If you've ever spent time in Germany, you know how integral a part of life is the nation's love of biergartens, shaded outdoor areas where whole families gather to eat, socialize and especially drink some of the finest and purest beers in the world.
Scott Burgess knows. In 1993, the then-University of South Carolina student lived in Bamberg, Germany, as part of an exchange program. He wound up staying nearly a decade - and returned to Columbia with a dream of creating beers in the German tradition.
"I loved the entire culture built around beer," Burgess says. "It's a part of daily life, and people consider (beer) a basic foodstuff. They have festivals built around beer, and the biergarten is a central meeting place, like the British pub, in villages and cities. I love the fact that it's all so social, welcoming and relaxed."
In May 2016, he and his German wife, Carolin (they actually met in Scotland), launched Bierkeller of Columbia, a brewing operation housed inside the city's Swamp Cabbage brewery, producing a catalog of four German-style brews in addition to seasonal and specialty beers. Their first release was a sellout at craft-beer bar Craft and Draft, and Bierkeller has been on - pardon the pun - a blitzkrieg of success since.
"It's been phenomenal, from the opening day with 600 people at Craft and Draft, to our first Oktoberfest (held at West Columbia's Guinyard Brick Works), where we had 2,500 folks," Burgess says. "We went through 30 half-barrels that day" - his operation's current annual output is about 500 barrels - "and even now, we can't produce enough to keep up with demand."
Bierkeller uses 17-barrel tanks and contracts to use two of Swamp Cabbage's 40-barrel tanks, but plans are to expand in the future to keep pace with demand. Burgess says he's looking at property in West Columbia that would provide a brewery building and an adjacent shaded area for a biergarten.
Burgess also has an informal agreement with the Wurst Wagen, a Columbia food truck that specializes in German sausages, roast pork and other delights. The Wurst Wagen was part of both the Craft and Draft gathering - where "our beers were the first to sell out," Burgess says - and the West Columbia Oktoberfest.
While, as do most craft brewers, Burgess loves to experiment with seasonal beers, Bierkeller offers four standard beers: Kolumbianer Kolsch, a light, crisp and bright brew; Kellerbier, lightly carbonated, hoppy, a "farmhouse" style; Rauchbier, a smoked beer built on a Marzen base; and Braubier, an amber-brown lager. All are designed to be refreshing, and low enough in alcohol (from 4.8 to 5.6 ABV/alcohol by volume) to be drunk in quantity.
German beers are world renowned for their purity per the nation's historic standards, and Burgess' beers reflect that, he says.
"They're a good fit with Columbia, because we're pretty laid-back and relaxed here," he says. "This isn't a tourist destination like Charleston, but it's an easy city to settle into, and that goes with the whole biergarten thing. You come, sit and talk, have a few beers, the kids can run around; it's like an outdoor living room in Bavaria."
Bierkeller currently is available only on tap or in takeaway growlers. It's sold at beer outlets like Green's, Bottles and Morganelli's; at craft beer bars (besides Craft and Draft, others include Southern Brewed, Random Tap, Tap It and Keg Cowboy); and in local restaurants such as The Whig, Warmouth, Gervais & Vine and D's Wings.
Also, in addition to a fall German Harvestfest, Bierkeller is planning a spring Lenten Fest, a Mardi Gras celebration, a May bock-beer festival and a summer festival. Dates will be announced on the company website.
Burgess says expanding distribution to offer bottles or cans would require a large investment - and "we insist on keeping our beers cold, for freshness, so they'd require cooler space." Still, he says, it's possible. "I know that's something Swamp Cabbage (which also is only available on tap) is thinking about, and we're tied into whatever their plans are."
Besides, in South Carolina, a lot of socialization takes place at nearby lakes or, during football season, at tailgate parties, and for those, "there's nothing like grabbing a six-pack," Burgess says. Sometime in the near future, he hopes visitors will be grabbing six-packs of Bierkeller beers for such events.
That'll make those events sort of like their own mobile biergarten.