April 5, 2014

Brewing: Rock Hill taps into craft beer culture

As city leaders plan for a redevelopment of old textile sites in Rock Hill and hope to draw more business downtown, some observers say the city could soon be ready for at least one small microbrewery and a craft beer store and bar.

As city leaders plan for a redevelopment of old textile sites in Rock Hill and seek to draw more business downtown, some observers say the city could soon be ready for at least one small microbrewery and a craft beer store and bar.

Land in Rock Hill’s Riverwalk development was recently sold for one brewpub or microbrewery. Riverwalk has been under development for several years near Cherry Road and Interstate 77.

In downtown Rock Hill, Craig Kinley of Growler Haus is scouting for a location for his business – a craft beer shop. Growler Haus representatives were in Rock Hill recently for the second time in the past few months, checking the pulse of craft beer enthusiasts in the area.

The company already has locations in Spartanburg and Anderson.

In the Upstate, Growler Haus serves craft beer fans by offering a gathering place for customers to experience a culture shaped around unique brews, Kinley said.

Rock Hill could be the right place for Growler Haus to open its next shop, Kinley told The Herald late last month. The company’s business model works within what he calls the craft beer “ecosystem.”

Craft beers typically cost a few dollars more than more well-known, widely-distributed beer brands. The smallest craft beer brands are usually distributed regionally. Microbreweries – which are small, independently-owned enterprises such as those in Charlotte’s North Davidson arts district – often attract visitors and tourists who are on the hunt for specialty beer.

At its current locations, Growler Haus partners with the community by hosting events with arts groups, the faith community and local entrepreneurs. The business also attracts customers looking for live music and a place to meet local brewers.

If Growler Haus chooses a spot in downtown Rock Hill, it could complement nearby craft beer service already offered at McHale’s on Main Street and Millstone Pizza on Caldwell Street. Both McHale’s and Millstone serve dozens of craft beers on tap or in the bottle.

Local bars and restaurants could have a York County-brewed beer to offer customers if plans come through for a microbrewery or brewpub in the Riverwalk development in Rock Hill. Three acres, overlooking the Giordana Velodrome, have been sold for that project, developer Dave Williams said.

Riverwalk boasts single-family homes and city-owned recreational venues, including a soon-to-open BMX Supercross race facility. Apartments are also in the works, as is a new YMCA branch.

Williams has not publicly released many details about the brewpub or microbrewery, but a Charlotte-based architectural firm confirmed last year that it was working on a restaurant and brewery building in Riverwalk called “Legal Remedies.” The Herald has been unable to reach the owners of the future microbrewery.

The owners, Williams said, are not ready to publicly release details. Several projects for Riverwalk are in the works, he said, but many are in the early stages.

While microbrewery plans for Riverwalk appear to be under wraps, Grapevine wine and craft beer bar owner Dave Sills in Fort Mill, told The Herald last week that he is enthusiastic about opening a Rock Hill location in Williams’ development.

Sills owns Grapevine bar in Fort Mill’s Baxter Village. His retail shop and bar includes nearly 200 bottled craft beers and a rotating selection of about one dozen draft beers on tap. Sills’ annual “Beertopia” in Fort Mill has made a splash in the local craft beer circle.

He has plans to open a Grapevine in Riverwalk, he said, hopefully along the Catawba River – the development’s signature natural feature. Along with future restaurants and other retail options, Grapevine and a brewpub could be catalysts for more Riverwalk commercial development.

Construction on the future building where Grapevine could locate, Williams said, could begin this summer and finish in early 2015.

Craft beer appeals to ‘millennials’

The fact that craft beer start-ups or established breweries and craft beer shops might consider calling Rock Hill home doesn’t surprise local business owner Jason Collett. As chair of the Rock Hill Area Council for the York County Chamber of Commerce, Collett says he’s seen the steps the city has made to attract new businesses.

Opportunities at Riverwalk and the buzz around upcoming investments in Rock Hill’s old textile area near downtown are major draws for businesses – possibly even the craft beer industry, he said.

