the rest are more off the beaten path. The Hefeweizen, with a hint of clove and banana, is crisp and refreshing; the Czech Pilsner features spicy hops; the Marzen is a auburn-hued lager with a mildly sweet finish; and the Schwartzbier has a dry-roasted coffee flavor.
Gordon Biersch also offers seasonal brews and between-seasonals that give Grossman some flexibility to try different recipes (the Maibock debuts in April and a new gluten-free beer will make its way into steins shortly after). But in an industry that's constantly changing, Gordon Biersch sticks to a philosophy that is 500 years old.
"I've seen some crazy brews, but we stick to the proven recipes," Grossman said. "That's one of the great things about microbrews: There's something for everybody."
BEERS | Golden Export, Hefeweizen, Czech Pilsner, Marzen, Schwarzbier, Maibock
TOUR HOURS & INFO | Monday through Friday, by appointment or request
CONTACT | 839-0249, info@gordonbiersch, www.gordonbiersch.com
LIBERTY STEAKHOUSE & BREWERY, 1321 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach's first brew pub opened at Broadway at the Beach in 1995 and has served thousands of kegs to thirsty patrons from happy hour through closing time.
Although the sprawling establishment is as much restaurant as bar, the brewery is the centerpiece of the facility. Encased in glass in the middle of the restaurant, the maze of hoses and towering kettles are visible from all four sides and serves as a sort of Beer Oz for gazing customers. The Wizard is brewmaster Mike Silvernale.
"I had a guy come on a tour last month that said, 'I've been looking through this window for years and I always wished I could come inside this room,'" Silvernale recalled. "I was like, "Well, here it is.' It looks a lot more complex than it really is, but I guess there's something people like about seeing where their beer is made."
Silvernale has been in the beer business for many years before coming to Liberty in July. After growing up in South Florida and working in brew pubs from West Palm Beach to Key West, he and his wife decided to mix things up and head north up the coast to Myrtle Beach.
"She was more excited about coming than I was, but we both love it here," he said. "I was excited about coming in to a new place and applying everything I've learned."
Silvernale didn't waste any time putting his own spin on Liberty's established brews. He tweaked every recipe and even came up with a few new ones, including Coffee Porter. Coffee beans are brewed with the malts and barleys to give the beer a distinctive dark color and rich java aroma and flavor. It's crisp, clean and even has caffeine.
Another signature Liberty brew is the Raspberry Wheat, which blends beer with a raspberry puree (not the kind you buy at a second-hand store). It's sweet without drowning out the taste of the wheat.
But my personal pick is the new Hefeweizen, which Silvernale brewed to replace Liberty's old Unfiltered Wheat. The new version, served with a slice of lemon or orange, is rich and full-bodied (the same way I like my women).
The best part about taking the Liberty tour is they take place during happy hours, when all house beers and appetizers are discounted and there's always a good crowd. After "going up and down the river" (Liberty-ese for sampling all eight brews from light to dark and then back again), you can select your favorite for only $2.50 a pint.
And for those who fall in love with Liberty's brews, you can join the mug club and keep your own specially-designated glass behind the bar and drink cheap refills all the time. Cheers!
BEERS | Nut Brown, Liberty Lager, Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, Coffee Porter, White Ale, Raspberry Wheat, Rockets Red Glare, Irish Stout
NEW SOUTH BREWING CO., 851 Campbell Street, Myrtle Beach
The phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" comes to mind when winding through Myrtle Beach's old warehouse district to the doorsteps of New South Brewing.
The Spartan surroundings and exterior hide the candy-store-for-adults that awaits inside. For beer drinkers, it's like finding a Willie Wonka golden ticket inside a beer.
Upon entering you are greeted by a wooden bar that runs the width of the room. But it doesn't take long to realize that you're not in a bar, but an actual microbrewery.
Visitors are greeted by owner Epstein or brewmaster Brock Kurtzman, who joined the 13-year-old outfit four years ago. The North Myrtle Beach-raised surfer and Coastal Carolina University graduate has learned the operations of the business from the ground up. His degrees in biology and chemistry are helpful, but not much.
