As the craft beer industry continues to expand in South Carolina, most new breweries and brewpubs can be found in the state's five major tourist markets. But the craft beer craze has hardly passed by SC's smaller communities.
Still, each brewery takes pride in its roots, and the towns in turn have been supportive of their local businesses. Here are four such stories, plus a list of one-per-town brewing operations.
Aiken Brewing Company
140 Laurens St. SW, Aiken 843.502.0707
Rob Pruiett bought this cozy bar/brewpub in 2003, but the original owners started brewing in 1997. Aiken Brewing formally celebrates its 20th year on St. Patrick's Day 2017.
"The previous owners jumped through a lot of hoops," he says. "They did it part-time and didn't want to do the beer/food pairings you needed to make it a success." Pruiett, though, had a long history in the restaurant business before taking over. That's evident in awards Aiken Brewing has won since: gold and silver medals from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and recognition for the "second-best burger in South Carolina" from InMyState.com.
"Our barbecue ribs also have been mentioned in Southern Living," Pruiett says. And television food shows have inquired about making a visit, he says. Still, it's the beers that keep fans returning. The bar offers as many as 19 beers on tap, with such featured brews as a German kolsch, a nut-brown ale, Old Aiken Ale, Thoroughbred Red (a nod to Aiken's horse-racing community) and a West Coast pale ale.
"We took a good product and enhanced it," Pruiett says. "We added new equipment and a fresh attitude, while keeping the high quality, consistency and affordability."
Pruiett has expanded an upstairs sports bar and offers live music, and the growth of the craft-beer audience is a driver, too. Too, having been around 20 years, "We had a heckuva head start."
2271 Boxcar Road, Lancaster 803.416.8422
Owner Bryan O'Neal calls Benford Brewing "South Carolina's only agricultural brewery," because the 1,500-barrel facility is located on the family's 35-acre Lancaster County farm. O'Neal, as was the case with many new brewers, began home-brewing for fun, using a "Mr. Beer" kit he received as a Christmas gift.
"You start making your own beer, and it's terrible at first, but you drink it because you made it," he says, laughing. "Then you figure it out until you get good at it."
Unlike brewpubs, Benford, which is O'Neal's family name, cans and sells most of its beer offsite, distributing to outlets across the Carolinas and Tennessee. Its top sellers include Problem Solver Imperial IPA, World's Problem Solver American IPA, Irish Honey Ale (blond pale ale), O'Soo Oyster Stout (oatmeal stout) and Smoked O'Hickory brown ale.
There's a small tasting room at the farm, but O'Neal says, "I have no desire to run a restaurant," choosing to hold quarterly on-site events. Mostly, he focuses on his beers spreading the Lancaster/Benford name.
"Everybody" in this small, former mill town "is supportive and proud of having a hometown brewery," O'Neal says. "People who grew up here, moved away and never came back, they say, ‘There's a brewery there? Awesome!' They identify it as their own. It's one little spark the town needed."
194 W. Palmetto St., Suite 348, Florence 843.665.9200
Often a stumbling block for start-up breweries is plenty of brewing knowledge but too little business savvy. That's why Shawn Steadman, one of five partners in Seminar Brewing, thinks they've had success since opening in 2010.
"Four of the five of us (including a doctor and two Francis Marion University professors) have home-brewing backgrounds," Steadman says. The fifth partner, Dave Peters, a retired executive with Land O' Lakes (butter and dairy products), "brought his business acumen to four guys who know how to brew beer."
That's helped Seminar grow from a local product to selling across South Carolina. "We wanted to create a place to supply good beer and educate folks on craft beer," Steadman says. "When we were able to meet local demands, (expanding) was the logical progression." Seminar isn't the only game in town, but Southern Hops, Florence's first brewpub, doesn't bottle or distribute outside the city.
Products include Citrocity IPA (comprising 60 percent of sales), Howler America Red Ale, Alpha Crucis (a lighter IPA), a wheat stout, a brown ale and Craver Porter, made with peanut butter. Seminar has collaborated with Spartanburg's popular RJ Rockers on a beer line, but the company still maintains its tasting room, and next-door neighbor Redbone Alley, a popular local restaurant, has Seminar beers on its menu.
"We're looking at expansion and would love to move to a larger space," Steadman says, "but we continue to have the tasting room for folks to come, relax and enjoy local beers. In the pre-Prohibition era, that's how it was, and it's a great business model for towns that can support it."
Swamp Rabbit Brewery & Taproom
26 S. Main St., Travelers Rest 864.610.2424
Ben Pierson answers to "the godfather of beer," with about 27 years experience in brewing, including a stint in Germany. He helped install nearly 20 craft breweries across the US, including beer-crazed Asheville, NC, before opening Swamp Rabbit in 2014.
"My daughters all went to Travelers Rest High after we moved here from the Midwest," Pierson says. He looked at Greenville but then found a former coffee-roasting facility in his adopted hometown that became his brewpub.
All three daughters work or have worked in the family business, which draws both locals and visitors, either en route via US 25 to Brevard and Hendersonville, NC, or hiking and biking along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which stretches from Greenville's downtown.
Swamp Rabbit is "not your typical beer bar," Pierson says, instead offering a European environment. "Weekends we get a lot of folks with kids, and we have games, cards, etc. for parents to play with their kids," he says. There's seating for 60 inside, an outdoor beer garden for another 35-40, plus seating for smokers and people who bring their dogs.
Pierson maintains four standard beers - American pale ale, a double IPA, an Oktoberfest-style Marzen and a white ale - and rotates seasonal brews, including a brown porter and a pilsner. After so many stops in larger cities, he's happy in Travelers Rest. "To me, it's a nice town," the native of Pea Patch, NJ, says. "I'm right at home, being a small-town boy. At first I thought maybe the size was wrong, but everyone here's been very accepting and they patronize our place." It's a local thing.