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The State of Beer in the Carolinas

Crowlers, seltzers, and coping with change

During the pandemic Edmund's Oast Brewing in Charleston pivoted to 32-ounce
During the pandemic Edmund's Oast Brewing in Charleston pivoted to 32-ounce "crowlers" (Dispatch Staff)

By Eric Doksa

Have you heard? Breakfast smoothie beers are now a thing. In fact, I enjoyed my first one about a year ago — a blueberry and boysenberry breakfast smoothie laced with banana, coconut, vanilla plus sunflower, pumpkin, and chia seeds.

Had this been served to me in a glass two years ago, I would have been certain it was a product from a health food company like Bolthouse Farms, but times have changed. This one was from Westbrook Brewing Company in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and it had an ABV of 5%.

The beer scene has seen a lot of changes over the past two years, from shifting consumer preferences and lifestyles to evolving business realities. COVID-19 certainly played a key role, but so did market trends that were already in the works before the pandemic hit. Suffice it to say, things look very different today than they did when 2020 opened.

Getting Fizzy

Craft hard seltzers have recently taken off in the South, especially in South Carolina. Hard seltzers were on the way in well before COVID-19, but the real surge began in the middle of 2020, a few months after Bud Light Seltzer hit the market.

Hard seltzers aren’t particularly new (White Claw launched in 2016), but now we’re seeing craft breweries adding loads of fruit puree and other adjuncts to take bubbly concoctions to a totally different place. In Raleigh, Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing is creating unexpected blends of flavors like dragon fruit, North Carolina watermelon, and Dragon Well green tea. Westbrook Brewing has fans hooked on key lime pie and pina colada hard seltzers.

Adjuncts like fruit, coconut, and chocolate are going into a lot more than seltzers. Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. in Charleston recently turned out a batch of Orange Creamsicle, a blond ale brewed with lactose and with vanilla and orange zest added. A recent Instagram post shows creamsicles melted in a pint glass next to a can of creamsicle beer.

These experimentations are examples of the extra mile breweries are going these days to stay connected with consumers. Every connection point counts, and businesses will do what it takes to keep people engaged.

A New Reality

With all the new challenges businesses have faced due to COVID-19, breweries have had to get creative to maintain strong ties with their customers. “It was really hard early on when we had to close the taproom,” says Mathew Smith, head cellarman at Westbrook and co-owner of Free Reign Brewing Company. “There’s no playbook for this.”

As though a global pandemic wasn't obstacle enough, Mother Nature had to throw in another wrinkle with a shortage of malt, hops, and other raw materials essential to brewing beer.

When COVID-19 first hit, brewers quickled shifted toward packaged beer due to the uncertainty of the restaurant market, which reduced demand for kegged beer. Cans, growlers, and “crowlers” (32-ounce or similarly large cans filled and sealed on demand like glass growler bottles) became even more important than they already were.

Filling a crowler at Edmund's Oast Brewing Co. in Charleston
Filling a crowler at Edmund's Oast Brewing Co. in Charleston (Dispatch Staff)

Can supplies quickly became an issue, too. There was already a looming can shortage due to tariff and trade barriers on aluminum and other metals, and the spike in demand from the COVID-era shift to cans only escalated the issue.

“We had to deal with supply chain realities. With resource issues, vendors could only do so much, so we had to adapt.” says Sean Lilly Wilson, Chief Executive Optimist at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. They had to briefly switch from printed cans to wrapped, or, in some cases, apply printed labels themselves to cans.

“We had to get creative when restocking our can supply,” says Brandon Plyler of Edmund’s Oast. “Timmons [Pettigrew, Edmund’s Director of Group Operations] is a wizard when it comes to finding cans.”

With kegs taking the backseat and label approvals by the TTB (the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) taking time, some breweries had to default to filling crowlers. Then lack of crowlers became a huge issue, but breweries around town helped each other out by giving up surplus when there was a friend in need.

Legally Speaking

In recent years, state legislators have made both permanent and temporary changes that have helped breweries operate more effectively and get more beer into the hands of consumers.

North Carolina has seen more movement than South Carolina. The Tarheel State, for instance, allows for curbside pickup, and breweries can sell and self-distribute up to 50,000 barrels of beer per year. (Anything over that must go through a wholesaler.)

