Thursday, August 3, 2023

Flying Through Columbia

You can tell the end of July is approaching in VelkyAl world because I am invariably in Columbia, South Carolina, on the way back from a beach week in Florida. Rather than drive 12 hours to central Virginia, Mrs V and I take a few days at the in-laws' place, and this year I decided to be like a beer tourist and actually get round to a few taprooms rather than just picking up cans of local stuff at Bottles. 

Being at the in-laws' place also gives us built in babysitters so Mrs V and I can engage in shocking behaviour like having a few hours social life sans enfants. So we went to Savage Craft Ale Works on Saturday night. We had originally planned to go there way back in spring when we were last here, I don't remember why we changed our minds, but I was glad to finally get out to the fantastically renovated space in West Columbia.

Looking up their website before we headed out, I saw those wonderful, magical words that mean so much in my world, yes you know the ones "German pilsner", and then looking at the name of it "Purge Under Pilsner" a bell began to ring. It struck me that purely by change I had picked up a four pack of their pilsner at Bottles, largely because the can mentions decoction mashing. Yes, I am predictable, I know.

Given that I was out on one of the rare occasions my wife and I manage to get away for some adult time, I wasn't taking details notes, but Purge Under Pilsner is a lovely German style pils. Nicely bitter, good cereal malt character, and a clean finish that is long as midsummers in Iceland, just the kind of beer I love. I tried their American style pale ale too, and it hit all the right notes. Maybe next time I am in Columbia I'd get round and try more of their range, but suffice to say that Savage Craft is a welcome addition to the city's improving beer scene.

Notes were however very much part of my plan for the following afternoon. While Mrs V and the twins swam in the pool, I ventured off to hunt out some of the taprooms of Columbia's breweries that I hadn't visited before. I mentioned I am a terrible beer tourist, right?

First up on my list of places to go to was Hunter Gatherer, a brewery I have written about before, and one I have a very large soft spot for. Their brewpub, aka "the Alehouse", in the centre of Columbia is one of my favourite places to drink, it has the perfect old school craft brewpub vibe, but I had not got to their production brewery before.

The newer venue is known as the Hangar, and is, somewhat unsurprisingly, located in an old airport hangar. Known as the Curtiss-Wright Hangar, the building was erected in 1929 as part of Columbia's original airport, known in the area as Owens Field. Finding myself a seat at the bar, I ordered my first flight of the day...

The four beers I chose were:
  • Lager 29 - 5% copper lager
  • Golden Ale - 4.5% blonde ale
  • Pale Ale - 4.7% English Pale Ale
  • ESB - 5.2% Extra Special Bitter
Rather than bore you all to tears with my tasting notes, I will say that all four beers were very good, clearly well made by proficient brewers, and I would happily drink any of them, but in plumping for a pint I went for the Pale Ale. At 4.7% it really is in the best bitter world, but US drinkers seem to have an aversion to the concept of "bitter" and hence you end up with English Pale Ale, Pub Ale, or some other moniker that avoids the concept of bitterness. Pouring a dark gold, with flashes of orange, and a decent white head, it actually looks somewhat like Timothy Taylor Landlord or Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. The aroma was mostly cookie dough, laced with spicy hops and a hint of stone fruits in the background. Tastewise, the cookie dough became more like digestive biscuits (is there a better biccy in the world?), and again the spicy English hops shone through, and the light stone fruit flavours were present as well. It's a really nice beer, and if I hadn't been planning to get to at least a couple more breweries, I'd have done my usual and thrown the plan out the window.

The next brewery on my list was River Rat, another brewery whose products I have had and enjoyed either in Columbia itself or brought back home to central Virginia - indeed they have made the Fuggled Review of the Year a couple of times. It was stinkingly hot on Sunday in South Carolina, so I was very relieved to find a parking place completely shaded by trees, even after a mere 5 minute drive from Hunter Gatherer. Again I found myself a seat at the bar and ordered a flight, this time a set of 6 rather than 4, oh and my second pint of water for the afternoon - hydration is important folks.

Included in my wheel of beer this time were:
  • Luminescent Lager - 4% American Light Lager
  • Dry Hopped Pilsner - 4.9 American Pilsner
  • Broad River Red Ale - 5.3% American Amber
  • American Kölsch Story - 5% Kölsch
  • Hazelnut Brown Ale - 5.4% Brown
  • My Morning Stout - 6% Stout
This time round my selections were much more of a mixed bag. Nothing was terrible, or to be honest even bad, but the first four in my flight left me underwhelmed. The Luminescent was thin and watery, and I get that American Light lagers are, in the words of the old joke, like making love in a canoe, but experience has taught me they really do not have to be. I have had some wonderful light lagers brewed with corn in the last year or so, whether at Black Narrows in Virginia or TRVE Brewing in Denver. I felt the pilsner had a rough, vegetal bitterness that did nothing for me, and the Kölsch and Red were decent. However, the Hazelnut Brown Ale was a delight, maybe it had been sitting in the heat for just long enough to reach cellar temperature, but the lovely nutty character coupled with a subtle, earthy hop note was delightful, even at 95° Fahrenheit. The stout was also very nice, striking the ideal balance of milk chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, and espresso. I decided not to have a pint of anything, being a vaguely responsible human being from time to time, and I had one more brewery that I wanted to get to, but it was shut. I am clearly illiterate as I had checked Google before heading out and missed the fact that "Opens at 2pm" means something entirely different when you remember to read the "on Monday" part of the sentence.

So I went to Steel Hands Brewing instead, winding my way from West Columbia to Cayce, over some railway tracks, down by a steel mill, and parking in the the glaring sun. There was a band just winding up their set as I arrived, major kudos to them for playing outside in that heat. Before the baking heat could weld the soles of my sandals to the pavement I made my way inside and ordered my third and final flight of the day.

My choices for this particular foursome were:
  • Lager - 4.7% pale lager
  • Run for the Pils - 5% German style Pilsner
  • German Amber Lager - 5.3% Düsseldorf Altbier
  • Dunkel - 5.5% Munich Dunkel
Fun fact, I had been led to believe at River Rat that Steel Hands was the kind of brewery I am not wildly fond of, specialising in beers with lots of silly shit chucked in. To be frank I am glad that I applied a hermeneutic of suspicion and checked out their website to confirm I could get some brews in styles I am a fan of. All four of my chosen samples were well executed examples of the styles, which is saying something for altbier in particular as US breweries have a tendency to use crystal malts for sweetness rather than Munich and it just tastes wrong. Given the flight was just a foursome rather than 6 I decided to have one last pint before heading back to the family, and plumped for the Dunkel.

It pours lightish brown, with some red highlights, definitely paler than many a dunkel I have had in the US, but well within the norms in Germany. The nose was slightly toasty with a bit of unsweetened cocoa, and a pleasant herbal hop aroma. As you would expect with a Munich style dunkel, the taste was dominated by that lovely bready character that you get with German malts, lightly toasty and with a subtle earthiness rounding everything off nicely. All in all it was a fine way to round of an afternoon brewery hopping.

I had been hoping that Bierkeller Columbia would be open in time for my annual late summer sojourn in Columbia, but alas it was not to be. They will hopefully be fully operational by the time I next head south for Thanksgiving. 

When I think back to my early days of living in the US, Columbia was something of a good beer desert, so it is fantastic to see it improving, even if my go-to pub from those days is no more, and a couple of breweries have also gone under. A metropolitan area the size of Columbia, with a population of nearly 900,000 should be well able to support a good beer scene, and with these four breweries, and Columbia Craft, already operating, there is definitely a far greater choice of locally brewed beer than in 2009, and that makes me one happy camper.

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