Annual Brewvival helps keep the Charleston beer renaissance alive
By Stratton LawrenceSpecial to The Post and Courier – Thursday, February 21, 2013
If you go
When: Noon-6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Coast Brewing Company, 1250 N. 2nd St., North Charleston
Price: Sold out
What: Morning After Brewvival, Sunday Beer Breakfast
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: GrowFood Carolina Warehouse, 990 Morrison Drive
more info: brewvival.com
In South Carolina, there are beer festivals, and then there’s Brewvival.
Now in its fourth year, the annual February gathering of brewers, beer geeks and casual drinkers celebrates all that is good about hops, yeast and malt.
For the organizers at Coast Brewing Company and the Charleston Beer Exchange, it’s a labor of love that they host to spread the good word about the beers they personally get “hopped” up about.
That a festival like Brewvival can even exist is a testament to the determination of its hosts.
Until May 2007, beers with an alcohol by volume over 5 percent were prohibited for sale in South Carolina.
Jaime Tenney, co-owner of Coast along with her husband, David Merritt, helped lead the “Pop the Cap SC” campaign that abolished that Prohibition-era law.
Ordinances followed that allowed for onsite sales and tastings at breweries. They’re still working on permitting the sale of pints on brewery premises in South Carolina.
The Pop the Cap campaign opened the door for new breweries such as Westbrook and Holy City to establish themselves in Charleston, as well as making a world-class beer festival like Brewvival possible in the state.
“A good majority of the beers poured at Brewvival are over 6 percent, so this couldn’t have existed,” Tenney said. “People wouldn’t be opening breweries here if the law had not been changed.”
Likewise, the Charleston Beer Exchange traces its origins to the work of Coast and its team.
“Coast’s existence really motivated us to open a beer store,” said co-owner Scott Shor, who opened the shop with business partner Rich Carley in 2008. “We broke new ground in Charleston with the decision to sell growlers. It’s hard to believe because now you can refill growlers at gas stations and super markets. Jaime and David definitely paved the way for this craft beer boom in South Carolina.”
A beer geek’s festival
For a beer lover, it’s hard to go wrong with any festival that lets you sample dozens or even hundreds of different beers, yet Brewvival sets itself apart from its peers in the planning and details.
Unlike other festivals that rely on donated kegs from the breweries represented, the Brewvival hosts purchase every beer that’s sampled by guests.
“That doesn’t happen a lot,” explains Tenney. “We have a hard time attending festivals as a small brewery because the expense can add up to thousands of dollars to donate beer and travel. By paying the breweries, it allows small craft brewers to come who might not otherwise be able to participate.”
Shor echoes that sentiment, adding that to put on a “killer craft beer festival” to the level of one they would want to attend, paying to get the very best specialty beers there was the only option.
That decision is also reflected in the $65 ticket cost, a heftier price tag than years past and at other festivals in town. But the motivation for the hosts isn’t to make a profit.
After 2,500 people attended last year’s event, resulting in long lines for entry, tastings and bathrooms, the planners decided to cut back on ticket sales and limit Brewvival to 1,800 beer enthusiasts. Tickets for this year’s Brewvival sold out last week.
“We want to give it a more intimate feel and make Brewvival feel like a special thing to the people who come,” Tenney said. “We’re actually adding a little bit more beer and more food to make it the absolute best that we can.”
Other changes this year include the addition of more shuttle services from all over Charleston and Mount Pleasant and the removal of designated driver tickets, due to abuse and the goal of creating a more intimate event.
Food will be available for purchase by local food trucks Diggity Doughnuts, Autobanh and Roti Rolls, as well as restaurants Big Boned BBQ, Ted’s Butcherblock, Coleman Public House and D’Allesandro’s Pizza.
Among the breweries represented this year are Maine’s Allagash, Colorado’s Avery, and California’s Green Flash and Stone Breweries, alongside most of the notable in-town, statewide and regional breweries in North Carolina and Georgia.
The hosts also draw on their nationwide relationships to attract a “gypsy brewer element,” including tiny, “impossibly rare” batch beers like the Brandy Barrel-Aged Sour Lil’ B and Imperial Doughnut Break from Brooklyn’s Evil Twin Brewing, and surprise offerings from Maryland-based independent brewer Brian Strumke’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales.
“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of breweries that understand the importance of this festival, so they bring some neat one-off stuff that will make its only appearance at Brewvival,” beams Shor, adding, “Our local brewers are kicking out some really special stuff, too.”
Within the beer world, Brewvival has begun to attract national star power.
Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman and Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione will be on hand, as well as small Texas craft brewery Jester King’s Ron Extract.
“For me, it’s not just that these breweries are coming and setting up a table and some rep from the distributor is coming to work the table; it’s that these tables are staffed by the top people at these breweries with real ties to the process,” said Shor, who emphasizes that the hosts work to make logistics easy on the visiting brewers. “We’re attracting the guys that run or even started these breweries, and they’re out there directly interacting with our guests.”
A midwinter’s dream
When Tenney and Merritt first laid eyes on the building that would become Coast’s home, their gaze immediately drifted to the grassy field that surrounds it.
“We said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for as the grounds for a beer festival,’ ” she recalls. “Charleston was enjoying a beer revival of sorts — even though there wasn’t much history here to begin with — but there was a revival of people who drink and support and love craft beer, so we put those two things together.”
In shaping Brewvival, the planners looked to their favorite marquee beer events, most notably Brewgrass in Asheville, N.C.
The long-time Southeast favorite built its reputation as an outdoor, daytime festival with live music and an exclusive beer list that puts a heavy emphasis on local, with no presence from any of the big-name domestic breweries.
With that model in mind, Tenney handpicks the music lineup for Brewvival, which includes Tennessee quartet The Kingston Springs, local favorite Graham Whorley and headlining bluegrass/Americana trio James Justin & Co.
“I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than Brewvival,” said former Folly Beach resident James Justin Burke, who claims to distinctly remember his first taste of Coast’s signature HopArt IPA.
Burke said he’s looking forward to “coming home to the best fans and beers in the world,” and adds that the extra fuel from the tasting tent should ensure a “high-energy” show.
In its first three years, Brewvival’s combination of music and world-class breweries already has attracted attendees who fly in from around the country and the world. One patron from Belgium visited the city specifically for Brewvival.
“Charleston is on peoples’ radar,” Tenney said. “It’s a huge compliment, but we also love that most of the attendees come from right here in Charleston, from all walks of life, and they care about the quality and the environment surrounding their beer. That’s the vibe that we’re going for.”
Even though planners such as Tenney and Shor will spend most of Brewvival busily ensuring that the day runs smoothly, they both express that their reward lies in putting on a quality showcase that’s special and stands apart from the crowd, even if that has meant limiting attendance in the event’s fourth year to ensure that a high-quality festival is maintained.
“Both of our businesses (Coast and the Beer Exchange) have traditionally made decisions that put quality before profit, so we tend to have a similar philosophy of doing things the hard way,” explains Shor, mentioning that a few special surprises won’t be announced until the day of the festival. “It’s our treat for the people that come. We think this Brewvival will be the most rewarding festival experience yet.”