As HGTC’s brewing program nears approval, beermakers say timing is right

Thomas Lucas, owner of Homebrewer's Pantry in Conway, looks at the clarity of submitted samples of home-brewed beer during a Friday night beer tasting at the store.
Thomas Lucas, owner of Homebrewer's Pantry in Conway, looks at the clarity of submitted samples of home-brewed beer during a Friday night beer tasting at the store. For The Sun News

Before opening The Homebrewer’s Pantry, Thomas Lucas didn’t know how many people thirsted for their own craft beer.

A year later, the trend is obvious.

“We’ve really tripled what we thought we were going to do,” the Conway store owner said. “We had about 20 people that we knew homebrewed ... We’re like, ‘If those guys come in twice a month, we’ll keep the lights on.’ And honestly, that’s not even a fraction of the people that are coming in.”

Although the craft beer craze swept through the country’s larger cities years ago, in some ways it’s just beginning to brew on the Grand Strand. Industry leaders say several beer-related businesses are trying to get off the ground, but the biggest boon to the suds supply could be the new brewing program at Horry-Georgetown Technical College.

“It’s in high demand,” said college spokeswoman Mary Eaddy. “We’ve had calls about that program from all over the world.”

Last month, the program received approval from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. Should the associate’s degree earn the blessing of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, it would be the first program of its kind in the state. College officials expect the approval process to take about six to eight months with the first brewing, distillation and fermentation majors taking classes in the fall of 2016.

“I feel certain that it will be approved by them,” said Marilyn Fore, HGTC’s executive vice president for academic affairs. “But their approval is necessary for it to go on to be recognized by the [U.S.] Department of Education.”

Local beermakers insist the program will arrive at an ideal time for the Grand Strand, which is finally embracing the craft beer movement.

“Even though we only have three brew-pubs and one production-style brewery, I do see it growing immensely over the next five years down here,” said Roddy Graham, operations manager at New South Brewing, Myrtle Beach’s lone brewery. “We’ll be competing with Charleston with being one of the best areas for breweries in South Carolina within the next 10 years.”

New South has been concocting batches of beer for 17 years, but Graham said the craft beer fascination has only recently begun to gain traction here.

“We’re just now catching on in this area,” he said. “We’re about five-10 years behind some of the other major metropolitan areas with the craft beer. Now whether that’s because we’re in the Redneck Riviera or whether because we’ve got a lot of people that I call the 4-4-4 — family of four, comes down to Myrtle Beach with $400 in their pocket for four nights and that includes room and board — I just don’t know if they’d still want to spend that extra dollar on that craft beer.”

Lucas said his business mainly supplies the hobbyists, folks who get a homebrewing kit and eventually find they can’t get enough of the hop-fueled habit. Some even looking for unused vats to convert into brew kettles.

“It turns into an obsession,” he said. “The joke I always make is it’s kind of like a golfer. You can always tell an actual golfer because he’s always practicing his swing. His eyes are glued to every golf match on TV. A real homebrewer is constantly looking for better ways to improve their equipment. They’re MacGyvers.”

Lucas and Graham say the local demand for breweries and brew-pubs remains strong. They support the new degree program, which they see helping the industry by reducing the training time for new brewery employees. They also said the curriculum will cover all aspects of South Carolina’s three-tiered alcohol production system, including the distribution and retail sides.

“It will give everybody a more well-rounded idea of what everybody’s doing,” Graham said. “I see great benefit with that.”

So are there any new breweries on the horizon?

“I hear of people wanting to open breweries all the time and actually starting the first phases of it in this area,” Graham said. “People are hitting us up all the time: ‘Hey, can you guys give us a little bit of a headway of how we start this up, overall costs, things like that, and point us in the right direction?’”

Graham said New South’s brewer left the company a few months ago to launch his own business. Oddly enough, the presence of more beer-focused companies doesn’t bother those in the industry.

“We’re all on board for having more breweries here,” Graham said. “It’s not competition. That’s the thing. ... We could definitely stand to have up to five-10 more breweries here and really enjoy it.”

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.