"Ninety percent of what I do is cleaning and sterilizing the equipment," Kurtzman confessed. "I'm like a glorified janitor, but it's something I enjoy. It's a labor of love."
After one year of scrubbing and learning, Kurtzman brewed his first test batch. Now he brews several batches per week, including some of his own recipes and creations.
Because New South is the only local brewery that doesn't include an adjoining restaurant or bar, there's no need for the frills to make the brewing process look prettier.
It's a working brewery with huge kettles and winding hoses that connect each stage of the process. There's no need for fancy labels, just functional equipment.
From the grinding room, where bags of grains are stacked high and wide, all the way to the chilly refrigeration room, where the final products chill out for distribution, it's brewing the way it was meant to be. The New South crew pumps the beer into kegs destined for local restaurants and bars, and some White Ale goes into cans.
New South recently added its own canning machine so it can fill and seal its own brand of brew, allowing for a much broader distribution of Myrtle Beach's malty export.
"The cans are great because now we can get New South into grocery stores and golf courses," Kurtzman said. "We can make 20 to 25 cases in an eight-hour day."
Now tour-takers can carry home a sixer of White Ale or a growler of their favorite brew. But the best part of the tour is the taste test, and I passed it with flying colors.
The White Ale is a Belgian wheat beer with a golden color and citrus finish. It's New South's most popular brand.
The Dark Star, a rich porter with a roasty malt flavor; and the Lager, a 2001 Great American Beer Festival award winner, is as good as any I've ever tasted.
BEERS |Nut Brown, Lager , India Pale Ale, Oktoberfest, Dark Star, White Ale
TOUR HOURS & INFO | 3-5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays
CONTACT | 916-2337 or visit www.newsouthbrewing.com
QUIGLEY'S PINT AND PLATE, 257 Willbrook Blvd., Pawleys Island
Owner Quigley has had a hand in just about every local brew at some time during the past 16 years, helping open Liberty and later co-launching New South.
Four years ago he decided to take matters into his own hands, along with partner Michael Benson, and open Pawleys Island's first and only brew pub, sort of.
"Most brew pubs also happen to be restaurants; we're a restaurant that also happens to make its own beer," Quigley explained. "Some places show off their shiny kettles and make a big deal out of it, but we keep the brewery to the side if people want to see it. We've had a lot of customers not even realize they're in a brew pub."
Hidden to the side is a scaled-back version of the multi-kettle systems Quigley operated at Liberty and New South. That means he must constantly stay on top of the brewing process, always keeping different beers in the rotation to make sure the restaurant never runs dry of the recipes that have been brewing in his brain for years.
"The good thing about having your own place is you can experiment with different recipes," Quigley said. "At Liberty I had a lot of flexibility to do different things. As long as people liked the beer and no one complained, it was no problem. But now if I have an idea I don't have to run it through corporate headquarters to approve it."
Some national-chain breweries require each store's brewmasters to send samples of the product to headquarters for testing to ensure the consistency of the beers. Quigley says he constantly tweaks his recipes and takes advantage of seasonal changes to try something new, such as Oktoberfest or the March release of Irish Stout.
"I've known a lot of good brewers who are very knowledgeable about making beer - except that they are making it for the customers," Quigley said. "They think they have it down exactly the way it's supposed to be even if people don't like it. I'm making beer for my customers, so to me it's not an exact science; it's more of an art form."
The proof is in the liquid pudding, and I was pleasantly surprised by how distinctive Quigley's brews really are, not knockoffs of his previous employers. The Peach Wheat is truly different and isn't as sweet as it sounds. The Shakedown Wheat is my favorite, but I also enjoyed the Swamp Fox IPA, Black Lager and Nut Brown Ale.
There are advantages in being the little guy, but not necessarily when it comes to taking a tour. Pint and Plate is a working brewery in fairly tight quarters and almost everything can be seen through glass windows on the outside of the restaurant. You also need to pick a good time to take a tour, not when the place is packed.
BEERS | Nut Brown Ale, Longboard Lager, Shakedown Wheat, Peach Wheat, Irish Stout, Neck Red, Swamp Fox IPA, Black Lager
TOUR HOURS & INFO | By request or appointment
CONTACT | 237-7010, e-mail available through Web site, www.pintandplate.com