Legislators in South Carolina have made less progress during the pandemic, which has left breweries in the Palmetto State to largely figure things out themselves. Brook Bristow of Bristow Beverage Law points to a temporary change that allowed curbside pickup at South Carolina breweries and wholesalers. “Before the change, consumers could order beer and wine online, but they had to physically walk into a brewery or store for pick up,” Bristow said The change allowed for stores and breweries to hand off purchased beer and wine directly to the consumer (after an ID check, of course) without the consumer having to leave their vehicle, but that measure ended in June.

Bristow, who has been instrumental in helping pave the way for many breweries, cideries, and distilleries in South Carolina, says that while his law firm's interaction with breweries was down slightly in 2020, there’s been a big boost this year. “Part of it is that breweries and distilleries had a lot of time to sit back and mull over where they want to go and what they want to do. That and money has never been cheaper to borrow,” he says.

Adaptation

Getting creative with limited supplies, like raw materials and cans, only scratches the surface of how breweries have had to adapt. Early on in the pandemic, many figured out how to take advantage of what was already available in order to keep customers engaged.

While some breweries have permanent kitchens, the presence of food trucks at breweries has been on the rise. Food availability paired with large outdoor spaces has been a recipe for success, as consumers sought out open air and room for social distancing.

In South Carolina, breweries with the proper licensing can now serve liquor as long as food is available. This legislative change was passed prior to 2020, but it was one that many breweries embraced during the pandemic to expand offerings and bring in more clientele. Westbrook, for instance, created an outdoor bar out of a repurposed shipping container, which now sits under a giant canopy tent in what was formerly the brewery-side parking lot. In addition to the many beers on tap and in cans, they now offer cocktails, wine, and have a moderately high end spirit list. On occasion they’ll even offer beer cocktails with Plantation rum floaters.

Westbrook Brewing converted its parking lot into an outdoor beer garden, complete with a container bar
Westbrook Brewing converted its parking lot into an outdoor beer garden, complete with a container bar (Dispatch Staff)

At many breweries, glassware for each style of beer took a backseat to plastic cups and flights of beer became limited. Safety was of utmost priority, so reuse of serving vessels declined, while hand sanitizing stations infiltrated the scene.

Going Digital

Although a digital transformation was underway before the pandemic, COVID encouraged breweries to incorporate many digital resources they might not have considered before.

Virtual meet-ups and tastings became a thing. “We put on a lot of virtual tastings, something like 30 to 40 over a six- to nine-month period,” said Sean Lilly Willson of Fullsteam. Lowes Foods, with locations in both North and South Carolina, set up virtual tastings with several regional breweries. In conjunction with each brewery, they would package up an assortment of canned beers with goodies and host virtual tastings with commentary from local brewmasters. NoDa Brewing Company, Edmund’s Oast, and Westbrook all teamed up with Lowe’s for tastings this year.

To facilitate pickup, websites were revamped and social media presence was kicked into high gear. Many breweries started partnering with marketplace apps that allow consumers to quickly pre-order can or bottle releases, purchase event tickets, or join membership programs.

Derek Baugh, a local beer savant in Charleston, recommends the Oznr app, which is available for iPhone and Android. “Getting access to beer events and special releases has never been easier. All my information is stored in the app and I can make a purchase in 1 to 2 clicks, with access to many local and regional breweries.”

There’s also been an uptick in social media groups where people can share what they’re drinking and where — a safe bet avenue for socializing while having a beer for those that don’t want to go out and about.

Christopher Winn, co-founder of Tradesman Brewing Company in Charleston, started the public Facebook group, “Isolation Porch Beers” after the pandemic hit. The description of the group speaks for itself: “This is just a group for sharing patio pictures of whatever beer you are currently enjoying. We are all stuck at home so might as well take porch pics.” Winn recently touched on the importance of community, ”Ain’t no need to shi** on anyone’s choices. Drink what you like, stay safe, and share your #drinkpics.”

And really, it’s the entire community, businesses and consumers together, that has helped everyone stay afloat the past year. Sean Lilly Wilson said it best, “We all became consumers and we made sure we supported each other and went the extra mile for things. It’s about the community—supporting local businesses.”

Cheers to that.

About the Author

Eric Doksa

Eric Doksa is a freelance food and beverage writer based out of Charleston, South Carolina. A tech product manager by day, he keeps his culinary skill knowledge sharp by moonlighting as a food/beverage writer and restaurant critic. He spent 6 years as a freelance writer for the Charleston City Paper and explores the culinary scene wherever travel takes him.