RJ Rockers and the Education of South Carolina Taste Buds

Harris King, April 21, 2014

When RJ Rockers first opened its doors on April 30, 1997 as a brewpub in Spartanburg, SC, the thirst for craft-brewed beer had yet to reach most of the South as it had in many of other regions of the country. Rockers, as it is known to it its ever-increasing loyal customer base, faced many obstacles, and where the southern brewery started and where it is today is nothing less than a success story.

I sat down with owner and brewer Mark Johnsen to learn more about the brewery’s beginnings and how it has grown as the craft beer industry has exploded nationally. As somebody who grew up in Spartanburg and is a lover of craft beer, it was something I was keenly interested in learning more about. Over the course of our 45-minute conversation, I discovered that not only is it a story of high quality, craft beer, but it is ultimately a story of an “education of taste buds,” while playing an important role in community revitalization.

Mark Johnsen first discovered quality beer while stationed in Bamberg, Germany following his service in the 1991 Gulf War. Upon returning stateside, the beer bug had taken hold, and he went in search of a suitable location. I asked him ‘why Spartanburg, why South Carolina’ and the New Jersey native replied, “that’s fairly simple, we were looking for a city that appeared to be on the cusp of revitalization and if you look at the history of some great brewpubs like Wynkoop in Denver, what it did for the LoDo area, …it almost singlehandedly resurrected it.” He continued, “that happened a lot of other places, and we figured we could do it here. Spartanburg had just announced the Renaissance Project [for downtown renewal], and we thought there would be some pretty good opportunities to set up shop.” From a personal standpoint, he added, “My wife’s parents live in Hilton Head, and I wanted to give the in-laws a fighting chance to see their grandkid without having to travel the globe.”

Still, why Spartanburg, surely there had to be many obstacles in opening up a new business, much less a brewery, and Johnsen confirmed my suspicions. He explained, “the biggest obstacle was the South was the last region of the United States to welcome craft-brewed beer. Even years after we were doing it, people would still refer to it as homebrew … And all along the way as we were getting steered and directed by good people, they were like: ‘Are you sure you want to do this because this is Spartanburg.’ And we did, and we weren’t from around here and we didn’t really realize how things were. We didn’t realize the grip that High School football had on the community, the impact of blue laws.”

And the newly-opened RJ Rockers on Spartanburg’s downtown Morgan Square didn’t immediately awake a long-lost, dormant love of good beer. Johnsen explains, “in our first year our best selling beer was Bud Light in a bottle. You would have people pompously walking in and saying ‘Bud Light!’ getting their bottle and saying ‘I got a Bud Light.’”

Slowly but surely, Rockers’ efforts started to take hold. Johnsen recounted: "They’d look around and there would be our regulars, our mug club members all at the bar, all holding a mug of beer drinking something that isn’t necessarily clear, that isn’t necessarily yellow, wondering what it is. Curiosity killed the cat, and when no one was looking and their friends weren’t around maybe they’d try one and think ‘that’s kind of flavorful, I actually like that, I’ll have to remember that.’ Or they would try our transition beer Light Rock because we would describe it as the closest thing we have to a domestic beer. People would try that, kind of like it, and then they would want to go out in the deep end and take their swimmies off and try the Pale and the Brown and the Stout and all the other stuff. It’s been an education of taste buds.”  

Johnsen describes RJ Rockers’ greatest success as a combination of creating a beer culture in Spartanburg, while at the same time supporting and helping the community to grow. “We’ve had fierce loyalty from our fanbase. Some people look at us as big fish in a small pond, and that’s hard to argue with. We’re the only brewery in town. There’s always rumors of somebody else coming in, we’re getting a distillery and that’s kind of exciting. Being downtown, being in the public eye, plus getting tied in with a lot of different charitable organizations has allowed us to put a positive, healthy face on what used to be something that people would almost look at as something derogatory.”

“The thing I am most proud of [is] this is the sixteenth anniversary of our golf tournament benefitting the Charles Lea Center. And in doing so we have helped raise well over $100,000 to help people with special needs and disabilities. At the end of the day, that’s what I am proudest of, our ability to do that.”  