Having “cut his teeth” at Bell’s Brewery in Michigan nearly 20 years ago, Collett has watched the craft beer industry explode around many parts of the country. He predicts Rock Hill will eventually be part of the craft beer scene.

Collett brews beer at home on a six-keg system in Tega Cay. He has an interest in someday opening a small brewery in Rock Hill but he hasn’t picked a location and isn’t sure when it could happen.

With some investments made and more on the way under the “Knowledge Park” plan for old textile land, it’s likely a brewer will seize an opportunity in Rock Hill, he said.

Knowledge Park is expected to transform the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. land – commonly called the Bleachery. City leaders hope it will attract employers who will bring high-tech jobs and accompanying retail, restaurant and entertainment options. The development will also include some apartments and student housing.

With Winthrop University near the Bleachery site and college leaders on board with plans to closely link the campus to the city, Collett says craft beer brewers will be interested in Knowledge Park.

“Micro-brewing is all about being unique and different” – something college-aged people are usually in tune with, Collett said.

Breweries tend to start in college towns, he said, and become “part of the community fabric.” People between the ages of 21 and 35 – sometimes called “millennials” – have latched on to a “buy local” movement, he said, which has been instrumental to the craft beer boom.

Small breweries and craft beer brands typically take a social approach to marketing, he said, which further deepens the industry’s ties to young people who are active on websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Mayor: Microbrewery could work in Rock Hill

While some observers warn that the craft beer industry is a bubble bound to burst when people lose interest, Collett doesn’t agree. Many microbreweries and start-ups will fail, he said, usually because passionate brewers and craft beer fans aren’t always business-savvy.

But, he describes the fascination with the craft beer industry as “a trend, with an overlay of a fad.”

Those defending craft beer as anything-but-a-fad can point to statistics showing the economic impact of the industry in recent years. Small brewers or craft brewers contributed nearly $34 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012, according to the most recent data available from the national Brewers Association.

The Palmetto State has more than 20 breweries, including York County’s closest microbrewery: Benford Brewing in Lancaster County.

Last year, South Carolina’s craft brew industry had an economic impact of about $254 million – a small figure compared to California’s $4.7 billion and Colorado’s $1.6 billion, according to the Brewers Association.

Though the S.C. market is smaller than many other states around the country, O’Darby’s Fine Wine and Spirits co-owner Moe Hinson reports an “exponential increase in interest” in craft beer. Compared to last year, craft beer sales there have increased at least 30 percent.

O’Darby’s, which is locally-owned and operated, recently opened its third Rock Hill location, on Herlong Avenue.

The key to attracting craft beer fans, he said, is “having the stuff that’s impossible to get.”

Last week, he fielded more than 25 phone calls from customers looking for a special shipment of Founders Brewing’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout beer. Founders, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., offers KBS as a seasonal beer with limited availability.

The craft beer industry, he said, is all about “interesting beers,” and niche brews have wide appeal – the popularity goes beyond just “young adults.” The “home brew” movement is growing as well, he said, adding that there’s definitely a “coolness factor” to drinking craft beer rather than mass-distributed brands.

Hinson says he’d like to see a microbrewery or Growler Haus-type business open in Rock Hill. Craft beer “competition” is a good thing, he said, because those in the industry are usually supportive of one another.

And, more options for customers is a plus. One store, he said, “can’t carry everything.”

If microbreweries or more retail craft beer businesses are interested in Rock Hill, city leaders would likely welcome the economic development opportunities, says Mayor Doug Echols.

“Particularly when it attracts a younger market,” he said.

Early sketches and concepts for Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park showed the possibility of a brewery on the old Bleachery land. A brewery there has not been confirmed, Echols said, but the city and the developer are open to entrepreneurs with interest.

City leaders have focused on “setting the stage” for new development in and around Rock Hill, Echols said. Publicly-funded utility upgrades and street improvements have been a major part of readying the Knowledge Park area for private investments.

In most cases, Echols said, the success comes in small pieces.

Rather than seeing one big “home run,” Rock Hill’s vision for downtown and the Bleachery will likely come to fruition by getting “a lot of singles and doubles,” he said.

Tapping into craft beer culture, he said, could be “an extension of what we’ve been trying to plan for and work for.”

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