Ruta Smith

Even as well-heeled professional breweries have popped up in Charleston, a grassroots community of local homebrewers have kept fine tuning their hand at converting grains and water into hoppy alcoholic beverages. Coronavirus closures have meant more spare time for many of these at-home brewmasters to experiment, paving the way for even more folks to get into the homebrewing game.

Mike Rousseau admitted his beer palate was limited when he retired from his post as president of Mt. Holly Aluminum in 2017. Looking to stay busy, Rousseau joined Lowcountry Libations, a monthly gathering of men and women dedicated to homebrewing. After a few meetings, he was hooked.

“They’ve got members in there that are so helpful and we had tastings for about four months,” he said. “Lowcountry Libations really gave me a platform to open up my palate and knowledge.”

Three years later, Rousseau’s homebrewing project Beresford Beersmith is one of the most successful in the area, taking top honors in last year’s Chucktown Brewdown at Fam’s Brewing Co. He’s even a certified beer judge. Homebrewing must be easy, right? Well, no, not really.

“My setup is all manual,” Rousseau said. “You’re basically coming up with a recipe with grains, hops, temperatures and yeasts and then you run it through your manual process. Depending on the style it can be ready in anywhere from three weeks to six months.”

Rousseau’s homebrewing rig includes a propane burner, 15-gallon pot and 72-quart ice chest. He adds the grains, then the water to form what he describes as an “oatmeal mixture.” He then drains the liquid, puts it in a pot and boils it for an hour.

“After some boiling, cool it quickly and then put it into a fermentation vessel,” he said. “You add the yeast and oxygen with a wand and then I put it in a little mini fridge to let the yeast start to chew up the sugars and make alcohol. It will do that for a couple of weeks. It then goes into a keg and then a converted freezer where I have six taps.”

Homebrewer Scott Laforge of Great Scott Brewing compares all-grain brewing to baking a cake from scratch. Extract brewing, the other method commonly used by homebrewers, skips a few early steps by using a “malt extract” to start the brewing process.

“I use two big 10-gallon coolers, two brew kettles and an electric pump to move liquids from container to container,” Laforge said. “Absolutely no automation. I have two freezers with temperature controllers so I can control the fermentation. That led me to start making lagers.”

Normally, homebrewers might steer clear of labor-intensive lagers, which can take months to brew. And then COVID-19 happened.

“It’s allowed me to make some slower-fermenting beers,” said Rousseau. “A lager for example takes a while. I’ve made some beers that I wouldn’t normally make because I’m usually turning them over so quickly.”

Of course, these creations pretty much name themselves. A New England-style IPA called “Quarantine,” a Vienna lager named “The Cure” and the “Wuhan Lab” lager are some of the brews Rousseau’s cooked up since the start of the pandemic.

Military serviceman Scott Salamone, whose homebrewing operation is codenamed Hangar 16, has also been testing out new beers during the pandemic. Take the aptly named “Keep Your Distance” black IPA, an older-style recipe that Salamone said hit the market in the early ’90s but never really stuck. He puts a twist on it by combining medusa hops with a yet-to-be-named experimental hop out of Washington’s Yakima Valley.

“This is probably one of the most citrusy IPAs, and it will be one I continue to do if they keep making those hops,” he said.

A Fresh Batch

Esse Elskamp, the owner of Beer Engineer Supply in North Charleston, said the quarantine has drawn some homebrewing newcomers.

“We offer beginner kits in both one-and five-gallon sizes, and two or three weeks ago I basically ran out of kits for people,” he said. His store sells everything homebrewers need, from glass carboys where beer is fermented to priming sugars that help with carbonation. Elskamp said customers have also been coming by to purchase more recipes since the start of the pandemic.

Rousseau has seen a similar trend. “Another thing I’ve noticed in our neighborhood is an uptick in people starting to homebrew,” he said. “I’ve got two recently in my neighborhood that just did their first batch.”

One of those neighbors is William Taylor Bates, who started homebrewing in February. He said the quarantine gave him time to learn about the process.

“We waited a week or two weeks so we wouldn’t get each other sick and then we continued our process,” said Bates, who homebrews with a work colleague. “Not only have we been able to do more batches, but we’ve been able to read more source material on it.”

Bates said his full-time job normally requires him to work on weekends, but he was able to attend a virtual homebrewing convention because of his decreased hours. He hopes their accelerated learning curve will allow them to transition from the beginner-friendly extract brewing to the more involved all-grain brewing by the end of the year.

Some homebrewers want to keep their work a hobby. Others like Bryan Campbell from Coffin Island Brewing have bigger plans.

“The whole reason I moved down here to Charleston was to hopefully start a brewery with my father,” Campbell said.

As he continues to build a business plan and look at potential brewery sites, Campbell welcomes the extra time at home to fine tune his setup by adding tools like a density meter, which accurately measures the alcohol by volume (ABV) throughout the brewing process.

He said this and other tweaks will hopefully help get their estimated results for ABV and flavor profile closer to their actual finished product. Currently, the Campbells have an American wheat infused with dehydrated Meyer lemons on tap in their home brewery.

On a Bigger Scale

Indigo Reef Brewing Company owner and head brewer Christopher Ranere knows a little bit about making the jump from homebrewing to large scale production. After starting to homebrew with wife Nicole in 2014, Ranere said the Lowcountry Libations crew paved the way for the 2019 opening of his Daniel Island brewery.

“Somebody told us about Lowcountry Libations, and Nicole and I went to a meeting,” he said. “We really wanted feedback on our beer and how to improve it, and Lowcountry Libations was really able to do that for us. So many of the members in the club are very articulate and have been brewing for a really long time. That was one of the biggest stepping stones for us to open Indigo Reef.”

Ranere said the upstart brewery’s early principles still guide his days. “It’s basically just homebrewing on a bigger scale,” he said. “I use a software that gives me recommended scale-up options. It gets me close but there’s certain grains and hops that I need to adjust.”

Salamone’s American Kolsch won a homebrewing competition held at Indigo Reef on Feb. 29 and is currently available in the taproom.

“The breweries that are exceptional in town in my mind are the brewer-owner type places because the beer is always at the front of their mind,” Ranere said. “The homebrewing community here was monumental in us opening Indigo Reef.”

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