There’s nothing like a home–brewed business..In the past decade, three alumni have taken South Carolina’s craft beer scene from dry to hopping, conditioning the state’s taste for the field and crafting their way into the only industry that can take you from IPA to IPO.
by Sam Wheeler ’05
photography by Leslie McKellar
In less than a decade, South Carolina’s burgeoning craft beer industry has grown from a few amateur craft brewers tinkering in their garages to a full-blown entrepreneurial wave backed by venture capitalists and millions of dollars. Old warehouses and dilapidated buildings have been converted into high-output production facilities packed full of gleaming stainless steel tanks and hordes of locals, thirsty millennials and beer connoisseurs.
And leading this craft beer explosion in South Carolina is a trio of College of Charleston alumni who, like the craft beer industry itself, are defying stereotypes of what successful business proprietors look like. They all blazed a unique path to success, overcoming obstacles and critics in order to pursue their passion. Along the way, they helped create and expand an economically viable, philanthropically motivated and sustainability-minded industry that did not exist in South Carolina only eight years ago.
In 2005, Jaime Tenny ’00 and her husband, David Merritt, began to seriously consider opening a craft brewery in the Lowcountry. There was just one problem at the time: Craft breweries as we now know them were illegal in South Carolina, owing to a state law that criminalized the production of beer with an alcohol content of more than 6.2 percent. In other words, South Carolina was missing out on a booming industry that was generating billions of dollars, creating jobs and revitalizing blighted areas in towns and cities all across America.
If you were going to pick a spokesperson to convince South Carolina legislators that the state’s Prohibition-era cap on alcohol content was culturally antiquated and stifling entrepreneurship, Tenny would not have been the obvious choice. She likely wouldn’t have picked herself for the job either. But no one else was stepping up to the plate, so she grabbed a bat and went to work.
While Merritt continued honing his brewing skills, Tenny founded “Pop the Cap South Carolina,” a grassroots initiative aimed at lifting South Carolina’s alcohol content restrictions and creating a legal framework for the production of craft brew in South Carolina.
But her first lobbying trip to the South Carolina Statehouse in 2005 went about as poorly as it possible could have.
“My first trip up there was a joke,” she recalls. “I was a political novice with a New Jersey attitude demanding the right to brew high-gravity beer. I left each legislator a cute little pamphlet that outlined all the reasons why North Carolina’s laws were better than ours.”
As legislators practically laughed her out of Columbia, Tenny recognized that her bull-in-a-china-shop approach needed some refinement. She toned down her Jersey attitude and removed any references to South Carolina’s neighbor to the north from her pitch. “Many of our politicians hate for South Carolina to be compared to any other state, especially North Carolina,” she says.
While rounds two through 19 of her lobbying bout didn’t fare much better, she eventually struck on the right chord – economic impact. The ears of even the most conservative and close-minded politician will perk up at talk of tax revenue and jobs. Tenny argued that by outlawing craft beer production, South Carolina was foregoing hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars, and thousands of jobs.
After two years and countless trips between Charleston and Columbia, the same legislators who had scoffed at the moxie of this Jersey girl passed a bill that lifted the alcohol content restriction on beer, effectively birthing the modern craft beer movement in South Carolina.
But Tenny wasn’t done fighting. She continued to push for legislative reforms to help expand the state’s craft beer industry and make it more competitive with other states. The most recent legislative victory came in 2014 when the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law that allows brewery owners, if they meet certain requirements, to serve an unlimited amount of beer at their production facilities.
Besides ushering in a new era for craft breweries and helping to transform several former industrial warehouses into popular local watering holes, the easing of on-site consumption rules helped the industry generate an economic impact of nearly $450 million in South Carolina, according to 2014 figures from the Brewers Association.
Compare that with the $1.1 billion, $1.2 billion and $4.5 billion generated in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, respectively, and it is easy to see the potential that Tenny saw years ago.
Today, Tenny is revered as a pioneer in the industry – an industry she helped create in South Carolina. The biology major credits her success to the broad liberal arts and sciences education she received at the College, which in many ways reflects the various facets of running a craft brewery: “Owning a brewery,” she says, “involves art, performance art, business, marketing, science and political science.”
Bricks to Brews
If Tenny cracked open the door for the craft beer industry in South Carolina, then Chris Brown ’05 kicked it wide open. A geology major at the College, Brown was drawn to the idea of brewery ownership because of his love of science and his background in Charleston’s food and beverage industry.
As co-owner of Holy City Brewing in North Charleston, Brown has proven that craft breweries produce more than just cleverly named concoctions. They can also generate profits at a staggering rate.
