Listening to Richard Strauss as he conducts a tour of his Columbia Craft Brewing Company, you get the impression that, as a certified public accountant - his previous occupation - he probably was the guy you'd want doing your taxes: meticulous, patient and passionate to get it right.
Even if you're mostly interested in his end product - craft beer from Columbia's newest brewery, which opened Nov. 30, 2017 - Strauss is likely to walk you through the entire process, starting with milling his own grain (from a supplier in beer-crazy Asheville), to piping filtered water into glistening steel tanks, all the way through to the taps that dispense nine varieties of craft beer. His "tutorial" is likely to include such terms as "wort," "mash mixer" and "brite tanks."
The Columbia native and resident laughs at his current obsession with brewing. Until 2014, he and his family ran a real estate firm in Gatlinburg, Tenn. along with his CPA business. When, after 30 years, Strauss decided to retire and "do something in South Carolina," friends in Asheville, aka "Beer City USA," turned him on to home brewing.
"My wife (Terri) encouraged me to get into beer-making," Strauss, 61, says. "She said I needed a hobby. This is what we got."
In fact, three years before Columbia Craft Brewing became a reality, Strauss was creating beers in a bathtub. Now, that "hobby" has become Columbia's fifth craft brewery, located at 520 Greene Street, former site of Columbia Flag & Banner, a block off Huger Street at Pulaski Street and a stone's throw from the Columbia Vista.
Columbia Craft Brewing - more on the name later - joins the city's older breweries: River Rat, Swamp Cabbage and Bierkeller, all of whom Strauss refers to as "friendly competitors." But though he's the newcomer, Strauss intends to do things his own way.
Take location, for instance. The other four breweries are near Williams-Brice Stadium and the State Fairgrounds, but Strauss was determined to locate in the booming Vista area. "We looked at property around the stadium, but decided not to do it," he says. "I wanted to buy downtown."
He knew the Flag & Banner property was available, and one day in spring 2016, en route home from a USC baseball game, he saw a "For Lease" sign had changed to "For Sale." He purchased the property within 48 hours. "It was already zoned for a brewery," Strauss says.
The Flag & Banner building is gone, replaced by a parking lot, while its renovated former warehouse houses the brewery. The 5,200-square-foot facility includes an airy, 1,700-square-foot tasting/serving room (plus an outdoor sitting area) that can seat 100-125, and the 3,500-square-foot brewing operation.
Across Pulaski is Greene Crossing Flats, an apartment development, where a planned bridge over the railroad tracks, due in late 2018, will extend Greene and make Columbia Craft Brewing accessible from the Vista for cars, cyclists and pedestrians. "We wanted a great location where we could tap into Columbia's resurgence," Strauss says. "It was important to get into the middle of the Vista foot traffic."
But he and his family weren't just interested in the business side. "With craft beer, you can't be too ‘corporate,'" he says. "It is a business, but you have to, first, brew good beer, and then do it consistently. I wanted to make beer that I'd want to drink."
Enter brew master Shaun Piggott. Strauss met the Tampa resident and Central Florida graduate at a brewing business forum, where Piggott's resume included stints at the Siebel Institute, a brewing science school based in Chicago and Germany. He was hired and arrived in Columbia in January 2017.
Most Columbia Craft Brewing beers are "Shaun's recipes," Strauss says. Year-round staples include the Famously Hop IPA (that's a takeoff on Columbia's ‘Famously Hot' slogan and a registered trademark), a German Helles-style Pale Lager, the Pulaski Porter, the Road Rage Red and a session pale ale dubbed 00Session (and pronounced "Double-O Session").
Piggott also will brew on a rotating basis a variety of weisse (wheat) beers and fruit sours with low alcohol by volume (ABV) content. The tasting room has nine taps, with room for three more.
"We'll always rotate some fruit sours, a Belgian strong ale, the wheat beers," Piggott says. Also in the works are a double IPA and a Doppelbock. "We'll get feedback from customers," he says. "Nothing's set in stone."
Well, except for that trademarked brewery name, which Strauss wanted to indicate his hometown location. "We wanted to penetrate the market with a brand identity, and latch onto the Columbia name," he says. "Famously Hop" IPA is part of that, as is the brewery's domain name (columbiacraft.com). Even the logo features a star in the center of the letter A in "Craft" - like a star on a map that indicates a state capital.
Columbia was ready for another brewery, Strauss says, noting that while such beer hotbeds as North Carolina, Vermont, Oregon and California average 3-5 craft breweries per 100,000 drinkers, Columbia's average is 0.8 per 100,000. "We lag behind the leading craft brewery states," he says.
Now, Strauss and his family are doing their part to change that. Besides - let's face it - brewing beer is probably a lot more fun than preparing taxes used to be.