The Lowcountry's latest brewery is tucked away in a business plaza off S.C. 170. It's a rather non-descript storefront, but when beer is brewing, that distinct, bittersweet smell wafts outside and River Dog Brewing Co.'s presence is known.
Just about every day, James Brown is inside with his two assistants tending to the hundreds of gallons of brew in various stages. Meanwhile, River Dog co-founder Josh Luman is on the road. He's trying to get River Dog on tap at every bar, restaurant and festival in the state. The goal is to become the premier craft brewery in the Southeast.
Less than a year old, River Dog Brewing Co. in RiverWalk Business Park is slowly starting to make a name for itself in the craft beer scene. About 500 bars and restaurants tap its brew across the state. The brewery is expanding into Savannah and plans to extend its reach even more when it starts putting its beer in cans later this year.
River Dog Brewing is part of a craft beer swell that's flooded the country over the past several years. Craft beer -- meaning brew coming from small and independent makers -- only constitutes about 6.5 percent of the total beer market, speaking to the dominance of Bud Light and its ilk. But its foothold continues to steadily grow.
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Last year the amount of craft beer sold nationwide grew by 15 percent, according to the Brewers Association, which represents independent breweries.
About 400 microbreweries or brewpubs opened last year, according to the association. So, while there's increased interest in craft beer, there's also more competition in an already crowded marketplace.
Locally, River Dog has been able to get its foot in the door because it's just that -- it's local. But the plan was never to just stop at the South Carolina borders.
The founders have the confidence and drive to make their brewery one of the best in the South. But that will only take the so far.
As Luman said, "We need to have a damn good beer."
They think they have that. They just need to get everyone else to take that first sip.
THE FIRST BREW
Brown has been brewing since the late '90s. He grew up on Hilton Head, returning after college to tend bar at various locales.
One late night flipping through channels, he came across an infomercial for a home brewing system. He made a call and soon was an amateur brewer. That lead to gatherings with friends to talk beer and try out each other's experiments.
About four years ago, he helped start the Lowcountry MALTS, a more formal collection of home brewers that started meeting at Corks. That's where he met Luman. Josh and his wife, Gabby, started the Corks wine bars in Hilton Head and Bluffton. Luman, an Ohio native, had become interested in craft brews since he spent a summer in Fort Collins, Colo., where Fat Tire was getting popular and a pint could be had for $1.
South Carolina had been a bit behind the craft beer craze because up until about six years ago, it had imposed a prohibition on beers with more than 5 percent alcohol. Once percentage was raised, it opened the door for people like Luman to start selling more craft and high gravity beers.
While Luman was a big supporter of craft beer, he didn't know brewing like the MALTS did. He'd hang with the group, drinking and listening late into the night. Luman said it became clear Brown was the alpha brewer.
The two beer enthusiasts soon became business partners. They started an in-house beer at Corks.
"We realized there was potential to do something big," Luman said.
The Southeast isn't the leader in craft beer world. There are successful breweries like Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta. But the region trails the Northeast, Northwest and, well, basically everywhere. They saw space for a good Southern beer.
Luman sold his wine bars. Brown scaled back his involvement in a audio/visual company he started.
They decided to go all in.
"Let's make good beer and lots of it," Luman said.
ESTABLISHING A NAME
About a week ago, Brown was up on a scaffolding, taking a temperature of a boiling 500-gallon cauldron of what will become his Coastal Wit Ale. (It's one of the four they're consistently making including a Pale Ale, IPA and a seasonal chocolate rye stout). Meanwhile, the finishing touches were being put on the tasting room that'll open Thursday in their 10,000-square-foot facility. It'll open the brewery up to the public, allowing visitors to see the process as it happens and taste the final product.
Brown describes the brewing process as being simple enough. Like any cook, he's just following a recipe. The point is to know that recipe inside and out. He likens it to a musician.
"Anyone can play guitar, but it takes time to get better," he said.
Luman calls him a "mad scientist" -- creative enough to take risks to create a unique beer yet disciplined enough to do that consistently. His latest experimentation is with used Maker's Mark barrels. They'll be aging the beers in the barrels, resulting in a beer with a unique twist
Brown said he knew fairly early on that he could be a professional brewer. Like how he built his audio/visual business, he knew once he became passionate about something, he gets the confidence to know that he can make it successful.
Luman is similar in mindset. He spends weekdays traveling to Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Charleston and Savannah. It's a wine-industry tactic he learned at Corks. It's called toting the bag. Wine sellers would stop Corks and let up tastings. He didn't really see that in the craft beer industry, so he decided to take their beer on the road.
Just several weeks ago he was in Port Royal at Fat Patties burger joint for a tasting. He sat, sipped and chatted up patrons about River Dog. Premier Southern brewer is a lofty goal. The road there starts at one bar, one glass, one sip at a time.