Returning to the beginning, RJ Rockers was one of a handful of establishments in downtown where locals good get a drink and a meal.

“We opened and Abby’s Grill opened within two weeks of each other and all of sudden, almost overnight, you went from Morgan Square being completely carless, empty at five o’clock to having a serious parking problem just by introducing two restaurants. So it caused some congestion downtown that people weren’t willing to deal with, so that was a problem. There were used to dedicated parking, and if they couldn’t find it they would just go somewhere else.”

Today, RJ Rockers has a modern facility in downtown Spartanburg next to a local restaurant and right down the street from an independent bookstore attached to a coffee shop selling locally roasted coffee. In the downtown footprint, two dozen bars and restaurants are in operation where there were no more six in 1997. The original brewpub closed its doors in November 2002 as Johnsen and his partners made the transition to a production brewery. “We moved as the crow flies three miles north of here in an industrial park. We brewed our first batch of beer in March of 2003 and moved here in August of 2009. It’s great to be back downtown.” 

As the city has grown, so has the RJ Rockers’ customer base. “Our key demographic, like it is for almost anything else, is an educated male, 25-44. And with five colleges around here, we have a lot of education and a lot of [potential craft beer drinkers]. That’s the original demographic. When we started, less than 1% of consumption of beer in the United States was craft beer, and the goal of the entire industry was to someday get to 4%. And then all of a sudden it got to 6%. Now we’re trying to get to 10%. There are just more and more people drinking [craft beer].”

“As far as what class of people, whether blue collar or white collar, it’s all over the board now, just because you can’t watch a sporting event or something else on TV for a couple of hours without seeing a bona fide craft beer commercial or a craft-brewed style beer made by one the major producers, so it’s in their face. The whole country has gone back to where we were pre-Prohibition with over 2,000 breweries in existence. It’s everywhere. It’s a much easier sell than it was seventeen years ago.”

To go along with changing beer tastes in South Carolina, the state’s laws have also been changing to promote the business and culture of beer. In June 2013, the so-called Pint Law was passed allowing craft brewers in the state to serve customers on site up to 48 ounces of beer in a tour and taste setting to go along with existing growler sales. For Rockers, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays have become a destination for many of Spartanburg’s residents. As Johnsen explains, “it hit its stride and we have been averaging comfortably over 200 people every Thursday [with] a lot of regulars, some newcomers, but especially on a nice night like tonight it’s a really nice way for people to either start their evening or if they’re older to end it … Our Fridays with the live music has grown quite a bit and even Saturdays are starting to get more popular.”

The pint law is just the beginning according to the Johnsen, who expects a new law to be passed this June, thus making the state even more business and consumer friendly, while at the same time being more attractive for breweries such as Stone and Deschutes as they search for a location on the East Coast.

“It would be, as I understand it, the ability to have dual licensing, which would mean we’re a microbrewery and a brewpub, which would mean we could serve beer, wine or other people’s beer for consumption on premise. We can still sell our limit of a case of beer per person, per day as a production brewery and we can sell growlers to go as well … the wholesalers have been really willing to work with us and if we can reach an agreement with them, it seems to have little resistance of passing through the [South Carolina] House [of Representatives].” 

With the growing market both locally and nationally, the future looks to hold a lot of promise for the brewery.

“We have room here to grow up to 20,000 barrels, and that’s our goal to get there in a few years. We have all the stuff we need, we have most of the people we need. We just need to get into a few more markets and then get deeper into them. We’re hoping to do 12,000 this year. We did over 8,000 last year, so that’s around a 45% increase and we’ve had at least a 30% increase in growth every year. We have more capacity than we’re brewing right now, which is good.”

In Closing, Johnsen described RJ Rockers’ philosophy with precision: “It goes back to my Army training. You had a mission-essential task list, and you had to limit it to no more than five items. It’s simply

Make great beer

Sell great beer

Make people happy

Keep people happy and

Have fun.

If we can do those five things, the rest is gravy.”

Add barley, hops, yeast and water too!