Pull Up A Stool with Ed Falkenstein
In 1993, Ed Falkenstein quit his day job as an engineer to open Palmetto Brewing Co. in Charleston, SC. It was the first brewery in South Carolina since Prohibition.
AAB: How have you seen South Carolina evolve?
When we first started Palmetto, only two craft beers were available in the state, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. Carolina drinkers’ perception has changed dramatically. When we opened we had a really small tasting room, and with state law, we could not legally offer any beer to taste. That’s not saying we didn’t break the law—if you had on a coat and tie or suit you weren’t getting a taste.
Consumers’ perception of beer was solely a light lager, so there was a narrow view of what beer could be. We styled the beers initially to be very drinkable. Nowadays the consumer is looking for what’s new, what’s out there, what is crazy. Today our pale ale is really an IPA and hopped extremely, and the amber is much more massaged with hop character. You see more and more people conscious of supporting local, so there are more and more people coming to our tasting room. They want to see what it is all about and what is behind the label that they see on the shelf. The maturation of SC beer laws has allowed people to come in and experience the brewery beyond the label.
In my 25 years, craft brewing has been through peaks and valleys. We are on the strongest peak I’ve ever seen. Strange as it seems, it was not always on such upward growth. This is definitely the biggest growth period I’ve experienced. The consumer is more open to the paradigm of what beer should be.
What tastes have come into vogue that wouldn’t have flown when you started?
Everything. I think it’s an open canvas for brewers to try everything—shrimp and grits, or PB&J or oyster stouts. They’re all great and interesting but before, you wanted to keep it much more drinkable. You couldn’t go overboard on hops on the pale ale, and we always had a clean, light lager available for folks.
Is it easier to start a brewery now than when you started?
Easy answer: It is so much easier now! When we started you had to do a ton of studying, time in the library, not just to find out what the laws were, but everything. How do you put a business together? There certainly was no Internet. Also, without my engineering background, I’m not sure how it would have happened.
Today’s consumer, they are more aware. When we started, people were more brand-loyal. But now people are looking for what else is out there, and the consumer doesn’t have blinders. Back then, people had a certain beer and brand, and that was it. You had to get over that hump.
Money was also much harder to get. We put up our own money, worked on a business plan for over a year. We studied Boston Beer Co. and had a distributor help us with understanding sales and marketing. We spent lots of time with the folks at Wild Goose in Maryland—they were very helpful. Then we went to a bank. The bank didn’t care about our research and work. They said, “we see you as a high-risk loan. We have three high-risk opportunities currently, and we are only going to loan one of them.” We were competing against an ostrich farm and a clam farm. Now somebody calls every day looking to invest.
Also it was so much easier to get hops. You used to just call up and ask for some boxes of whatever you needed. Now we have contracts and futures to deal with, and short supply.
What about food pairings?
We did a big renovation this summer, which included expanding the tasting room and adding a place for catering and food trucks. SC laws are maturing, so now we have a 20-foot bar using reclaimed wood from boxcars. Our outdoor party space used to be our loading dock, but now it’s a really nice place to experience the brewery. And the urinals are made of old kegs—it’s surprising how many women want to go in there and take pictures.
Food drives a lot of that. Now that the tasting room is open, we want to serve food here to pair with our beers in a unique way. This being Charleston, which is such a great food town, we would rather work with chefs here and let them run with it than trying to do it ourselves. When we are thinking about a new beer, we are not necessarily pairing it with a certain food. That comes to us after the beer is made and the flavors are found.
Talk about the maturation of South Carolina beer laws.
It’s not that I’m against Stone, but here is a big brewery trying to pull into South Carolina when we already had a lot of small breweries that the law would help. Why does it take a larger brewery or an out-of-state brewery in order to think this through? We’ve been here 20-plus years, and they’re from California. So it is a little offensive that it takes someone from California to impact our beer laws that could have helped so many of us who are here.
It is another thing that makes it easier today. When we started, laws were stricter and you could not accentuate the operation. There is a lot to the operation: giving grain to small farms or a handcrafted bottling line running. Plus the history of South Carolina brewing that dates back to the mid-1800s. It all fits and is local business creating jobs. It is good for people to see the handcrafted nature of this operation. I can only say predicting government is no more accurate than predicting the weather, so no predictions here, but they are listening.
Ed Falkenstein at a Glance
Owner/operator—they always ask me, “Are you the brewmaster?” But I get defensive about the term. Brewmasters have graduated from Weihenstephan, walk around in lab coats. We are actually brewers who are on our hands and knees, fixing stuff, making the beer.
Years brewing: 25-plus.
Go-to beer from another brewery: I support the local scene, and wherever I am, I will gravitate to what’s local.
Beer that inspired him to brew: Full Sail. Back in the mid-’80s, we windsurfed in the Columbia River Gorge where the wind just cranked through the gorge. My business partner, wife and I all went out there. It was a depressed area, and, in the evenings, we would go to this small brewery that grilled burgers out on the deck. It was where we shared our windsurfing lies, and it was Full Sail Brewery. Full Sail inspired us to think that Charleston would get behind this idea. We went back this past year for the first time in a long time, and now it’s a huge tourist area for windsurfing and kite boarding. It has changed so much!
Couldn’t live without: My wife and dog. My wife has been extremely supportive and tolerant, and I get to bring my dog to work—he is there and always happy. Now that the brewery has been my life for 25 years, probably that, too.
Favorite place to have a beer: Palmetto; I’ve been doing it for 25 years.
Wishes he could buy a round for: John Doscher, original founder of Palmetto Brewing in 1857. The brewery survived the war of Northern aggression, the earthquake of 1886 and hurricanes, but couldn’t survive Prohibition; Ken Grossman and Jim Koch, the pioneers for craft breweries, and I would love to hear their stories.
Biggest passion besides brewing: Windsurfing, but at 60 years old, it’s waning; I don’t get out as much. I’m a tinkerer, which fits very well with having a brewery. My wife and I have a shottage … half-shack, half-cottage, and I’m always tinkering there.
Keeping him up at night: Flashbacks to getting first started and how do I pay for this and that! But now it’s very specific to the operations in the brewery. Last night from 2 to 3, I was thinking how to operate and improve some parts on the CIP system.
Palmetto Brewing Co.
Availability: SC, primarily Charleston, Hilton Head Island, Columbia and Greenville. Entering GA and Myrtle Beach in 2015
Annual Production: 7,000–8,000 barrels
Editor’s Note: Pull Up A Stool is a regular conversation between All About Beer Magazine and people in the beer industry. Read more conversations from the magazine.