As hordes of local breweries surface across the South, the race for the best beer is steep. But these Greenville brew masters maintain a collaborative and creative mindset, crafting everything from ales to sours, and turning their side hobbies into full-fledged productions.
BIRDS FLY SOUTH ALE PROJECT
Like most, if not all, of the other tapreneurs here, Lindsay and Shawn Johnson started as home-brewers before emptying their savings and handcrafting their own beer manufactory.
“We lived in Alaska,” says Lindsay, 43, “and you have to find hobbies. We really started to get into experimenting with craft beer.”
Birds Fly South Ale Project launched in September 2016, the same month Shawn, now 42, retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years. A warrant officer, Shawn worked on an icebreaker and as a navigator on mega-huge C-130 airplanes. Ultimately, the family wound up in Greenville, where Shawn worked as a contractor with Lockheed Martin.
“We timed it perfectly,” Lindsay says. “He was so ready to do something different, and once he started brewing himself, he really realized he’s got all the science, all the math, and his creativity, so it’s kind of the perfect place for him. And I’m good at all the admin stuff.”
“Birds Fly South” comes from the affectionate way the Johnsons, married 18 years, refer to their family of three sons, ages 10 to 18—a flock that migrated across the country, finding its way to warmer climes.
Their operation sprawls across 15,000 square feet in Hampton Station, a 100-year-old former cotton warehouse, now with a 30-barrel capacity—don’t ask about tanks and kegs because that stuff’s as technical as the biology that goes into filling ’em. Suffice it to say, each barrel is 31 gallons, and everyone here’s hopping.
Varieties? “Endless,” Johnson says. “That’s why we call ourselves an ‘ale project,’ because we’re always doing something different.”
Billing its work as “Progressively Old School Urban Farmhouse Brewing,” BFS is perhaps best known for “wild farmhouse type of beers.” Here, you can really get into the alchemical wizardry that goes into creating any of hundreds of styles, including, to name just a few, saison, IPA, lager, porter, bock, pilsner, stout, sour, and wheat.
BFS unveils two to three new beers each week, Johnson says. “We repeat a lot of beers, but we’re also brewing a lot of new styles.”
You could spend the day cruising BFS’s website of offerings. Here’s a Belgian witbier, or white beer, called “Cherry Cit-Wit,” a summertime quencher with coriander, sweet orange peel, and cherries. Or check out “Llama Johns,” described thusly: “A classic Christmas beer, the Belgian Dark Strong was first aged on locally foraged figs before a secondary addition of cinnamon, nutmeg, maple, and plums.”
Each beer itself is a work of art, even its own conversation piece—and that’s what this whole thing’s about.
“Craft beer is really becoming more and more popular, especially with young 20- and 30-somethings, and people are really enjoying going to the source for the beer,” Johnson says. “They really enjoy going to a brewery and being able to sit amongst all the tanks and barrels, and they know the product’s always fresh.”
LIABILITY BREWING COMPANY
“I’m a pretty entrepreneurial person,” says Terry Horner, 42, who moved to Greenville seven years ago from Ohio, where he started several software-related companies. “I knew I would eventually get back to opening another business someday, and the market factors—with the laws changing, my timing, personally, and my passion for beer—they all kind of aligned.”
Horner, who works remotely for a company in San Francisco, opened Liability last August on the former Battery & Electric Co. site, now the Westone development, on West Stone Avenue.
“One of the reasons I got into beer is because it’s very similar to technology,” he says, analogizing open-source software codes with open-source beer recipes. “There’s a bunch of people who don’t know each other that get together and build software, and beer is very similar. We have great relationships with almost every brewery in town.”
And with local taprooms, too. Liability sells about 40 barrels a month, most out of its taproom, but now distributes to 20 accounts, such as Barley’s and Sidewall Pizza.
“Distro,” as they say in the trades, isn’t the asset Liability’s aiming to build. “It’s mainly for eyeball purposes,” Horner says. “We want more people to know that we exist, and it’s easy to get that reach out there.”
