Brewery owners, Lexington officials laud impact of ‘beer bill’

Locals stop by River Rat Brewery on Shop Road to grab a pint during the grand opening. (photo by Rachel Ham)

Locals stop by River Rat Brewery on Shop Road to grab a pint during the grand opening. (photo by Rachel Ham)

A law that could bode well for Lexington County’s recruitment of a major company also has positive implications for local, existing businesses and wholesalers statewide.

Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law earlier this month that loosens restrictions on breweries by not capping production, allowing them to serve food, and allowing them to serve more than three pints of beer per customer per day.

Randy Halfacre, president and CEO of the Greater Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center, is one local champion of the “beer bill”. He and other Lexington County officials have been following the issue closely to see if it might influence Stone Brewing’s decision on where to establish the company’s new East Coast headquarters.

Stone Brewing, based in California, sent out a request for proposals during the first quarter of 2014, and area economic development officials have been hard at work recruiting the investment and new jobs ever since. The company would not only bring a large-scale brewery operation but also a retail line and Stone World Bistro restaurant.

Halfacre said the company has hired a site location consultant to help with the process. Leaders from the S.C. Department of Commerce also visited with Stone Brewing officials a few weeks ago in California.

“I believe the ‘Stone Legislation’ that passed and the governor signed recently will be a ‘game changer’ for craft beer making here in our state,” Halfacre said. “Our central (location) on the east coast with major interstates and a quality workforce makes for strong recruiting.”

“It’s going to hopefully increase the number of craft breweries that come into South Carolina,” agreed Julie Cox, executive director of the South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Stone Brewing officials said the East Coat operations will create about 400 jobs.

The bill also will aid existing small businesses who specialize in craft beer brewing.

“I feel relieved about (the legislation),” said Mike Tourville, owner and brewer at River Rat Brewery in Columbia. “I can operate the way I want to without the state government stifling growth.”

Tourville said his business will now have the option to open a restaurant or bistro in conjunction with the brewery and sell more out of their taproom.

“Our long-term plans may also include being a music venue with food and food trucks, which is not something we had considered before,” he said.

Early drafts of the bill released limits on brewpubs, not breweries. Lobbying by the SC Beer Wholesalers Association, which is made up of wholesalers who market and distribute beer to retailers, led to an amended version that benefited breweries as well.

Matt Rodgers, brewmaster at the Old Mill Brewpub, said the final version won’t affect the downtown Lexington business much but should be good for the industry in general.

“It’s a progressive beer law. I think (legislators) all appreciate craft beers,” he said. “This can put us at the top of the list for recruiting a large brewery … and help the craft beer climate.”

Rodgers said the bill would benefit the Old Mill Brewpub if the business were to transition to a brewery. For now, he brews just enough to serve customers.

“It’s nice to have the option,” he said.

The “Stone Bill” is not the first time craft brewing has come up in the state legislature. Changes to the state’s beer laws started a few years ago when the craft brewing industry began to develop in South Carolina.

“There were lots of small breweries popping up,” said Cox.

The SC Beer Wholesalers Association worked with the South Carolina Brewers Association to change laws to accommodate the new distillers. They lobbied to increase the alcohol content of beer from 5 percent to 14 percent so craft brew companies could produce their kind of beer.

“Craft beer is notoriously higher in alcohol than regular beer,” said Cox. “It gives them a lot of range  for production.”

The wholesalers association also worked to permit the small breweries to host tours, beer samplings and increase the amount they could sell in tap rooms to allow businesses to thrive.

The state’s recent push to land Stone Brewing for South Carolina opened the door for amendments to the state’s beer and alcohol laws.

Cox said her association initially stepped in to make sure the new bill was drafted correctly.

“They thought we were trying to kill it when they introduced it,” she said.

The bill originally included a cap of 500,000 barrels, but Cox said the association’s efforts helped to that restriction dropped. The association also lobbied to put food service into the bill.

Cox said the association’s members are thrilled about the bill and supportive of the craft brew industry. She said the addition of craft breweries in the state has the potential to provide some jobs.

“We like economic development. We love giving people jobs,” she said. “The more beer, the merrier.”

 

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