Since Brown and partners Joel Carl, Mac Minaudo and Sean Nemitz ’09 launched Holy City in 2011, production has swelled by about 900 percent and the company now boasts annual revenues of more than $2 million. Holy City employs 25 brewers and bartenders, and its beers can be found in hundreds of bars, restaurants and stores across the state.
That success didn’t come easy. Brown and his partners started with nothing. There were no trust funds to fall back on and no venture capitalists lining up to fund their dream. They struggled to find a single bank willing to finance their venture and ultimately cobbled together funding through a variety of sources, including several maxed-out personal credit cards.
As its name suggests, Holy City is all about Charleston. From its logo of the downtown Charleston skyline to beers such as “Pluff Mud Porter,” “Washout Wheat” and “Slanted Porch,” Holy City is a high-gravity homage to Chucktown. Even the College gets a nod: Brown pays respect to the precarious walkways and sidewalks of his alma mater with a beer called “Tripping Brick.”
The focus on Lowcountry landmarks is more than just branding. Brown and his partners credit their rapid growth to a simple “locals first” philosophy. In fact, more than 80 percent of the 700 stores, bars and restaurants that carry Holy City beer are concentrated along the coast between Charleston and Hilton Head. While the idea of confining a business to a relatively small geographic area may seem limiting, Brown says it is part of long-term strategy to grow the company. “I have always believed that if we take care of the locals and support the community, even if growth is contained, we are going to make a bigger impact on other markets as we expand.”
And expand they will. This year, Holy City is embarking on a $1.5 million expansion of its Dorchester Road facility, an investment that Brown and the other owners expect to be a step toward making Holy City competitive on a regional scale. The increased production capacity should enable the brewery to double its revenues in the first year following expansion, Brown says. And by 2018, he projects production to be on par with several notable breweries that distribute their libations across the country.
But Holy City’s ethos has a second component – “make work fun” – that, according to Brown, is equally as important as the brewery’s focus on the local market.
And why not make working at a craft brewery fun? After all, many people already believe that craft brewers are merely potbellied hobbyists with a penchant for strong suds and bushy beards. “I think a lot of people just assume that we don’t really work hard, that we sit around all day drinking beer and screwing around,” says Brown. “I want to tell people, ‘Yeah, I have a beer after work, and, yeah, we have fun on the job, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t focused on running a successful business.’”
Take, for example, Brown’s job title, which is a hard-earned point of pride for many working Americans. Around Holy City and on its website, Brown is known as “Mayor of the Flavor Jungle.” Bestowed on Brown by one of his employees, the moniker reflects the easygoing culture he has fostered at Holy City, where, on any given day, you are likely to encounter employees engaging in impromptu slam-dunk contests, harrowing forklift rodeos and shirtless belly flops into steaming piles of spent grain. All while music from Billy Joel – exclusively his 1980s catalog of hits like “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It” and “An Innocent Man” – pumps over the warehouse sound system. Not necessarily Joel’s best work, and certainly not what you would expect from a burly cast of brewers.
Brown contently surveys these scenes and says simply, “I just want my guys to be happy.”
If the workplace cultures of technology behemoths Facebook, Google and Amazon have taught us anything, it’s that there is no one right way to succeed. In the craft brewing game, quality is king, but creativity runs a close second. Do away with the corporate formalities and foster an environment of self-expression, creativity and the free flow of ideas, and you will be rewarded with employees who actually enjoy their work.
Within the walls of Holy City, “the Mayor” has created just such an environment, and not only is it paying off financially, it’s also inspiring a new generation of craft brewers hoping to cash in on the movement.
The Young Gun
Ryan Coker ’05 considers himself to be the de facto leader of this new wave of South Carolina beer brewers. But unlike many upstart brewers rushing into operation in the hopes of striking it rich, Coker, the founding partner and head brewer of Revelry Brewing in downtown Charleston, took a methodical and pragmatic approach.
By the time Holy City was churning out its first batch of beer in 2011, Coker had already begun a yearlong process of developing his business plan. It took him another two years to link up with the right partners, Sean Fleming ’05 and Jay Daratony, and to secure enough funding to completely renovate the brewery’s facility.
The crew of budding businessmen opened Revelry in fall 2014 and, like Brown and Tenny, they have plenty of their own skin in the game: Each partner is in for well over $100,000. In less than two years, the brewery has already expanded production and has grown to more than 10 employees, at least half of whom hold College of Charleston degrees.
Coker and company pay a premium for Revelry’s location in the up-and-coming “No Mo” area of Charleston. It’s located just south of where Morrison Drive intersects with Meeting Street, near a cluster of bars and restaurants that range from funky to renowned. Several new establishments are under construction, and investors and developers are gobbling up land in the area to take advantage of the migration of young people up the peninsula.