The name’s getting around, too, so let’s get around to the name. Liability? “We all know these people in our lives—our crazy uncle or friends who embarrass themselves or embarrass us,” Horner says.
As with the other two microbreweries, Liability’s beer menu reads like a cross between a grocery list for a trippy farmers market and titles you might find at an out-there comic book store.
A Snitch in Time, a crispy American Ale, serves up an aroma of honey butter, Hawaiian bread, and candied apricot, with flavors of English muffin, marmalade, and corn flakes. The hoppy Mortal Wombat, with essences of honeydew, guava, and cotton candy, gives off fragrances of nectarine, peach ring, and orange liqueur. Ted Danzig, a schwarzbier, or dark lager, is, as the menu says, “Pleasant like a cheerful bartender. Hard like a Jersey metal band.”
The taproom generally keeps 13 beers on tap at a time, and despite the quirky names, Horner says Liability’s master brewer, C.J. Golobish, is “very tried-and-true.” He wants to get the flavor out of the beer rather than putting a ton of adjunct ingredients into it.
“That’s been part of our strategy, to work up to the weirdness. We wanted to make sure we made great-quality beer for people to come and enjoy first,” Horner says.
To that, he raises a glass to Greenville’s barreling scene. “It’s kind of a chill, laid-back, everyone-come-drink-my-beer kind of thing,” he says. “We want people to share in these flavors we’re creating in this community we’re trying to build. We’re trying to educate consumers about what craft beer’s all about.”
THE EIGHTH STATE BREWING COMPANY
A stunning spring morning finds The Eighth State’s three guys working on a fresh project: filling, capping, and labeling 130 bottles with barley wine—all by hand—one . . . bottle . . . at a time.
“It takes a while, but the payoff is nice,” says Adam Cribbs, 37, whose business card reads “zymologist”—brewese for beer chemist.
He explains the process. Boil some malt, barley, wheat, rye, rice to extract nutrients, enzymes, and sugars in an hour-long process not unlike making a big batch of oatmeal. Pump the resulting water, sans grains, into a kettle and boil that. Next, move the water to a tank and add yeast.
When these microbes eat the water’s sugar, they pass gas—in this case, CO². Yes, in a word, says head brewer Cameron Owen, fungi farts foment fermentation, which takes about two to three weeks.
This morning, general manager Jack Ryan McDonald is filling bottles of their latest creation, Neck and Neck, a dark, chocolatey concoction made with barley and brewed like wine—hence its oenological 14.6 percent ABV, or alcohol-by-volume, more than double, even triple that of your average beer.
Neck and Neck’s name comes from a song lyric. The flavor’s drawn from the seven months the brew matures in an old brandy cask, among more than a dozen wooden barrels lining the windows of The Eighth State’s 3,000-square-foot brewery and taproom on Augusta Street.
With roughly 10 taps going at once, The Eighth State offers an off-kilter mix of exotic brews with offbeat names, such as Cheat Code, described as a “triple Fruited Sour Ale with blueberry, strawberry, citrus,” and Sympathy for the Devil, an imperial porter with vanilla, cinnamon, graham crackers, orange peel, and jaggery, a cane sugar with, itself, a cool name. One stout included caviar and chocolate.
“We’re trying to create something that’s a feeling more than just a brewery,” says Owen, 29. “That’s why it’s all related to the eight-circuit model and examining social consciousness rather than seeing it as beer.”
What’s eight-circuit, you ask? Well, grab a pint and a seat inside the room tucked in the 90-year-old Claussen Bakery and learn about neurological evolution. Okay, so, the company evolved, too, adding a three-barrel brewhouse with 30-barrel capacity into the onetime Upstate Craft Beer Co., which focused, yes, on home brewers.
Like the other brewers showcased here, The Eighth State’s guys found corporate jobs distastefully flat. At the same time, they say, unlike mega-brewers, local microbreweries aren’t competitive so much as they blend like hops, malt, and yeast.
“The community as a whole likes seeing us cooperating with each other,” McDonald says. “It gives them a sense of community themselves, seeing businesses work together, and they’re part of that community as customers and friends.”