Ask any craft brewer, in South Carolina or elsewhere, and they'll tell you what they do is a labor of love.
In the case of Kevin Varner, owner of Hunter-Gatherer, the "labor" aspect dominated his life as he worked through much of 2017 to expand from his two-decades-old location to a full-scale brewery. Established in downtown in 1995, Hunter-Gatherer was the first micro-brewery in Columbia, and it created a buzz long before breweries were trending across the state.
When Varner opened a second Columbia location in 2018 in the historic Curtiss-Wright Hangar at Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport, his venture grew some pretty big wings and took flight, elevating the brew-drinking experience for the Soda City crowd.
The Hangar is now a favorite hangout for lovers of great brew and those who simply want to have sips and bites in a super cool environment.
"Pulling all the miscellaneous parts together was 10 times more difficult than I thought," Varner says, remembering all the hard work entailed in the expansion.
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. 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 decision to create a rooftop Observation Deck, an open-air seating area for 40-plus with views of the airport, was a smart move as it is now a favorite gathering spot. Even inside the brewery, the views are awesome, too.
"I like the way it looks," Varner says. "We really didn't have a ‘concept'; it was basically putting a taproom, 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.
In addition to IPAs, ales, sours and lagers, the popular ESB (extra special bitter, a British-style ale) is a mainstay on the brew menu. As always, Varner brews every batch himself to ensure it meets his high standards. The hand-crafted specialty cocktails have developed a following, too.
The Hangar also has a kitchen with two large pizza ovens that produce "as good a pizza as we can figure out how to make," Varner says.
Your favorite pizza is likely on the list, including gluten-free and vegan options. There's also a variety of bar snacks like hummus, beer cheese and pretzels, sliders, nachos and salads that go great with a brew.
The Hangar is fulfilling its purpose, says Varner, as 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."
It truly is a place that offers something for everyone.
"This location is interesting enough, whether people like beer or not, that they will come see it."