When Chris Baldwin graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2008, he already had an idea what he wanted to do professionally. It took him six years to learn the brewing business, and another two years to return home and start Columbia’s third brewpub, Twisted Spur.
“I worked in Colorado and Las Vegas, learning brewing there at Gordon Biersch (which operates brewpubs nationally), then apprenticed in Vegas two years, then ran a shop in Tempe, Ariz., for another year and a half,” Baldwin says, taking a break from running his seven-barrel operation in Columbia’s Vista entertainment district.
“Since April 2015, when I came back to Columbia, I’ve been out to do this.” His dream was realized when Twisted Spur – the name is “a shout-out to my (USC) Gamecocks” and the teams’ Spur logo, Baldwin says – opened in the spring of 2016.
Twisted Spur became the city’s third brewpub, joining pioneer Hunter-Gatherer Brewery and Alehouse, started in 1995 by owner/brew master Kevin Varner, and Lexington’s Old Mill Brewpub, which John Clinger and wife Kelly opened in 2013. Liberalized SC laws – which also fueled the state’s microbrewery boom – made the local craft beer business a realistic one for all three.
What distinguishes these establishments from Columbia’s three breweries (Conquest, River Rat and Swamp Cabbage), is their full-service food menus. All three strive to offer dishes every bit as intriguing as their beers.
At Twisted Spur – a bright, 5,000-square-foot space in a renovated warehouse, with exposed beams and brick walls, and a glassed-in barrel room – Baldwin touts organic steaks and meats that are cut in-house, locally-sourced vegetables and pastas, an oyster bar (“we want to have the best list in town,” he says), plus a selection of wines and liquors – and of course, the beer.
Twisted Spur has 12 taps available with four house staples – Deadhead Red, Fraulein Hefeweizen (wheat), Southern Belle Blonde and Red Rye IPA – and a rotation of specialty beers, such as a recent Chai Porter. Baldwin, who sells only his own brewed creations, says he plans to brew up to 60 beers each year.
Not far from the Vista and near USC, Hunter-Gatherer is a two-decade-old tradition with students, professors and others who like its dark, quiet décor, casual atmosphere and, naturally, its beers. Varner, who according to his brewpub’s website has “brewed every batch of beer at H-G for the last 20 years,” learned his craft at Hale’s Ales in Seattle, one of the Northwest’s original microbreweries.
The food menu is eclectic, ranging from appetizers (including hummus, black bean and veggie platters) to exotic main courses (steaks, chicken and even duck). As for Varner’s beers, four standards – a wheat, a pale ale, an ESB (extra-special bitter, an English style) and a dark beer, porter or stout – are complemented by such rotating beers as H-G’s Plain X Stout, Ye Olde Bastarde, Black Patent Ale and more.
“When Kevin finished college, he went to Seattle because he’d always been interested in brewing,” says his mother, Nancy. “He and others worked to get the (state’s beer) law changed so we could open as a brewpub, and the changes have helped us all.”
It's been so successful that Hunter-Gatherer is opening a second location at the historic Curtis-Wright Hanger at Owens Field, Columbia’s municipal airport. There, in addition to a taproom and observation deck, Varner has a 17-barrel brew house with bottling and kegging lines, enabling H-G to sell beers off-site, just as breweries Conquest and River Rat do.
Another site with history is Old Mill Brewpub, which is in a 125-year-old cotton mill overlooking Lexington Mill Pond that has hand-hewn beams and exposed brick walls. Brew master Matt Rogers – who Clinger says has “the Midas Touch” when it comes to beer – runs the pub’s three-and-a-half-barrel operation, producing a rotation of beers, with three on tap at any time.
Among past brews are Blowfish Island Brown Ale, Coffee Stout, Spillway IPA, Dark Chocolate Stout Nitro, local favorite Pineapple Kolsch, a pumpkin porter and Strawbaby Wheat, which used local organic strawberries. Old Mill offers traditional pub fare including burgers and shaved prime rib sandwiches, fish and chips, shrimp and grits, blackened chicken, and appetizers such as Buffalo chicken dip and a crab-dipped large, soft pretzel.
Clinger has been in the restaurant business since 1976, when he was a 14-year-old dishwasher, and operated taverns in Pennsylvania before moving to South Carolina in 2001 to manage a restaurant chain. Like Varner before him and Baldwin more recently, Clinger saw the potential in offering good food and local beer to stand out in a market once dominated by chains.
Now, all three are on the cutting edge of a food and beverage wave, and their futures look bright.
“The craft beer craze started on the West Coast, where I learned brewing,” Twisted Spur’s Baldwin says. “It’s a revolution, and we’re a part of that. I want to share what I learned with folks I grew up with."
“It still hasn’t really hit South Carolina yet, but this is the time to be doing it here.”
Hunter-Gatherer Brewery and Alehouse, 900 Main St., Columbia; 803.748.0540
Old Mill Brewpub, 711 E. Main St., Lexington 29072; 803.785.2337
Twisted Spur, 705 Gervais St., Columbia 29202; 803.764.0203