As the South embraces craft beer, these three pioneers are changing the way you chug.
Beer. The single greatest liquid known to man.
For too long, beer was just beer. It came out of a tap or in a can. It was roughly yellowish in color and somewhat grainy in flavor. Foamy and forgettable, it made you burp and made baseball almost watchable. Almost.
But then a few enterprising brewmasters came along, changed the game, and the craft beer boom changed the way we drink. Suddenly the pale tasteless bilge water we thought of as “beer” exploded into a mouth-watering variety of pale ales, stouts, bocks and Hefeweizens. From the stinging bitterness of an IPA to the mellow fullness of a rich stout, beer is now simply a catch-all term for a kaleidoscopic array of potent brews.
That genie is out of the bottle, and we can never go back to just sucking down flavorless lagers again. And that’s a good thing, especially around here, where the craft beer movement (and the loosening of some restrictive state blue laws) has resulted in an influx of talented brewmasters ready to put their local spin on craft.
Weep not for the Stone Brewery-that-should-have-been in South Carolina — there are plenty of truly local brewers who could make the Lowcountry the next big Beer City in the South.
John Rybicki’s favorite beer:
Firestone Walker & Three Floyds˜– Ol’ Leghorn. “It’s a barrel-aged blend, half barrel-aged blonde barleywine aged in bourbon barrels and they took the other half and dry-hopped it like an IPA. It’s 11 percent. It was straight-out the most complex, most impressive thing I’ve tasted in quite a while.”
WHEN IT COMES TO LOCAL BREWING, HILTON HEAD BREWING CO. IS DEFINITELY THE SEASONED PRO.
The “Brewpub,” as everyone calls it, has been in operation since 1994, and for years it was the only name in local brewing. Spurred by the early ’90s interest in what were then called microbreweries, the brewpub has spent decades offering an ever-shifting array of beers brewed in-house and served exclusively on-site.
Which is why it’s so interesting that other restaurants like the Lodge and Bomboras come so quickly to mind when thinking about local craft beer offerings, rather than the Brewpub. For a place so entrenched in the art of brewing, it just hasn’t cultivated that reputation the way you would think. Don’t worry just yet; the brewpub is a little late to the game but they’re making up for lost time in a huge way.
Brewmaster John Rybicki has been at the Brewpub for nearly two years, quietly putting out some of the best beer you’re likely to find on the island. You could even widen that net to include the entire South and it would still be true.
“The brewmaster for Great Lakes Brewery was in the brewpub, drank four double IPAs and wrote a comment card saying, ‘I’ve been coming here for years; I’m coming back and this time I’m bringing a growler. That was excellent.’ The guy didn’t drink one and say it was great. He drank four,” said Rybicki, who still keeps that comment card on his wall. If you know beer, you know Great Lakes Brewery (especially since it’s from Ohio and, statistically speaking, so are you). And if you know Great Lakes Brewery, you know that’s high praise (especially since their Dortmunder Gold is among the most delicious beers in the world. FACT).
So rather than jump on the trend of craft beer, Hilton Head Brewing Co. is taking the strategy of creating its own unique flavors, and it’s kick-started quite the whisper campaign.
“We’ve started getting a following in the last year. We have it now where the beers are solid; word spread fast,” said Rybicki. “Now when people show up, they show up with growlers and they drink beer. We’re progressing properly and confidently rather than jumping on the bandwagon and riding it because it’s hot. The Brewpub’s been here a long time. That was part of the fun of doing what we’ve been doing.”
That word of mouth has allowed Rybicki to do something unheard of in the Brewpub’s storied history: take it off-site. Starting January 2015, the Hilton Head Brewing Co. will launch a full-fledged canning operation off of Cardinal Rd., with five double-sized tanks pumping out 12,000 cases of Session IPA and Tropical Lager a year. That’s right; you’ll soon be able to pick up a six-pack of Hilton Head Brewing Co. beer at the grocery store. And so will countless tourists.
The new Hilton Head Brewing Co. will have 3,000 square feet including the entire brewing operation plus a tasting room, making for a beer with some serious local cred.
“We’re actually going to have the name, the zip code — everything across the board. We’ll be 100 percent the local ticket,” said Rybicki.
Finally, island locals will have a hometown brew they can call their own and tourists will have a tasty souvenir of their trip to paradise. It’s a huge undertaking not just for Rybicki, but for the Brewpub, and it’s a huge moment in the history of an island institution.
The Up-And Comer: River Dog Brewing Co. – Dan Baker
IT’S HARD TO OVERSTATE HOW VITAL RIVER DOG BREWING CO. HAS BEEN TO THE BREWING SCENE HERE IN THE LOWCOUNTRY.
Opened in 2012 in the nearly impenetrable maze of commercial warehouses of River Walk Business Park, River Dog opened with a handful of local brewing enthusiast and quickly grew into the local powerhouse of brewing. The early adopter restaurants (a moment of silence, please for our dear departed Fiddlehead Pizza, Bluffton’s craft beer pioneers) soon found themselves with kegs of River Dog running dry as fast as they could be ordered. (Literally – no less than twice I journeyed to Fiddlehead after seeing a Facebook post that a new keg or River Dog had been tapped, only to find that it had already been emptied upon arrival).
