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New South Brewery: The beer from here

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

It’s always happy hour at the New South Brewery.

Owner David Epstein of Hagley Estates is living his dream of brewing award-winning craft beers that are readily available to the consumer. New South is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month and has begun to reach the masses with a contract to supply coastal and Columbia market Walmart stores as “The Beer From Here.”

Epstein and a crew of three operate the brewery on Campbell Street in an industrial park near the Myrtle Beach Airport. After a day of tasting products, Epstein says he goes home to the Pawleys Island area and — what else? — has a beer. “Quality control,” he said, “and research and development.”

New South had been making a name for itself as a draft beer on tap at restaurants and bars before the landscape shifted. “The whole craft brewing world has evolved, especially in the last three years,” Epstein said. “When we started out, trying to put a regular American pale ale on the market was a real tough sell. People didn’t understand what we were trying to do. Now people are wanting India Pale Ale, pepper beer and flavors. It’s really changed. We’ve changed our recipe over time, slowly but surely adding more hops to the IPA to give it more flavor. We’ve done different beers, seasonal beer.”

New South’s imperial stout, Lily The Great, is an example of the fruits of a changing state law. With 11.3 percent alcohol, it’s a strong version of an American stout that is aged for months in former bourbon barrels to accrue an oak flavor. “You have your regular-test stout,” Epstein said. “Lily The Great is high-test.” Formerly, state law prevented any beer from exceeding 6 percent alcohol. With no legal limit, the marketplace determines the percentage now.

More recent changes in state law allow the brewery to operate like a winery with public tours and tastings.

“We weren’t a public place until three years ago when the law changed,” Epstein said. “Twelve of our 15 years we were closed to the public. We couldn’t do retail of any sort. The law changed two or three years ago that allowed us to do beer to go and about five months ago the law changed even further, allowing us to pour beer here. We are not technically a bar, but we are sort of behaving like one, more like a winery.” New South gives free tours with 4-ounce tastes of three beers on Tuesdays and Thursdays followed by retail tap room hours from 4:30 to 7 p.m. with 12-ounce pours for $3 and $4. On Fridays, it’s happy hour from 4:30 to 7 p.m. for mostly locals. Brewery employees have to keep tabs on how much beer is sold, down to the ounce. “We are not a bar,” Epstein said. “Honestly, I don’t want to be a bar. I like the idea of closing up shop at 7 o’clock.”

New South displays the medals it has won in brewing competitions on a wall behind the bar. Employees, Epstein said, are bugging him to go back to the Great American Beerfest competition in Colorado. “It’s not like we can pick up and go to Denver,” he said. “For 15 years this has been a labor of love, but it’s a brutal business. Making beer is fun, and we have a good time, but it’s hard work when you’ve got three guys.” His experienced employees are Roddy Graham and Brock Kurtzman. Jacob Rice, son of U.S. 1st District Rep. Tom Rice, was promoted from an intern two months ago. He plans to go to brewing school next summer.

South Carolina, Epstein said, has maintained its strict three-tiered system: brewers, distributors and retailers. The laws, he said, were put in place to protect distributors’ territories. “The way it was written hurt the small brewer in the state,” he said, “but they are making some changes to make it a little bit easier. With more lenient laws, North Carolina is approaching 100 breweries. We have 12 in South Carolina, most of them in Charleston.”

Epstein’s fascination with beer started with home brewing while he was at Warren Wilson College, a small, liberal arts school near Asheville, N.C., where he studied psychology and art. He took his hobby to a profession when he moved to Colorado and got a job at Boulder Brewing Company, a craft brewer. “That’s where I cut my teeth,” Epstein said. He started by stacking cases on the bottling line and worked his way to the brew house for formal training.

He and a friend, Josh Quigley, started New South Brewery in Myrtle Beach. “Thanksgiving ’98 was the first time Josh and I brewed beer in here,” Epstein said. “We hit the streets in the first weeks of 1999.”

By 2007, Quigley decided he would open a restaurant, Quigley’s Pint and Plate, at Litchfield, serving his own brews. “There’s that distinction in South Carolina,” Epstein said. “You’re either a restaurant or a production brewery. You can’t be both. We are able to act a little more like a bar now, but there are still rules and regulations. It’s a lot different from being a bar/restaurant.”

Epstein stayed the course with his own recipe, combining water, barley, hops and yeast. “We are in a Renaissance time of craft brewing now,” he said. “There are other ingredients being added, fruits and spices going into beers, crazy stuff changing what beer can taste like now.”

Until three years ago, New South Beer was sold only in kegs. A factory canning machine in 2010 made it available on retail shelves. Epstein said a bigger canning machine is coming along with a new 3,200-gallon brewing tank. “Got to keep Walmart stocked,” he said.

White Ale is New South’s flagship beer, going along with the original lager, Nut Brown Ale and American Pale Ale and India Pale Ale. “We didn’t start making White Ale until about 2003,” Epstein said, “and then it was a summer seasonal for three years. Bar and restaurant owners began saying they could sell this beer year-round.”

New South has actually reduced its market area to concentrate on the Grand Strand, Columbia and Florence. “We were in the Upstate and North Carolina for three or four years,” Epstein said, “but about two years ago we decided to pull in the reins. We couldn’t keep up. Even though we are in fewer markets, we are selling more beer than ever.”

New South is found locally on tap at Pawleys Island Tavern, Frank’s Restaurant and Nosh. In addition to Walmart, cans are on shelves in Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Fresh Market and Pawleys Island Wine and Spirits.

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