Beer is good, and the business of beer is as good as it has ever been. Recently, the United States eclipsed 4,000 breweries, which is its highest mark since the late nineteenth century. South Carolina, thanks to progressive, beer-friendly legislation, is quickly catching up to the rest of the country in the craft beer explosion and is adding breweries at a rapid pace.
The latest addition to the Palmetto State is Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery in Spartanburg, SC. Two weeks ago, I sat down with brewer and proprietor Kolby Garrison to discuss the recent opening, why Spartanburg and what it means to be first brewery and cidery in state of South Carolina. It’s a great story and further highlights how we are in a golden age of quality, local craft beer (and cider in this case.)
Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery is located in a newly renovated building that goes by the name of Hub City Tap House, which pays homage to Spartanburg’s history as a textile town and railroad hub. The location has the feel of a modern beer hall with bench seating for communal socializing, a long bar with many taps and retail corner where customers can take six-packs of both local and national beers home with them.
It’s very welcoming, something Garrison was going for when he and his partner Michael Willcox first started planning.
That’s Garrison at the bright tank tending to the Kirschweizen.
And in a little over a month of operation, the Tap House has exceeded expectations. As Garrison explains, “It’s a diverse crowd. It’s all walks of life, suit and tie to Grateful Dead t-shirts and everywhere in between.”
While craft beer drinkers are often profiled as being hipsters or worse, Garrison hasn’t seen this in Spartanburg. Instead, it’s a town which has developed a taste for craft beer, which I discovered when I profiled Spartanburg’s first brewery, RJ Rockers last year, and is looking to find locations that can fill this demand. RJ Rockers has a budding tap room, the Growler Haus is thriving and now the Hub City Tap House is open in a town with an “enormous” room for growth. Garrison relates, “that’s been the thing for us to really pull in and grasp. In Greenville, even in Asheville …you know who your clientele is. Coming to Spartanburg, we didn’t know. We wanted our clientele to really be a cross section of Spartanburg, and we’ve really seen that. It’s been unbelievable.”
This is meant in no way to be a criticism of Greenville or Asheville. Both towns are just further along in the craft beer growth cycle. And Garrison recognized that there is strength in numbers in Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina at a time when beer tourism is booming: “Really there is so much room. We’ve heard people say Spartanburg is halfway between Greenville and Asheville, not obviously by the way the crow flies.”
While things are going very well since the opening, it was a struggle to open the doors to the public because of the Tap House’s dual status as both a brewery and cidery. Garrison explained that “it’s been extremely difficult. It’s been a good process, though …We have a great lawyer that is really helping us push our vision. Really it is coming up with the formulation of what is a beer and what is a cider because so many of ours cross the line of ‘is it a cider, is it a beer.’”
The lawyer in question is Brook Bristow, who has done an amazing amount of work helping to get laws changed in South Carolina to allow growth and to help breweries across the state to understand the industry from a legal perspective in order to be as successful as possible. He shares many of his observations about alcoholic beverage law at his blog Beer of SC.
Garrison continued by explaining the Tap House’s, to use a football term, triple option offense: “You have to have a winery license and a brewing license, so we are the first people in the state to hold the on-premise beer license, so we can sell RJ Rockers. We also have an on-premise brewery license and an on-premise winery license.”
The question of ‘why Spartanburg’ still remains. Garrison originally worked in Greenville, a city 30 miles down Interstate 85, which is much larger and would seem to be a savvier location for a new brewery. Nonetheless, the Baltimore native was convinced despite skepticism from different sources: “we spent a lot more time in Spartanburg …and really fell in love with the city. Three and half years ago, we actually planted a church here in town called CrossLife Church. So our hearts have really turned toward Spartanburg …There was plenty of opportunity to go back to Greenville and do this. The clientele was ready and they were waiting. When we told everybody we were doing this in Spartanburg, everybody said it would be suicide. But you can see it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we’ve got plenty of people here.”
Having established the why and the where, I turned my questions to the what. The Hub City Tap House houses both a cidery and a brewery, and I was curious to know what both the locals and beer tourists can expect. At the time of my visit, the first beer to come off the line was days away. The Kirsch Dunkelweizen was almost ready for the fall season because “we knew it was going to be October, so we knew we wanted to brew a dunkel. We were not as excited about the front end of it, so wanting to push the front end I grabbed 25 pounds of cherries and came in one day and Michael looked at me like I was nuts. But now we have a cherry beer, but it’s really a dunkel with cherries on it. We’ve never seen anything like that before, but we hope that’s the kind of thing you run into here.” I was able to get an early sample of it, and I agree with the description. I was expecting a lot more or maybe too much of a cherry flavor, but it was subtle. It was definitely a Dunkelweizen, but with a hint of cherries on top.
Another beer Garrison described was the Dead Men TNT, or Dead Men Tell No Tales, which was inspired by “a quote by Benjamin Franklin that says that ‘three men can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead.’ As I was thinking about that, Dead Men Tell No Tales kind of harkens back to pirates and …the Caribbean. The whole beer is almost a molé base, so it’s cinnamon, there’s lots of coffee, plenty of chocolate, but then there’s fun stuff in it like cumin and star anise. There is a little bit of clove in it. We brew it with a really, really clean yeast, so we get all of those flavors really up front with no yeastiness at all. And then we brew it into a sweet stout. It's almost going to be like a hot chocolate stout, not an American hot chocolate, but like a South American, Incan, Aztec hot chocolate with a little molé flair as well.”
As exciting as that sounds, Garrison, who spent 26 years cooking in restaurants, also takes inspiration from the culinary side in the ciders he has brewing. For example, “we will brew Tā Sī Dæng aka Flag Series. It’s a Thai cider with hibiscus and litchi fruits, kaffir lime and raw sugar cane in it. It’s been the one that people have raved about. It’s actually why we ended up in this business. After only brewing this for a year and a half, we took it to several local breweries and one national brewery and said here’s what we’ve brewed, and every one of them with arms around us said do it.”
Garrison, however, assures me that there will be plenty of IPAs from the “big experimental double IPAs” to a session series that will “focus on just the brewing technique and the ingredients. It’s not going to be how creative and out of the box we can be. [Our] simcoe warrior is just that. It’s a session IPA with simcoe and warrior hops. We do one called Space Helicopter which is galaxy and chinook. Most of them are named to help me remember what hops we put in it.” Craft sodas are also in the offing, with the first one being a pineapple, basil soda.
The future is bright for craft beer (and cider) drinkers in South Carolina. As Garrison explains when asked where Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery is going, he simply said “we’re going wherever we want.” The market is there and experiencing amazing growth, and the craft drinkers are strapped in (with a designated driver) enjoying the ride. Join us.
Harris can be found on Twitter @ohkiv where he is often the ornery, old guy talking (sometimes in German) about baseball, music and beer.