Touring the Columbia Beer Scene
The World Beer Festival Columbia returns to Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, February 18. Join us at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds to sample from more than 250 beers and ciders.
As a resident of South Carolina for more than a decade, I’ve been in the thick of the state’s evolution from that of a desert of quality beer options into one of the most progressive states in the Southeast when it comes to beer. It started with Pop the Cap South Carolina in 2007, a grassroots push that resulted in breweries being allowed to produce beers higher than 5% alcohol by weight (or around 6.25% ABV). Then there was the enactment of the state’s Pint Law in 2013 and the “Stone Law” in 2014—named for its goal (albeit unsuccessfully) of luring Stone Brewing Co. to open its East Coast facility here. Thanks to these changes, breweries and brewpubs have been afforded even more rights, and with them the opportunity to grow.
In the past few years, Columbia has gone from having no production breweries to being home to three—with more in planning—as well as a growing number of brewpubs and craft beer-centric bars and stores. And as home to its annual World Beer Festival, the Capital City offers plenty of options for beer enthusiasts.
If you’re looking for an afternoon of brewery hopping, you’re in luck. The three production breweries located in Columbia are just a couple of miles apart from each other and located in the area around the South Carolina State Fairgrounds, the new home of All About Beer’s ninth annual World Beer Festival—Columbia.
Begin at River Rat Brewery (1231 Shop Road), the city’s second production brewery. The multiple award-winning brewery is home to a spacious taproom featuring custom ironwork, communal tables and a comfortable atmosphere, as well as an outdoor beer garden and covered patio perfect for enjoying a round of cornhole or live music. The tap list features everything from the flagship Broad River Red Ale, a lightly hopped sweeter malt-forward beer, to Sir Barley Wine, a boozy and bitter American-style barley wine. In the past year the brewery has expanded and improved its outdoor space, adding more seating and an events area adjacent to the brewery’s new canning facility.
Just down the road you’ll find Conquest Brewing Co. (947 S. Stadium Road), the first post-Prohibition production brewery to open in Columbia. Known for its love of hoppy beers, such as its fruit-forward Sacred Heart IPA, as well as drinks on the higher end of the spectrum—the anniversary Finisher Imperial Stout brewed with brown sugar and honey clocks in north of 17%—Conquest helped usher in the growth of the beer scene. You can see its small brewhouse and growing number of whiskey, wine and other barrels from inside the intimate taproom. Recently the brewery has begun tapping into its sour program, which features barrel-aged beer brewed with local fruit and fermented with native yeast. You’ll also usually find food trucks such as KC Hot Dogs or the Belgian Waffle Truck set up outside and live music many nights, and the brewery is known to tap special or one-off kegs fairly regularly.
Wrapping up the brewery tour is Swamp Cabbage Brewing Co. (921 Brookwood Drive), the newest brewery to Columbia as well as the city’s largest. While the brewhouse is home to a large setup, inside you’ll find an intimate taproom designed to reflect the feeling of being in a Southern swamp, while outside the new covered beer garden gives plenty of space for bands, food trucks and more. Stop by to try a pint of ASB, Swamp Cabbage’s hopped-up take on an ESB, or the traditional German-style Dunkelweizen.
While it doesn’t have a brick and mortar location, Bierkeller Columbia has become an increasingly popular beer project since debuting last summer. Headed up by longtime homebrewer Scott Burgess, Bierkeller is focused on traditional and classic German-style recipes, including Kölumbianer Kölsch (4.8%), Kellerbier (5.3%) and Rauchbier (5.2%). Bierkeller is available in many bars across the city (and at Swamp Cabbage, where Burgess brews) but the best way to truly experience it is at one of Bierkeller’s occasional pop-up biergartens. Complete with various sizes of glassware, German food and music, and a communal atmosphere, the events bring the feel of Bavaria to the Midlands.
Bars and Restaurants
With Columbia being home to the University of South Carolina, you can bet there are plenty of watering holes all across town. The city’s two main entertainment districts are The Vista, located just adjacent to the South Carolina State House grounds, and Five Points, the more college-oriented drinking and eating area near campus.
If you’re looking for a great place to catch a game and grab a few rounds, Carolina Ale House offers two locations in Columbia to satisfy your inner sports fan. If you’re downtown, the Vista location (708 Lady St.) has two floors—including indoor and rooftop seating‑featuring plenty of TVs, a wealth of bar fare and a range of beer selections. Or if you work up an appetite while shopping, you’ll find a second Ale House location in the Harbison area (277 Columbiana Dr.).
In the Vista, World of Beer (902 Gervais St.) and Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (931 Senate St.) both feature dozens of taps, TVs, indoor and outdoor seating areas and a good number of food options if you’ve got the pre- or post-fest munchies. Nearby is Liberty Taproom & Grill (828 Gervais St.), known for its American cuisine and more than 60 taps of regional and national craft beer.
Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom (802 Gervais St.) and Grill Marks (711 Gervais St.) offer more upscale pizza and burger options, respectively, as well as a solid number of taps. Mellow Mushroom (1009 Gervais St.) also offers around 30 beers on draft and close to 200 on its bottle list. Last spring, Twisted Spur Brewing (705 Gervais St.) opened as the first brewpub in the Vista, offering a variety of creative dishes from steaks to tacos to sandwiches, and a range of beers made in-house. The Casual Pint (807 Gervais St.) is a new bar and bottle shop that offers more than two dozen taps and small bites in addition to take-home options.
But for my money, it’s hard to beat The Whig (1200 Main St.) and Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Ale House (900 Main St.). The Whig, the self-described greatest dive bar in the country, is located directly across from the South Carolina State House. The space is intimate and comfortable and the clientele and accoutrements eclectic, with an ever-rotating tap and bottle selection heavy on local and regional offerings as well a menu full of some of the best starters and burgers in the city. And a short drive away at Hunter-Gatherer—one of the city and state’s forefathers on the microbrewery scene—you’ll find a range of in-house beers and a menu and specials board featuring plenty of tasty entrees, sandwiches, salads and more. (The ESB Beer Cheese Spread is a must.) After 20-plus years on South Carolina’s Main Street, brewpub owner Kevin Varner is planning to open a separate production facility in 2017.
If you’re looking for a change of scenery, Five Points also offers plenty of options. Publico Kitchen & Tap (2013 Greene St.) boasts a menu including everything from tacos to burgers, as well as an expansive beer chalkboard. You can find live jazz at the Prohibition-era themed Speakeasy (711 Saluda Ave.), catch a soccer match at Delaney’s (741 Saluda Ave.), or grab a slice at Village Idiot Pizza (2009 Devine St.) followed by dessert at Goat’s (2017 Devine St.). And of course, all offer respectable beer selections on their menus.
There are also plenty of options—again, also with solid beer lists—on Devine Street. There’s great pub fare at Publick House (2307 Devine St.), burgers at Burger Tavern 77 (2631 Devine St.), brick oven pizza at Za’s (2930 Devine St.) and great fresh Tex-Mex at Cantina 76 (2901 Devine St.). And then there’s my personal favorite: Craft and Draft (2706 Devine St.), the city’s first bar, growler station and beer shop. Featuring 12 taps and a heavy focus on South Carolina beers, Craft and Draft has become the city’s hotspot for beer fans as well as one of the most popular neighborhood bars. Grab a beer out of the cooler, make your own six pack, get your growler filled or just enjoy a flight or pint at the bar. It does tend to get busy on most nights, but it’s worth a visit.
Neighboring Lexington also has some good options that make the short drive worth it. Old Mill Brew Pub (711 E. Main St.) is currently the city’s sole brewpub and offers a solid menu and some really great in-house brews from brewer Matt Rogers. A short drive from Old Mill is Keg Cowboy (108 E. Main St.), home to 12 rotating taps—a good number of which are South Carolina beers—and one of the best bar menus you’ll find in the Midlands. You’ll find everything from duck paninis to pork belly plates to Cuban sandwiches in an open and relaxed environment. And if you’re looking for an even larger selection, you’ll surely be able to find something at Krafty Draft Brew Pub (269 Charter Oak Road) and its 100-plus taps. The bar also recently gained its brewing license and will begin producing in-house beer soon.
If you’re looking to take home something to enjoy at your leisure, there are plenty of retail stores across Columbia that offer both packaged options and growler fills.
Green’s Beverage Warehouse (4012 Fernandina Road and 400 Assembly St.) is the city’s largest retailer. Both locations offer wide selections and growler options, but the Piney Grove location on Fernandina Road has made some recent changes and upgrades that make it a great option. They have more than 20 taps on their growler station, but also offer Crowlers—32 ounce one-time-use recyclable cans—that can be filled with anything on the board. Or you can make your own six-pack if you want a little more variety.
Family-owned Morganelli’s (3155 Forest Drive) in nearby Forest Acres also boasts a large selection of rotating beers on its growler station, an extensive make your own six-pack shelf and knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Really, wherever you find yourself in Columbia, there’s a great retail option nearby. Farther up Main Street is Vino Garage (2327 N. Main St.); out toward the Harbison Boulevard area is the recently renovated Total Wine & More (275-C Harbison Blvd.); and near Fort Jackson and the Rosewood neighborhood is Bottles Beverage Superstore (4410 Fort Jackson Blvd.).
Nick McCormac has helped cover and promote the South Carolina craft beer scene through his website, Drink. Blog. Repeat., since 2012. He currently serves on the nonprofit Midlands Craft Beer Supporters and is one of the co-founders and organizers of Soda City Suds Week, Columbia’s independent craft beer celebration.