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Friday, June 22, 2017
For a change of pace, I veer away from my usual political writing to celebrate a long-held tradition: the handcrafted beer. Beer is often described as an acquired taste, and with the rapid expansion of the microbrewery industry in South Carolina, this is an excellent time to explore the many varieties of the concoction that Benjamin Franklin endearingly referred to as “proof that God loves us.”
I am a newcomer to beer, a late bloomer. At least, my taste buds are. I never took to liking beer until just a few years ago, and it was a slow evolution, thereafter. My beer journey began with Spartanburg-based R. J. Rockers’ “Son of a Peach” on a hot summer day with no other cold beverage options. I was pleasantly surprised by its dry, fruity quality — and it was cold. That was the extent of my beer experience for a few years.
However, drinking hard apple cider was a pleasure I quickly adopted during my travels in Britain many, many revolutions-around-the-sun ago. Combining a hard cider with Guinness stout is a British tradition they call a “snakebite.” (The name is less appealing sounding than the beverage itself.) Topping my dry, English cider with a stout was suspect, and I was too skeptical to risk it, until a decade later back in the states, the bartender/owner/friend at Big John’s Tavern encouraged me to try it. He promised I could order my old stand-by, gin and tonic, if I did not like the snakebite. To his credit, that Guinness stout resting on top of that hard cider was as lovely tasting as it appeared.
Veering away from the sweetness of dry, English cider and toward beer straight up has opened up a whole new world for my palate. Our sense of taste and smell change as we age, which is exciting, because we can continue to experiment and never get bored with culinary delights that we overlooked before.
The story behind the microbrewery and craft beer industry in South Carolina took a critical turn in 1993, when Palmetto Brewing Company became the first brewery to open in South Carolina since Prohibition in the 1920s, reviving a nineteenth-century craft.
Now, in 2016, the lowcountry of South Carolina is home to a dozen microbreweries, each distilling and selling its own unique craft beers: Oak Road Brewery, Summerville; Coast Brewing Co., N. Charleston; Westbrook Brewing Co., Mt. Pleasant; Frothy Beard Brewing Co., Holy City Brewing, Palmetto Brewing Co., and Revelry Brewing in Charleston; Freehouse Brewery, West Ashley; Tradesman Brewing Co., James Is.; Low Tide Brewing, Johns Is.; River Dog Brewing Co., Ridgeland, and Wooden Skiff Brewery, Hilton Head.
Craft brews are the offspring of science and art, reflecting the brewer’s expertise. Out of my own personal dedication to scientific research, I set out to determine how these local craft brews fared with local beer pubs and beer connoisseurs.
Richard and Karen Easterby opened Craft Conundrum in 2014, because they love talking about and drinking beer, so I headed there for a tasting and an education. Craft Conundrum in West Ashley, with 122 beers on tap, thirteen bottled, and one canned, is one of the newer brew pubs in the lowcountry that offers a wide selection of craft beers from all over the country and abroad. They conscientiously carry local and state brews.
For the sake of full disclosure, this particular visit to Craft Conundrum was not my first. Nor was it my first tasting. It was, however, my first tasting while conducting scientific research on local craft beers for publication.
As the seasons change, so do the beer offerings. Fortunately, I was able to help Craft Conundrum finish off their keg of Frothy Beard’s crisp, light “Melon Collie and the Infinite Seedless Watermelon Wheat,” an ode to the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 album. Frothy Beard describes it as very drinkable. I would describe it as extremely drinkable. That glass of watermelon wheat beer went down fast!
My first tasting was a hit!
Next item on the taste-test plank was Oak Road Brewery’s “Joggling Board Helles Lager.” That was drinkable, too, but it was heavier and hoppier than I like, so I moved on to the third tasting.
Early Autumn is the season for the Tradesman “Saison Pear Harvester,” made with Asian pears from Hickory Bluff Farms in Holly Hill. A Farmhouse ale, Tradesman successfully incorporates the pear influence without overwhelming it with the yeast, which is easy to do. On the drinkable scale, I say this is very drinkable.
The fourth tasting was Holy City’s “Washout Wheat,” named for the popular surfing area on Folly Beach. Wheat beers are popular, and the Washout Wheat is Holy City’s first in that genre. Wheat beers are smooth on the palate, but Holy City managed to bring out a subtle spice, namely the coriander. Nicely done. My third favorite out of the four so far.
Very similar to the Washout Wheat is the “Island Wit” by Palmetto Brewery. A fuller white ale than the “Washout Wheat,” the “Island Wit” has a bolder finish, meaning it clings to your mouth longer, so that you enjoy it longer.
Obviously, judging by my selections, I am a novice beer drinker. You may be, too. As the Easterbys will tell you, a proper tasting takes three sips, because each sip changes in your mouth. Don’t rush; let the flavors mingle and do their magic.
Coors Light is for guzzling during a game of beer pong.
Craft beers are for enjoying and appreciating the skill and passion of the brewer.
Taste tests can be affected by other factors, such as food eaten earlier, allergies, or perfumes and aromas that alter the olfactory senses. With that in mind, I think a second flight of beer tastings is warranted, just to be sure of the results from my highly scientific experiment.