Rock Hill entrepreneur's specialty beer business booming, thanks to change in law

04/10/2008 12:45 AM

04/10/2008 12:53 AM

Jeff LeVine is fast becoming South Carolina's beer man.

Last spring, with a leased delivery truck and a hand-me-down keg cooler, LeVine founded Carolina Craft Distributing, a wholesaler of craft, micro-brewed and international beers, in a small warehouse on the northwest side of Rock Hill.

Today, the ambitious young entrepreneur has beer, wine and liquor up to the rafters of his warehouse. His cooler, the same used machine now resting on cement blocks so a forklift can drive in, is full of the most unique beers in the world. And last month, the Fort Mill resident purchased Charleston's Chavon Distributing, a mainly wine wholesaler, extending his reach from the top of the Palmetto State to the bottom.

"We literally doubled our business overnight," LeVine, 35, said last week in a rare moment of free time.

The signs of growth are everywhere at Craft: pallets of beer waiting to be unpacked, new wine racks waiting to be installed and a phone that never seems to stop ringing -- bars and stores wanting more booze.

In less than a year, LeVine is projecting $3 million -- and growing -- in annual sales. He's signed deals to supply hard-to-find suds to most of the state's grocery chains as well as dozens of bars and restaurants.

So, what's the secret to such a meteoric rise from start-up status?

LeVine thanks the South Carolina Legislature.

Last April, state lawmakers changed an age-old law that banned beer with more than a 6 percent alcohol volume to allow for alcohol contents in beer up to 17 percent. That opened the door to a new market in South Carolina -- the world of specialty and craft beers, many brewed in small local breweries in other states or countries.

"Because of the wording, South Carolina can now actually sell beer with a higher alcohol content than North Carolina and Georgia," LeVine said, noting neighboring states only allow up to 14 percent alcohol volume. "So, because this is the Bible Belt, I'm sure somebody in Columbia got fired after we figured that out."

The new law gave Palmetto State bars an advantage over surrounding states and served beer drinkers something they longed for. Because the alcohol industry is based on a three-tier system where wholesalers order from breweries and supply the booze to bar owners and retailers, the change immediately created opportunities for distributors.

"Jeff is a prime example of that," said Julie Cox, executive director of the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association. "He saw the market, and when the law changed, he stepped right in there."

Cox said the addition of craft beers in South Carolina has been a boon to other distributors, too. Some of the state's mainstream beer wholesalers have begun carrying a selection of craft beers as bars and restaurants demand the variety, she said.

"It's a real trendy thing right now," she said. "The craft beers are even being served at a lot of festivals."

David Sills, owner of The Grapevine wine bar and shop, is a major client for Craft Distributing. He said the beers and wines he buys from Craft are popular with his customers. And he thinks LeVine's business plan and work ethic will continue to brew big success.

"He's a hustlin' businessman. I get e-mails from him sometimes at two o'clock in the morning," Sills said. "He's taken a lot of risks and invested a lot. But I think it's going to pay off for him."

LeVine, in the beer business since age 20, including a stint in the Czech Republic with a European distributor, said he hopes someday to have headquarters centered in Columbia so he can better serve the whole state. But for now, he's content with his Rock Hill base.

"I couldn't afford to start a new business and move at the same time," he said. "So, Rock Hill it is."

With the purchase of Chavon, LeVine said in coming months he hopes to expand his wine and craft liquor business, where some bottles retail for more than $1,000.

He's also trying to have fun with his success. That's the reason he's in the beer business to begin with, he said. LeVine this month is traveling to the World Beer Cup in San Diego where more than 2,000 ales, lagers, pilseners, porters and stouts from across the globe compete.

His staff of 14 sales representatives and truck drivers get together at the end of long days to sample new beers and wines. LeVine even keeps a different variety on tap in the office so his staff can enjoy a cold one at the end of the day.

"I go home and have a bourbon sometimes," LeVine responded when asked if he ever tires of his products. "But I'm a beer man. That's me."

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