A place thirsty for a beer to call their own found it in River Dog’s flagship IPA (although in this writer’s opinion, the real money beer was the wheat beer once offered at Tavern 46, another late lamented Bluffton taproom). River Dog has returned the local love with a style and flavor that honored the Lowcountry. The first brew of their summer session series was called The May — now that’s some Bluffton pride.
It’s this local-first ethos that really appealed to veteran brewer Dan Baker when he signed on as brewmaster last year. A ten-year veteran of craft beer, starting at SweetWater then Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery, with a certification from the prestigious Verschucs und Lehrenstalt für Braurei in Berlin, Baker was itching for a chance to lead, and found it at River Dog.
“This was a great opportunity with a startup,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be in the driver’s seat managing a brewery; making not just beer, but big decisions.”
Beyond the chance to take the reins, Baker was entranced by River Dog’s unique sense of place.
“We like to say that we’re Bluffton’s brewery. We’re all about creating the Lowcountry beer,” he said. “We try to put out a good amount of styles and do a lot of experimental beers as well. Right now we’re aging beers in 90 different barrels. That’s something we’re really focusing on to stand apart from other beers.”
The experimentation is paying off, with this little-brewery-that-could putting out a dizzying array of beers, from the flagship IPA to the aforementioned May to a 7 percent “Altered State” red IPA brimming with Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado and Centennial hops. And that’s just scratching the surface.
“We have 21 different beers in the cooler right now,” said Baker. “Right now we just pulled out a Belgian red, like a Cherry Creek, out of a cabernet barrel. We’re calling it the Port Royal Sound Sour.”
And those beers will help spread the Lowcountry craft brewing gospel as they make their way to restaurants across the state and into Georgia.
“We’re seeing more and more growth. A lot of our brewery is word of mouth,” he said. “We’re seeing that people are really enjoying our beer and going into places and asking for it. And more of those places are starting to carry our beer.”
River Dog set out to be Bluffton’s beer. It turned into Bluffton’s ambassador to the beer-loving South.
Dan Baker’s favorite beer:
“That’s easy: New Glarus Belgian Red. It’s really hard to get your hands on. They don’t distribute outside Wisconsin.”
The New Guy: Wooden Skiff Brewing – Tayloe Cook
AS OUTLINED ON ITS FACEBOOK PAGE, WOODEN SKIFF BREWING COMPANY’S MISSION IS AS FOLLOWS:
STIR IT UP.
GO WITH THE FLOW.
IN HOPS WE TRUST.
Stirring it up, they certainly are.
This little brewery is already starting to make huge local waves from its relatively small location off of Mathews Rd. A contract-based startup, Wooden Skiff is the brainchild of Island-bred Tayloe Cook, and despite not even being 100 percent up to speed, you can already find Wooden Skiff beer in 60 bars from here to Charleston. And that’s just a start.
“I have a distributor in Tennessee. I went to school in Sewanee. We’re getting up there hopefully by the end of the month. From there, we move into Georgia and Alabama,” said Cook.
It’s a hell of a big bite for a fledgling brewery, but Cook is moving confidently in the direction of his dreams, fulfilling the brewery’s mission to stir it up.
“In 2011, my family went to Denver and my brother and I went on a tour of the local breweries,” he said. This fact-finding mission in the heart of the craft beer movement ignited in Cook a passion to bring a full-fledged brewery on the island he’d called home for many years. “We brought it down to a scale that was doable on Hilton Head Island. We put together a business plan, found some money, and pared back this big dream of a brewhouse to get something going on.”
But it’s not all business for Cook. The logistics of setting up distribution channels, leasing space and making inroads into local restaurants are all of vital importance when fermenting a brewery from wort, but they’re all just details next to the fine art of creating a brew worth carrying the name.
This craftsman poured his heart and soul into coming up with the recipes for his twin flagships, the May River Sunset Blonde and the Hilton Head Irish Red.
“The blond has a citrus flavor, with funky California-style hops on the back end. It’s been misdescribed as a pale ale. The red is my take on Smithwicks; malty, not very hoppy,” he said. When he was just a schoolboy at Hilton Head Island High School, Cook spent a lot of time as a potter, and he views that foundation of artistry as an essential part of his brewing process, saying, “I always enjoyed creating something from nothing.”
Tayloe Cook’s favorite beer:
Mexican Cake – Westbrook Brewing Co. “It’s a darker ale, but they let it rest on jalapeno and cocoa. It doesn’t sound like it would work but it does.”
Wooden Skiff’s beers emphasize the craft in craft brewing, devising a line of beers with a unique local perspective built on years of insight into Hilton Head’s tastes.
“Hilton Head Island is a very… Bud Light-centric market,” Cook said gently. “But if you put an IPA in their hand they’ll never drink anything but craft beer again.”