WHAT CAN SOUTH CAROLINA LEARN FROM COLORADO’S BEER CULTURE?

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Recently, I was able to spend some time out in Colorado. Denver, and some of the surrounding areas to be precise. Boulder, Breckenridge, Estes Park, and Fort Collins were all on the list. The girlfriend and I managed to squeeze in some great hikes and experience some real natural wonders. I’d recommend a trip to Colorado to anyone. It really is a great place. And that’s especially true if you like beer. And oh, is there beer. Over 170 breweries in the state when we visited. Breweries in planning? About the same amount. The city of Denver alone has more breweries than South Carolina has in the entire state. It’s very humbling.

Believe it or not, the craft beer renaissance in Colorado didn’t really start until 1988 when the Wynkoop Brewery was founded in downtown Denver. Like so many stories we hear today, the brewery was opened in a troublesome neighborhood, but served as a catalyst for urban renewal. Now Denver boasts many breweries and the rest of Colorado follows suit. Believe it or not, more beer is brewed in the Denver metro area than in any other city in America. Now, like most places, Colorado’s alcohol laws are kind of quirky. But the quirks are incredibly favorable to breweries. Let’s highlight a few.

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Where to start? Well, how about the big one. Self-distribution. In Colorado, as long as a brewery produces under 300,000 barrels of beer per year, they can sell directly to retailers. Talk about a huge advantage. Most of you are aware that North Carolina allows limited self-distribution for brewers that sell less than 25,000 barrels annually. Most South Carolina breweries would fall under that category. Is self-distribution an achievable goal in South Carolina? Well, not in the near term it isn’t. The Pint Law is a good starting point, though. With the new law comes new opportunity to educate the public on the benefits of craft beer. The law had a built in study on the economics of the bill’s impact. Down the road when the data is analyzed, that might be a starting point for very limited self-distribution.

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What else? Well, here’s a quirk for you. Ever hear of 3.2 beer? It’s beer that is 4.2% ABV or less. The 3.2 moniker is the ABW equivalent. So, if you’re a beer geek and you’re looking for beer in a grocery store or convenience store in Colorado, then you probably will need to look elsewhere. Those stores can only sell 3.2 beer. If you want the real stuff, then you’ll have to go to a liquor store or brewery if you want to take it home. Each person, including big national stores like Target, Safeway, etc. can only have one liquor store license. That means that only a single store in the state can carry the good stuff. The effect is that liquor stores and breweries flourish without having to compete with the big stores. Now, is this going to happen in South Carolina? No. Not a chance. But with enough education of local craft beer, our breweries can begin to start chipping away at the bigger guys.

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What else? Well, South Carolina is on par with Colorado in some respects. Our state and Colorado both allows breweries to serve beer in a tasting room without having to offer food. Serving food and beer in South Carolina while brewing on-site makes you a brewpub subject to requirements that breweries don’t have to deal with. Most brewers give patrons access to food through partnering with food trucks. This practice is also popular in Colorado. However, unlike South Carolina, Colorado brewers aren’t subject to limitations on consumption in a taproom. While the Pint Law is a nice first step in making changes to the amount patrons can consume on-site in a day, it’ll be awhile before that is increased again. Will it happen? Probably so, but not for several years.

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What about atmosphere? Well, in Colorado beer is just accepted as something that the state does well. Every restaurant we visited was stocked with beer, especially locals. One particular restaurant in Denver offered about 39 beers, 37 of which were locals. Pretty impressive. I did manage to meet with some brewers in Colorado to ask them about their beer culture. You’ll be happy to know that they have heard of South Carolina. And their advice on developing a beer culture is already being followed here: have good water, educate people on the benefits of craft beer, grow the number of breweries that develop and have close relationships with their communities, and make great beer. Sound like a winning game plan? Well, we’re executing that in South Carolina as we speak.

So, where does this leave us? Well, really, South Carolina doesn’t need to compare itself to Colorado. Colorado’s success is the result of a combination of factors, a lot of which is due to old laws from around Prohibition. South Carolina is moving pretty quickly in terms of growing a beer culture, which only really started less than 10 years ago when Pop the Cap was founded in 2005. Just think, prior to 2007, breweries could only make beer up to 6.25% ABV. It wasn’t until 2010 that we earned the right to have tastings at breweries. And now, 3 years later, we can have 48 ounces on-site. Our beer is innovative and award winning. We’re doing well.

So, what can we learn from Colorado’s beer culture? The big takeaway for us is that education and awareness are critically important. Sure, Colorado makes great beers, but beer became part of the culture because of a focus on homebrewing, beer innovation, good water, being the home of some big breweries, and having advantageous laws. South Carolina already has some of those present and the future is bright. How do we educate? Take a friend to a brewery or tell them about a great local beer that you had. It’s really easy and we’re starting to see results. Watch out, Colorado.

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