January 2014

C2 Guide to Fancy Beers & Local Breweries HHI & Bluffton

Author: Michael Connolly

Light, dark, cold or warm, with 26 different recognized styles of brew, enjoying a craft beer has become more than just drinking a beer. It is an experience made from local hands with a sincere appreciation for local food and love for one of man’s greatest enjoyments: beer. This simple craft that started hundreds of years ago is seeing a resurgence of passion, care and experimentation. It is the love of beer that makes beer more than beer, and paired with the right stemware and food, it can take your experience to a level previously untapped.

The popularity of craft beer exploded in California in the 1990s, with South Carolina feeling the ripple effects just a few years ago. It has been estimated that South Carolina will double the number of breweries in the state this year alone. A younger generation with a wide-ranging and refined palate commands this business demand that keeps brewers crafting new tasty concoctions. John Rybicki, brewer of Hilton Head Brewing Company, commented that lately fruit flavored beers like his watermelon wheat beer have been popular.

Juan Brantley, owner of the Hilton Head Brewing Company, is planning an expansion this year to meet the demands of his patrons. “For 20 years we have been here, and last year was crazy. We couldn’t make beer fast enough. We ran out of beer three times, and that’s unheard of. It’s good; it’s great. It’s never happened before. It’s a sign of the love for craft beer if you ask me,” he said.

The local brewery has just ordered four new tanks that will allow them to brew more and more different styles of beer. Each tank produces 1,500 pints. Plans also include the adding the ability to bottle their brewed beer—something they have never done before. “This way people can take a packaged product back to where ever they came from if they are here visiting or they can take it back to the house,” Rybicki said. “We do a lager, which is similar to a domestic beer like Budweiser. Last year we did a watermelon wheat beer, which I would say is a good introduction into craft beer. Flavored beers like that would be the next level that you could try that would help you explore your palate. We also make pale ale; we do an IPA [India Pale Ale] and an oatmeal stout.” Hilton Head Brewing Company currently offers five different beers on tap with plans to increase that number to eight.

Whether customers seek a fruitier beer, something hoppy or a darker beer with after notes of espresso and chocolate, most customers, during their stay, will order food—an opportunity for chefs and brewers to bring out the best in their beer and celebrate the taste buds. This food and beer pairing has been done throughout history, but craft beer allows artisans to take this experience to another level, serving their beer in glassware specifically designed for the aromatics of the beer, adding to the patron’s enjoyment. Chefs, too, capitalize on the unique flavor identifiers of their brew masters and create menu items and entire menus based on their beer. With a good cook and a good beer master, the possibilities are endless for holiday celebrations such as Saint Patrick’s Day and October Fest.

New to the Hilton Head Brewing Company menu this year is their cheddar cheese soup made with their pale ale and a broiled pork belly appetizer marinated in their oatmeal stout and brown sugar. Hand cut French fries are served with six different sauces made from their beer, and of course, all of the fried food is battered in their beer.
Though the number of craft brewers is expected to double next year, it does not necessarily mean that the competition will be twice as hard to beat. Craft breweries only make up six percent of the beer market share in the United States, and the brewing community sticks together promoting knowledge, experience and atmosphere. “It’s the feeling, the ambiance; it’s the craft—because you aren’t drinking a Bud Light,” Rybicki said. “This beer is more flavorful, more enjoyable and more everything than your average beer, and we take it to that spot. We take it to that level.”

For seasoned craft beer drinkers, websites like beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com provide a wealth of information and reviews. Those who are just beginning to explore their palates can visit Mellow Mushroom in Bluffton or on Hilton Head Island. Kim Boyce and her husband John are the owners. About six years ago, they started the Mellow Mushroom Beer Club.

The challenge: drink 100 different beers.
At Mellow Mushroom, the bartenders keep track of which beers you have tried, and through discussion, they can help guide you along your exploration of craft beer. “About nine or 10 years ago, we started to expand our beer selection,” Kim Boyce said. Abita was the first craft beer that was added to their beer menu, which now boasts a total of 105 different kinds of beer with the selection changing frequently. “It was cultural,” Boyce said. “People wanted to hang out and talk about the different beers. The beer club has really taken off.”

Jacob Cline, bartender at the Hilton Head Island Mellow Mushroom said, “It’s really for the person who wants to try different things. If you do the beer club, you will try all sorts of different types of beer. At certain check points along the way, there are small incentives to keep you going. When you finish you get a T-shirt and a mug with your name engraved on it, and we put your name on a plaque on the wall with the date you started and the date you finished.”

Some finish faster than others, joked Cline, who did it in about six months. “That’s a good pace; you are trying a couple of things a few times a week. It was fun. I learned a lot of things that I never would have. I’ve since expanded my flavor palate of what I enjoy, and it has made me a better bartender too. I tell all of our employees that even if you don’t drink beer, try a sample at the end of every shift and try something. It makes you more knowledgeable, and when people come to Mellow Mushroom and see 40 plus taps of beer on the wall, they expect to talk to someone who is knowledgeable about beer.”

According to Cline, a cultural movement is to be credited for the explosion in the craft beer scene. “It used to be huge in the United States; there used to be thousands of breweries. A lot of our forefathers were brewers: Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington— they all made beer,” Cline said. “Between prohibition and the world war, women didn’t like high alcohol content or the darker flavors, and they started to make the lighter lagers. When the men came back, that was the beer they had. During the war, a lot of breweries collapsed,” Cline continued, so the breweries that existed grew and grew. “In the 1980s and ’90s, craft beers started to come back,” he added. I think that the younger generation has really embraced it. It’s fun; it’s an adventure.” 

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