While Revelry’s trendy spot and somewhat hipster vibe project a different feel than Holy City or COAST, Coker is quick to praise Tenny and Brown for creating and growing their industry. “Jaime and Chris paved the way for me,” says Coker. “If I don’t make quality beer, then I risk tearing down all they have done to build South Carolina’s beer scene.”
In many ways, Coker, with a personal gas tank that never seems to fall to E, is very much a reflection of how Tenny describes herself during her legislative lobbying crusade – full of youth and vigor. Asking Coker a question is like overloading a blunderbuss with facts and information and standing back as it spews forth a stream-of-consciousness blast. His answers run from A to Z with a pit stop at K – just long enough for him to take a long pull of his beer, greet a customer, share advice with an aspiring brewer and inform his co-brewer that work the following day will commence at 5 a.m. “We are brewing a double batch tomorrow,” Coker explains, “so we have to get going early.”
It’s not that Coker is scattered. Quite the opposite. His brain is running so quickly through a mental checklist for the brewery – and his finger is so permanently connected to the pulse of his business – that financial figures, marketing ideas and two-, five- and 10-year goals escape from his voicebox faster than the average person can comprehend what he’s saying.
Much of Coker’s excitement is derived from the fact that he has finally found a career that makes him happy. When Coker was first introduced to home brewing by his now-wife in 2008, he was working as a marketing director for a long-term care facility.
“I looked into the face of my own mortality every day,” says Coker. “It began to weigh on me.”
His brewing hobby started out as a fun escape but soon morphed into an obsession. “Eventually, I had too much time and money invested in brewing not to pursue it,” he says.
While Tenny and Brown both came to brewing without a business-specific education, Coker’s business administration degree from the College informs much of what he does and how he does it. He spouts off about cross-marketing ventures, cost-free capitalization and how “beer is a great bargaining chip.”
“I often find myself reflecting on my classes in supply chain management and, no joke, business ethics,” Coker says. “I quickly learned the ‘right’ way to do something isn’t always the easiest or cheapest.”
Coker’s hardwiring prevents him from cutting corners or skimping on the finer details of his operation. The hip location, stylish branding and artistic renovations in Revelry’s tasting room are all byproducts of his meticulous nature.
To Coker, the business side is as much a part of his operation as the production side. That’s not to say that Revelry isn’t focused on making good beer. Revelry has become a local favorite, and Coker is on the cutting edge of experimentation, using unconventional ingredients and brewing techniques to cultivate beer styles that are full of taste.
“I get to play mad scientist and run a business at the same time,” Coker says wildly, his booming voice and raspy machine-gun laugh revealing a man possessed by his passion.
He has good reason to be jovial: In just its second full year of production, Revelry is expected to clear $1 million in revenue in 2016.
OK. So they work in converted warehouses in parts of town that used to be known for crime or heavy industry. The labels of the products that Coker, Brown and Tenny produce are whimsical and fun and not at all serious. They make beer, not plutonium or microchips.
But these are real businesses and their owners are serious people. Despite outward appearances and the novelty of their craft, there is far more to these alums, and all brewery owners, for that matter, than beer.
Consider this: Tenny almost singlehandedly created a market for a product and then produced the product for that market. That’s the type of raw instinct that can’t be taught in a business class, and it’s the same culture-creating, generation-defining magic that has helped create brands like Nike and Apple.
If you rewrote Brown’s story of success – he’s on track for $4 million in sales after only five years – and replaced the word “beer” with software or clothing, he would be widely touted as a natural entrepreneur motivated by a passion for his product, relentless determination and a keen business sense.
All three will confess, however, that despite their successes, they are sometimes frustrated by stereotypes associated with their industry, namely the whole beer and beards thing. Ultimately, these misconceptions boil down to a lack of education about the business of beer.
“Travel out West, to California or Colorado, and beer is the standard,” Tenny says. The industry is about more than putting a craft beer in every customer’s hand; it’s about the public understanding the benefits that a brewery can bring to a community.
As new markets continue to emerge along the East Coast, several craft beer giants from out West are investing in second or third operations in states such as North Carolina and Virginia – a reverse manifest destiny of sorts. These breweries have shown a willingness to pour hundreds of millions into their facilities, immediately injecting life into downtrodden areas, pumping millions into local construction industries and creating hundreds of jobs for local workforces.
Far from feeling threatened by an influx of larger, deep-pocketed companies, Tenny, Brown and Coker see this outside interest, at least in part, as validation of the local industry they have built and continue to nurture.
The future of craft beer in South Carolina is bright. And take it from these three Cougars: It’s not all fun and games. Or, as Tenny puts it, “Beer is important.”