Hunter Gatherer Brewery-Alehouse
Columbia, South Carolina
Four-thirty A.M. is not typically the time you’d find a brewer at work. But Kevin Varner, brewer and owner of Hunter Gatherer Brewery-Alehouse in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, had already agreed to the television appearance before learning the schedule. Though he takes a low-keyed approach to marketing – no logo, no website – free publicity on live television was too good of an opportunity to let slip by. So as the mouthy, local morning man interviewed the drowsy brewer, Kevin went through the motions, credibly pretending to brew in an empty kettle, spraying water and talking proper beer talk.
Kevin was 19 when he first discovered that all beer did not taste the same. It was no inconsequential matter that he was attending school in Scotland at the time. When he returned home to Spartanburg, South Carolina after the six months study program, he checked a home brewing kit as luggage. From that point on, he fell head over heels into his new-found hobby, quickly acquiring a 20 gallon homebrew system.
While attending school in Columbia, Kevin attempted to form a home brewing club, but found his southern schoolmates disinterested. As a result, most of his technique and brewing foundation came from his own brewing efforts and books. During the summer of 1990, the eager brewer worked for Hales Ales in Washington State. He returned to that ten-barrel brewery the following year as a full-time employee. There he remained until 1994, not uncoincidentally the same year that his home state passed legislation making brewpubs legal.
An old shell of a building, in the midst of Columbia’s state government district, was secured as a viable site. Cleaning and renovation was extensive. With financial help from family members, Hunter Gatherer Brewery-Alehouse opened its doors in 1995.
For the first several years, Hunter-Gatherer’s food, according to Kevin, was hit-or-miss. But his beer was on the mark from the start. Hunter Gatherer serves no beer except their own. From his ten-barrel brew house, the lone brewer keeps three beers on tap full-time with one tap serving a rotating seasonal offering, usually a dark brew. Utilizing 30% wheat in the American-style recipe, Hunter Gatherer Wheat is served sans lemon. Two-row malt, accented lightly with Hallertau and Fuggles hops, results in a crisp, refreshing drink that defies the word light. Cleanly golden, this flavorful ale exits with a brittle bitter bite.
Kevin’s Pale Ale is the brewpub’s best seller. Just pale malt augmented with a little Crystal, Pale is all English. Fuggles and Golden hops give balance to the medium body of this the burnt caramel malt sensations, revealing bitterness only at each swallow’s end. Very copper in color, decked with a lacy tan head, ESB is well-rounded with bitter notes. Dry on the roof of the mouth, bitter on the tongue, it’s Clusters and Hallertau hops at work, contrasting Crystal and a touch of Black Patent malt.
Kevin makes several seasonal porters, one easy, one stronger, though both derive their defining flavor from Black Patent malt. His Stout is built around a Roasted malt taste base. Hunter Gatherer’s special winter brew is Ye Olde Bastarde. Not brewed in any particular style, though per Kevin it’s close to an olde ale, this hefty-bodied brew features a complexity of flavors, flitting from prune danish to toasted oatmeal. Its entangling tastes do not, however, hide the beer’s smooth mouthfeel and virtual deliciousness.
Located just one block from the State Capital Building, the small brick building once served as a fire station. In fact, from the balcony dining area, charred timbers can be seen above the brew house. Yes, the firehouse had its own fire to fight. Though the building operated as a restaurant since 1970, Kevin and crew essentially started from scratch when the project began. It’s definitely rustic, appointed with a collection of old, odd, unmatched tables and chairs. Adorning the walls is a more peculiar display of artifacts, capitalizing on Kevin’s African ambassador brother-in-law’s collection of hand-crafted art. Hunter Gatherer also allows local artists to hang their art and sponsors an in-house art show every three or four months. The brewpub’s name, Kevin explains, was chosen for its catchiness and has no particular meaning.
The brewpub is opens each Tuesday through Saturday in late afternoon. Even though it’s within walking-distance of many state offices, Hunter Gatherer has never been open for lunch. That’s just Kevin’s preference. State law prohibits alcohol sales on Sundays. And Monday completes his weekend respite. The 100-seat establishment hosts occasional wine tastings and boasts a menu that runs from pizza and pasta to salmon croquettes, Irish lamb stew, made with beer, to filet mignon.
A fairly traditional brewer of English style ales, Kevin likes to drink his beer very fresh, right from the fermenter. Fresh is, indeed, best. Nothing fancy, nothing weird, Hunter Gatherer is about as simply stated as a brewpub can be. And that sentiment concisely describes its owner. Television stardom may not be in the tea leaves for Kevin Varner. Hops leaves may be more appropriate, for well-designed and expertly made beers top his resume.
Hunter Gatherer Brewery-Alehouse
900 Main Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Hunter Gatherer serves up some great food – check out the MENU and now open for lunch!