THIRTY-FIVE minutes north of Savannah, in Ridgeland, S.C., a proud man looks past his mash tun toward a row of shiny stainless steel fermenters.
You'd never expect to find a brewery start-up nestled amidst a nondescript office park in the Lowcountry. But that's where River Dog Brewing Co.'s brewmaster James Brown is building his craft beer dream.
It's been a busy few months for River Dog, which opened for business a short seven months ago. Their 15-barrel brewhouse is responsible for a main line of 5 beers with regularly scheduled creative side projects.
"We had the largest amount of serendipity on this whole project," Brown remarks as he glances at a timer running on his phone and looks over his shoulder at his brew in progress.
After scoping out a location in Bluffton's Old Town, they settled on the larger warehouse space they now occupy. It was more important to become an end-to-end, brewing-to-packaging facility spurring economic growth than to have a sexy, high-profile, tourist-laden location.
Their industrial setting doesn't mean that there isn't plenty to see. A well-designed, comfortable tasting room filled with tables and stools, looks out into the well-kept brewery floor.
"We knew that a tasting room was going to be a part of it, but it wasn't a core focus in the beginning. We're in the middle of nowhere and we never thought people would drive out to get a few samples and see some stainless steel."
But then South Carolina law changed to allow pint sales at breweries, and now Brown says "there's a steady crowd and we even have our share of regulars." As Savannah considers approving an ordinance regarding brewery tours and tastings, Brown has been happy with South Carolina's law that allows patrons to buy packaged (growler) beer up to 288 oz per person every 24 hours, or pint sales of 48oz per person per 24 hours.
The tap room features River Dog's core selection of beers as well as their special demo brews and cask beer Fridays. The five main beers in their line are all excellent representations of a broad range of styles, from an eponymous IPA to their Chocolate Rye Porter. Their Carolina Gold, however, brings a decidedly fresh and local twist on an older and often overlooked style of beer, the cream ale.
Brown was inspired by historic and native Carolina Gold rice, America's oldest hops and the refreshment needs of those participating in active lifestyles in the Southern heat.
"I'm a huge fan of small simple beers that are extremely refreshing but very flavorful. I know what I like to drink when I'm out kayaking and those are not the double IPAs. I wanted to create a clean, crisp, refreshing beer that's great for any time of day."
Brown shares kind words for Savannah, a town he views as a second home just across the state line. "I've always considered Savannah my back door, too — growing up there, I used to go there all the time going to concerts and bars and if River Dog wasn't considered local, I would take that as an insult."
And now, he's pleased that our fair city is coming into its own as a craft beer destination. "You can't go anywhere in Savannah and not get good beer. More and more kids are coming to town with SCAD, the homebrew community is growing and all that feeds back in."
Brown started as a homebrewer in the early '90s after seeing a late-night telemarketing program boasting how easy it was to brew your own beer at home. A devoted cook, he dove right in, parlaying his passion for the kitchen into creating experimental beers he couldn't find on store shelves.
"Making beer is not something anyone should be afraid of. If you can make biscuits or pancakes, you can do this."
River Dog plans to expand its distribution into Georgia in the coming weeks, and believes a big part of future success will be building a following of educated craft beer consumers.
"You don't realize how little people know about breweries in the southeast, especially our area because there aren't any." Brown looks forward to the future prospect of a craft beer trail leading from Savannah up through the Carolinas into the brewery rich towns of Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.
River Dog plans to make the Savannah Craft Brew Fest their coming-out party for Georgia, followed by keg placement in local bars and restaurants. If you can't wait that long to get a taste, take the short trip up to their tasting room which is open Wednesday through Friday 3-8 p.m. and Saturday from noon-8 p.m. or visit RiverDogBrewing.com for more information.