Our family income has centered around beer since the mid '90s. We've lived through an industry-wide shakeout, opened our own brewery 13 years ago at the beginning of an economic downturn, and are now operating during a pandemic. (And we're building a new taproom, to boot!) We thought we'd seen it all.
I retired from the S.C. Brewers Guild over five years ago now. We've come a long way since the guild was founded as Pop the Cap SC in 2005, when beer over 6 percent alcohol was illegal. Some of our restrictive, Prohibition-era laws have relaxed, but several remain that hinder local breweries. Unfortunately, they are also contributing to some of the issues we are facing today. For example, we currently have 90 kegs of HopArt sitting in our distributor's warehouse that they can't sell due to restaurant shutdowns. Distribution accounts for 85 percent of our beer sales, and if you've ever visited our makeshift "taproom" you've seen why. (When we opened in 2007, it was illegal to have a taproom, so we didn't build one.) Of that 85 percent, around half is draft, sent to South Carolina bars and restaurants to be consumed on premises. Under normal circumstances, that's an ideal plan since kegs are a low-waste package and a perfect way to provide fresh beer.
Typically consumed at your local establishment with friends, beer is the great socializer! Until COVID-19 comes around.
Suddenly, all that draft is just sitting there, lonely and longing to be poured into a refreshing pint. Quality and freshness (along with organic ingredients) are what our brewery was founded on, so our current situation is clearly unacceptable. (To answer the main question we've heard: Yes, we looked at making hand sanitizer. And no, it's not really an option and has its own challenges.)
So what's a brewery in South Carolina to do?
How about we sell those kegs to consumers who are spending lots of time at home? Nope! S.C. law sets a 288-ounce limit on us, so a standard sixth-barrel keg that comes in at over 600 ounces is a no-go. How about packaging more beer in cans or bottles and delivering to those stay-at-home beer drinkers? Negative. In South Carolina, breweries (and distilleries) can't deliver to your home either.
You see, on paper this threatens the three-tier distribution system. Except, it really doesn't. If it did, the biggest beer states like California, Oregon, and North Carolina wouldn't have seen the growth that they have and the powers that be would have overturned such laws. Somehow, those states are able to figure out a way that has worked for all parties. And boy howdy, look at them now.
We have been in challenging positions before and as a nation we have adapted. I dare not compare breweries selling kegs or delivering beer to the mobilization of businesses during World War II. But there is no reason not to reform state beer laws in the wake of an event that has also severely disrupted daily life. Make alcohol laws fair and possibly save some small businesses that greatly contribute to the economic and social needs of our citizens. Many states have, at least temporarily, relaxed laws to accommodate the needs of businesses and consumers alike.
As breweries begin to make painful decisions about whether to dump excess beer, especially knowing that there could have been a better way, we do it with extra remorse. We do it with some anger, seeing our hard work and money flushed down the drain. We do it with trepidation about the future and the unknowns of the entire food and beverage industry. But we will do it because we have to, because we can't let old beer languish and because there are no other options.
What will beer and food in a social situation look like in our world now?
No one knows what will come of these unprecedented times, but I can tell you the landscape will be different. I, for one, am looking forward to our beloved local restaurants and watering holes opening again and bellying up to the bar.
Jaime Tenny is the co-owner of Coast Brewing Co. in North Charleston.