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Lagunitas Brewing Co. finds Southern comfort in new Charleston brewpub

Lagunitas Brewing Co. has opened up a new brewpub in downtown Charleston S.C., taking over the Southend Brewery and Smokehouse. The Petaluma brewer will offer up special beers that can be only available at the location, which overlooks Charleston Harbor. (Credit: Courtesy of Chrys Rynearson)

BILL SWINDELL,

Charleston, South Carolina is known for a lot of things, from its incredible architectural styles to its Low Country cuisine.

Now you can add Lagunitas Brewing Co. to the mix, as the Petaluma brewer on Sept. 30 opened its new brewpub in the city, bringing its hoppy beers and irreverent business approach to the city noted for its Southern charm and rich history.

The reception has been incredible, said Brian Fadden, general manager of the Lagunitas taproom in Chicago, who worked on the opening of the new brewpub, former home of the Southend Brewery and Smokehouse.

“I can tell you, everywhere I went from the first taxi I took to the concierge at the hotel... to any bartender and server, they just couldn’t wait until it opened,” Fadden said. “There wasn’t a spot people didn’t stop me.”

The venture is one of the first by Lagunitas, as it now seeks to grow domestically through more of a small-ball strategy to growing its brand rather than opening up another large-scale brewery or solely focusing on buying out smaller rivals like Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors. “It’s become evident to everybody that you build affinity when you make a commitment to a town. People are proud you chose them. They are proud to be supporting the brewery,” said Tony Magee, founder and executive chairman of Lagunitas, in an interview in August. It also plans to open buildings in Portland, Oregon and San Diego, where it will house fundraisers for nonprofit groups, and another taproom in Seattle.

Lagunitas had been on an explosive growth path, opening its Chicago brewery in 2014 and a third brewery in Azusa next year.

At the same time, it has an ambitious international plan working with Heineken International, which owns 50 percent of Lagunitas, as it goes into Europe and Mexico.

The Charleston brewery represented an opportunity to revive an area in an historic district where in 2013 a fire gutted four bars. The three-story brick structure overlooks Charleston Harbor from the top and houses a 20-barrel brewhouse as well as brick oven to make pizzas, a new menu item for Lagunitas, Fadden said.

The taproom will house the beers it’s primarily known for, such as its IPA (India pale ale); Little Sumpin’ Sumpin,’ a pale wheat ale; and a few specialty brews that are only available at its taprooms. In addition, it will brew beers that can only be purchased at the Charleston taproom, Fadden said.

The motif is typical Lagunitas, with old, mismatched chairs and sofas, musical instruments strung along the walls, modern wooden tables and a color scheme of purple on the accent walls.

The change didn’t go over well with a few who booked the space for their wedding receptions before the Lagunitas purchase. One bride told the Charleston City Paper that “it basically goes from rustic and historic to looking like someone’s garage.”

But the reception among the craft brewing community has been strong, especially after a well-attended welcoming bash for local brewers and those in the industry. Lagunitas kept employees who worked at Southend while bringing in an assistant taproom manager from Chicago as well as its own brewing staff, Fadden said. Ninety people work at the location.

“It does seem like the whole city is super buzzed about us,” Fadden said.

The Charleston metro area, which has more than 725,000 residents, has turned into a budding craft beer destination as it has gone from having one brewpub in 2007 to about 20 now, said Paul Pavlich, taproom manager at the Holy City Brewing Co. in Charleston.

“They are adding to a great scene that has been created,” Pavlich said of Lagunitas. “Charleston is not shy of drinkers.”

The South has traditionally lagged other parts of the country in craft beer. Their state laws have not kept up with the resurgence that began after President Carter signed legislation in 1978 that exempted beer brewed at home for personal or family use from taxation.

There are still a number of prohibitionary “blue laws” on the books in the region.

South Carolina, however, has modernized its alcohol laws in recent years in an unsuccessful bid to lure Stone Brewing Co. from Escondido. Stone picked Richmond, Va. instead.

“We are kind of last to the party,” Pavlich said.