Pull Up A Stool with Scott Burgess
of Bierkeller Columbia
Bierkeller Columbia and 75+ additional breweries will pour at World Beer Festival Columbia, held Saturday, Feb. 18 at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds.
The inaugural Oktoberfest at the Cayce Brick Works kicked off on Sept. 17, on the banks of the Congaree River just across the bridge from Columbia, South Carolina. It was the same day that the world’s most popular Oktoberfest celebration got underway in Munich, though that one certainly didn’t feel half a world away.
Credit the German oompah band, the rows of orange-stained biergarten tables, plates of wurst, authentic glassware and ceramic mugs, and the beers inside those vessels. Altogether it was enough to draw more than 2,000 people to the first-year event, even with the city of Columbia playing host that weekend to a food truck festival, a popular Greek festival and the first South Carolina Gamecocks home football game of the season.
Bierkeller Columbia also blew through 30 half-barrel kegs of beer, a not insignificant number for a brewery already struggling to keep up with demand as it brews out of Swamp Cabbage Brewing. It was there that Bierkeller Columbia debuted its Kölumbianer Kölsch back in May, and it has since hosted several pop-up events throughout Columbia.
Orchestrating it all is founder Scott Burgess, a man well familiar with Germany and its beer culture. Burgess first visited Germany in 1993 through the University of South Carolina’s student exchange program. He came back to finish his master’s degree, then went over on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up staying for about a decade. Now, he’s bringing to Columbia the same styles he fell in love with during his time in Germany.
All About Beer: You homebrewed for seven years before starting Bierkeller Columbia, but not in the same way many do.
Scott Burgess: Instead of experimenting the way a lot of homebrewers do, with a new style every time, we just said let’s try and dial in our favorite kellerbier. Let’s try to dial in as close to Schlenkerla as we can get. Let’s try and dial in some other styles that we like, and we did that just focusing on three or four styles in those seven years.
Do you get anyone at these events that are unaccustomed to just having a few styles of beer available?
I was pleasantly surprised at the people that I know from experience what their background is and what their preferences are, they totally got it. They understood we’re trying to create not only the beers that are as authentic and true to the originals as we can, but also the atmosphere. We serve them in those glasses, we’re not doing little tasters or anything like that, we don’t have a 10-, 12-, 30-tap wall. We put out the big biergarten tables and benches and make it communal, and I think when everyone’s drinking the same beer, it sort of adds to that communal feeling.
How important is it to replicate that atmosphere?
We want people when they buy our beer at a bar, at a restaurant, at a growler fill place, to think back to that experience. So it is very important when we’re putting on the events that it’s served in that type of setting, that the glassware is the proper thing, that it’s poured right. It’s an important part of the whole German brewing and beer culture—how it’s consumed and where it’s consumed. I always say I want a beer you can settle in with. I want to make a beer where No. 3 tastes better than No. 2, No. 4 tastes better than No. 3. Columbia is an easy place to settle into. There are a lot of people that grew up here and stayed here because it’s an easy kind of town.
Why do you think there’s a place for these beers?
We create that atmosphere that makes it easy and fun and relaxed. I think craft beer in general might have gone through a little bit of an adolescent, ADHD phase where everything that’s new and shiney is what people want and the more taps on the wall the better. The way we’ve been received, not just by the people in the city but by the beer geek scene, there seems to be a little bit of a shift going on. I think people are turning back toward finding favorites.
How has the Rauchbier played so far with people who might have never had a smoked beer?
I’m pretty amazed at how well it’s been received. There have been a few people who were just like, “This is not for me.” Understandably, of course. The first time I ever tried smoked beers, I thought they were intense and crazy. But generally, people have remarked about how it’s smoky, but the smoke kind of melds and integrates the more you drink of it, and they talk more about the drinkability of it than the intensity. It gives you a pretty intense experience and range of flavors, but I’m always going for drinkability. I just want beers that I can drink multiples of. The trick and the fun as a brewer is to hit that balance where everything works harmoniously, where all the subtleties I’m going for are in there. And if you’re tuned in you can pick up on them, but if not just enjoy it for what it is—something drinkable and flavorful, and fresh and good.
Do you have any plans to open your own brewery, or are you going to go the pop-up route for a while?
This is working great. We’re still gauging interest. The demand is there, that’s not the problem. We’ll see how that demand continues. Right now, we could produce three times what we’re producing and still sell out and be in a good position. There’s room in here to put some new tanks in and we plan to do that. We have to. There’s just not enough space right now to keep up.
It would be great to have a place where you’re brewing with a biergarten, but those aren’t easy to come by. Right now, the advantage is we have the capacity to produce what we need and the city has so many cool spots where you can pop these things up, and you don’t have to worry about things like parking regulations. You don’t have to pave over a nice treed area. You just put a beer wagon there, pop up your tables, let people come in and sit down and enjoy themselves. Right now we’re sticking to the model that we have. It seems to be working.
Scott Burgess: At A Glance
Owner, Bierkeller Columbia
Years in Brewing Industry: 1
Go-to beer from another brewery: Olde Mecklenburg Copper
Beer that inspired him early in life: Schlenkerla Märzen
Couldn’t live without: Our horizontal lagering tanks
Favorite place to have a beer: Spezial Keller in Bamberg, Germany
Wishes he could buy a round for: Michael Jackson
Biggest passion besides brewing: Tar Heels basketball, I guess
Keeping him up at night: How to increase production levels to meet demand
Columbia, South Carolina
Annual Production: 500 barrels
Availability: Exclusively Columbia, SC