Ask any craft brewer, in South Carolina or elsewhere, and they’ll tell you what they do is usually a labor of love.
In the case of Kevin Varner, owner of Hunter-Gatherer, Columbia’s original brew pub, the “labor” part seemed to dominate his life as he worked through much of 2017 to expand from his two-decade-old location to a full-scale brewery.
The new facility – located in Columbia’s historic Curtiss-Wright Hangar at Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport – was scheduled to open the previous fall, but delays in both brewing and jumping through governmental hoops for breweries pushed the debut date back to Jan. 19, 2018.
“Pulling all the miscellaneous parts together was 10 times more difficult than I thought,” Varner says with a weary laugh. “I’m incapable of predicting how long things are going to take; I never get it right.”
Now that his dream is a reality, the wait was worth it, he says.
“It’s great,” Varner says, surveying the 13,000-square-foot hangar (built in 1929), which houses the 527-gallon brew house, a bottling and kegging line, a 1,200-square-foot tap room and an “almost mirror image” 1,000-square-foot event space – and a couple of extra attractions. “There were a lot of milestones.”
The first big one, Varner says, was making beer for the first time in the new location, after brewing at the original Hunter-Gatherer on South Main Street, near the University of South Carolina campus, since 1995. Next among the challenges was coordinating the setup of the new facility to be what he wanted.
“I’m mentally a do-it-yourselfer, so it’s hard for me to figure out what to do until I’m doing it,” he says. “I have a hard time putting things on paper. Coming up with everything with the architects and engineers, that was the challenge.”
The Curtiss-Wright Hangar promises to be a major step forward for Varner, building owner Scott Linaberry, and brewing associate Scott Fleming, former owner of Columbia’s Group Therapy bar in Five Points. The new space more than doubles the people who can be served.
And that’s not counting perhaps the coolest element: an outdoor rooftop Observation Deck that can seat 40-plus, with views of the airport and, through windows, down into the brewery.
“I like the way it looks,” Varner says. “We really didn’t have a ‘concept’; it was basically putting a tap room, kitchen, brewery and event space in here without making any change we didn’t have to.
“I think to have a business in here other than (a place for) storing airplane … the place looks right as a brewery,” he says with a laugh.
The Hangar, in addition to offering traditional (and a few new) Hunter-Gatherer beers, will have a kitchen with two large pizza ovens that will produce “as good a pizza as we can figure out how to make,” Varner says. The building will have a staff of four bartenders, one food deliverer and four kitchen workers starting out.
Fans of Hunter-Gatherer beers will feel right at home, too. In addition to the H-G staples – the popular ESB (extra special bitter, a British-style ale), the Trans Am IPA, a pale ale, a wheat beer and a stout – Varner will brew his new “Z” German-style Zweikel lager, and his “Plain X” stout. In the works is a hoppy porter, to be called “Black Patent.”
As for outside distribution, Varner will focus to start on kegging as “the most practical way for a small brewery to initially sell beer.” The plant also has a small bottling line to “build our brand by getting beers on store shelves,” he says.
But the reason for the Hangar, Varner says, is to create a special place for beer lovers and others, too. “We want to use the building as our biggest asset,” he says. “We want it to be familiar to everyone who lives in Columbia.
“This location is interesting enough, whether people like beer or not, that they will come see it.”
Similarly, Varner’s beers, most of them unfiltered, take time to produce – “you’re waiting on those, rather than filtering and being ready the next day,” he says – so for those looking for a quick in-and-out, the Hangar might not be their stein of brew. And that’s fine.
“We don’t have table service” – pizzas can be ordered at the bar – “but you’re welcome to hang out here longer than some places,” where a waitress wants to move customers out for new ones.
The Hangar vibe, Varner hopes, will be something else: a place for good local craft beer and relaxation. The project took longer than he expected to come about; why would he rush things now?
Jim Hamilton Boulevard, Columbia 29205