If you're visiting South Carolina and are a fan of craft beers, you face a prospect that is either exciting or daunting. With nearly 50 craft beer breweries and brewpubs spread across the state, in both large cities and small towns, and with most producing between an half-dozen and a dozen different beers at any time - not counting specialty and "one-off" beers - you're looking at sampling up to 500 beers to get a comprehensive look (and taste) of the Palmetto State's brew scene.
Obviously, even the most avid beerophile doesn't have the time (or capacity) to sample every beer made in South Carolina. So, with the knowledgeable assistance of Andrew Johnson, owner/operator of Columbia craft beer bar Craft and Draft (2706 Devine Street, www.craftanddraft.com), which carries a variety of SC and other beers, here's a "bucket list" of 10 of the best of SC's malty, hoppy goodness that you should not miss.
Note: Some of these are not available all the time (most on this list are available this spring and summer), but all are worth looking for.
Mexican Cake, Westbrook Brewery, Mount Pleasant (available in early May 2017)
This is generally recognized as the king of SC craft beers - when you can find it; deliveries to Craft and Draft and elsewhere sell out quickly. "Edward and Morgan Westbrook have been brewing this wedding anniversary beer since they've been open," Johnson says. "It's an unorthodox take on an imperial stout, with additions of cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon and habanero peppers that make for a very complex and satisfying taste. And at 10.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), it's a solid nightcap."
Boy King, Coast Brewing, North Charleston (check for availability)
"Boy King is probably my favorite beer," Johnson says. "It's a perfectly-balanced double IPA loaded with juicy, resinous hops up front and a malty sweetness on the end. This beer goes with just about anything, especially a porch-sitting summer night." And coming in 16-ounce "true pint" cans, there's plenty to enjoy.
Kolumbianer Kolsch, Bierkeller Brewery, Columbia (available year-round)
Bierkeller is noted for its "pop-up" beer gardens that are staged around the Midlands. As such, its products are sometimes hard to find, simply because of being brewed in limited quantities (at Swamp Cabbage Brewery), but "this light-bodied German-style ‘lagered' ale has a low ABV and a super-crisp finish that compliments these triple-digit Columbia summers perfectly," Johnson says.
Hefeweizen, Brewery 85, Greenville (available year-round)
Brewery 85 operates its taproom and brewery within shouting distance of Interstate 85, hence the brewery's name. "This all-local take on the classic German-style wheat ale is the perfect light-bodied but super-satisfying answer to a scalding hot summer afternoon," Johnson says. "The hints of banana and clove create a calmly-refreshing body that finishes with a hint of spice."
Ashley Farmhouse Ale, Freehouse Brewery, North Charleston (available year-round)
Freehouse distributes around the state, mostly selling its beer in "bomber" bottles, and this is "one of the best saisons in South Carolina," Johnson says. "Their version is light in body, medium in floral essence, and clean and crisp in finish." Since it comes in the large bottle, "if there's a patio on any bar or taproom where it's available, I suggest planting yourself there with one of these." Smaller servings are available at the brewery's tasting room, too.
Paradise IPA, Holy City Brewing, Charleston (available spring-summer)
For drinkers fond of IPAs but looking for lower alcohol content, this session IPA is a great thirst-quencher and one you can drink all you want. "There's nothing like enjoying a low-ABV session IPA to cut the South Carolina summer heat," Johnson says. "Paradise, a ‘hop-forward' ale with hints of grapefruit, mango, and lemongrass, finishes with an ever-so-slight hint of malt sweetness. But the hops do the talking in this one."
ESB, Hunter-Gatherer brewpub, Columbia (available year-round, on tap or growler)
Columbia's original home for local craft beers, Hunter-Gatherer regularly pours its ESB (extra special bitter), a popular English-style ale that makes you think of a visit to a London pub. "This is one of my go-to beers in Columbia," Johnson says. "It pours amber in color, has a medium, caramel-rich backbone, and a very light bitterness to finish." It's also a great beer to pair with food from Hunter-Gatherer's eclectic kitchen.
Funkmaster Brett IPA, Revelry Brewery, Charleston (available year-round)
A relatively new addition to the bustling Charleston craft beer scene - there are nearly 20 breweries in the area ranging north to Summerville - Revelry has created a solid lineup, and "this is probably Revelry's best year-round beer," Johnson says. "The hop character matches the earthy bitterness perfectly and finishes with a hint of fruitiness."
Bohemian Pilsner, River Rat Brewery, Columbia (available spring-summer)
Columbia's most aggressive (marketing-wise) brewers offer a large lineup of anytime beers as well as specialty brews; at its third anniversary, River Rat had more than 30 on tap. But "there's a reason the pilsner won a bronze medal at (the 2016) World Beer Cup," Johnson says. "The light but satisfying backbone of this beer complements the slightly sharp finish that's delivered by additions of Bavarian hops, making this true-to-form beer a must-have after a nice summer run."
Key Lime Gose, Westbrook Brewery, Mount Pleasant (available summer)
One of the hottest recent beer trends is gose (pronounced go-SAY) or "sour" beers, and "Westbrook revived the style out of near extinction with a perfectly tart, sour, salty, and refreshing German-style wheat ale," Johnson says. "The key lime is a perfectly-described and brewed version of their regular Gose, with hints of lime sourness, vanilla sweetness, and a wheat-forward finish."