It’s been almost three years since River Rat Brewery opened just around the corner from Williams-Brice Stadium in the “famously hot” city of Columbia, South Carolina. And while that doesn’t seem so long ago, much has happened since March of 2014.
Since then, River Rat Brewery has grown to produce more beer annually than any other brewery in Columbia. This has necessitated several expansions of the brewery and the taproom, with the most recent happening last October. The brewery brought in additional fermenters, added a freestanding building to house its new canning line, and is now in the process of growing its food program.
We caught up with founder Mike Tourville (sometimes referred to as King Rat Daddy) and brewmaster Drew Walker ahead of their three-year anniversary to discuss the past, present and future of River Rat Brewery.
All About Beer: How has your selection changed since opening three years ago?
Mike Tourville: We opened up with four flagships at the time and have evolved into making about 17-18 different styles.
Drew Walker: We’ve kind of seen what the market wanted. Moncks Corner, our Belgian dubbel, started out as one of our mainstays. But it worked better for us to release it as a seasonal, so it comes out in the springtime every year. The market still loves it, but they appreciate it more because it only comes out as a limited release.
And then just talking with customers, watching them drink. We like to interact with all of our customers and find out what kind of beers they’re looking for, or what kind of beers they wish we could brew. We play with that and put our own style on the beers we make. The market on the whole always sends you where you’re going to go, but talking with the actual consumer helps guide the ship.
Are there specific beers you think the Columbia beer market is looking for?
MT: It’s still new and fresh. There wasn’t a craft brewery here yet four years ago. There wasn’t a lot of local craft beer, so people had to go find it since there wasn’t much local beer being sold in this market. The bottle shop market that’s now taking place in Columbia didn’t exist a couple of years ago either. It’s a newer beer scene than what you see in Asheville, or Charleston, or up in Greenville. Everyone likes the darker beers, the specialty beers and barrel-aged beers, but they always go back to the beers that are more consistent, more balanced. Clean and fresh beers, like your lagers and your reds and your browns. Our 803 IPA has really turned heads and is growing considerably.
DW: Columbia’s got a good want for beer. You have a bunch of the guys who want the lighter stuff and aren’t looking for the big heavy hitters. That’s why we have the Kölsch, the pils, the red and the brown. They’re perfect beers for the everyday consumer. Then we have the people who come in and they’re looking for something different. We just came out with an oyster stout. We put 300 pounds of oysters—the meat, the liquor and the shell—in the boil, so you get a nice little bit of brine and the ocean sense in the stout. We do barrel-aging because people love barrel-aged beers. And we have the IPAs to give the hop heads their fix as well. Columbia runs the gamut of light to dark, and we try to give them everything they can handle.
What are your best sellers?
MT: Our Hazelnut Brown and our Broad River Red are such mainstays in Columbia. They run neck and neck. As the weather gets colder the brown will take over, and as the weather gets warmer the red will take over. The Kölsch and the pilsner are right behind them. Our My Morning Stout is now a flagship. We partnered up with Jittery Joe’s out of Athens. We can’t make enough of it. Soon you’ll see our label on a tin can at Jittery Joe’s and here selling our proprietary blend that we use in our beer. We’re really excited about that.
You mentioned the pilsner. What was it like winning a bronze medal for that beer at last year’s World Beer Cup?
DW: It was great. I was at home and I had a bunch of buddies call me that are in the brewing business on the West Coast. My phone was blowing up with congratulations. It was pretty humbling to win that in the World Beer Cup. Pilsners are tough. There’s not a lot to hide behind. We do a Bohemian pilsner so it’s a little hoppier. It’s got to be clean, it’s got to be an easy-drinking pilsner beer.
Tell me more about your food program. Drew, you were once cooking barbecue, right?
DW: When we first came in, we were coming in at 4 a.m. getting the smoker going, throwing butts on and then starting the mash. Going back and forth. It was great because when we barbecue, it’s slow-cooked. It’s 16 hours for butts and briskets. I’d do a double batch and be done brewing for the day, but be here for another three hours waiting to take the butts off. But it was worth it. Those things come off the smoker and they’re amazing. I did that for a little while until we were able to bring in some help. Now we have a chef who’s doing very well for us, and we have a very strong menu. It’s a really good program that’s constantly evolving.
MT: We’ve been trying to build our food program for some time, ever since the Stone Bill. We put in a prep kitchen and just never looked back. We found Taylor Baxter. He’s from Columbia. He worked at The Oak Table here, he’s worked at a couple restaurants in Charleston. He just puts a real nice flair on his foods. We’re going to break into the breakfast scene soon. There are plans in the future of actually doing brunch and maybe opening for lunch once our food program becomes more noticed throughout the Columbia. This town’s starving for brunches. I see us making a really good stronghold in the foodie world in Columbia.
You also recently made the jump from bottling to canning.
MT: It just made more practical sense for us, particularly being called River Rat Brewery. It’s all about the hardworking people who work and play on the rivers and the waterways. Being in the south, the poolside, on boats, golf courses—bottles are null and void, you can’t have them. It takes out a whole marketplace when you live in an area where the weather just makes you want to be outside. We’re coming out in February with three more cans to our arsenal: Moncks Corner, Kerry’s Peanut Butter Porter, and Lost Port Porter.
You said Columbia is still a young beer market. What does the future hold?
MT: I think the market has evolved. We’re always educating people on styles and brands. It’s exciting. I think our beer scene here is definitely growing. I could see in the next 3-4 years there being at least 10 breweries in Columbia, between brewpubs and actual breweries.
DW: The potential growth this town has gives you hope there could be a bigger beer scene. We’ve been around three years and still have people come in that have never heard of us. Just having more breweries, I feel, will get more people interested in craft beer. Competition breeds quality. If there are 10 breweries in town, there’s more choice out there. The more breweries we have, the better breweries you’ll have.
Mike Tourville: At A Glance
Owner, River Rat Brewery
Years in Brewing Industry: Four
Go-to beer from another brewery: Blackberry Farm Summer Saison
Beer that inspired him early in life: Early 2000s Dogfish Head imperial IPAs
Couldn’t live without: My family
Favorite place to have a beer: River Rat Brewery
Wishes he could buy a round for: Bill Murray
Biggest passion besides brewing: My family
Keeping him up at night: The beer biz!
Drew Walker: At A Glance
Brew Master, River Rat Brewery
Years in Brewing Industry: 10+
Go-to beer from another brewery: Abita Light
Beer that inspired him early in life: Sam Adams Boston Lager (Bahstun Laga)
Couldn’t live without: Boiled crawfish
Favorite place to have a beer: I had a beer once while sitting on top of a rock in Denali Park, Alaska. That was nice.
Wishes he could buy a round for: The 2010 New Orleans Saints (except coach Greg Williams, he’s on his own)
Biggest passion besides brewing: Homesteading, tending to my flock of chickens
Keeping him up at night: Nothing, I sleep like a rock. A wise man once said, “Don’t worry about the small stuff. And you know what? It’s all small.”
River Rat Brewery
Columbia, South Carolina
Annual Production: 3,100 barrels
Availability: South Carolina and North Carolina