With the recent opening of Conquest Brewing Co., Columbia was finally put on the map as a burgeoning beer city in the Palmetto State. But more importantly, it showed prospective brewers that there was support for local craft beer in the Capital City.
By the end of 2013 or the first quarter of 2014 at the latest, the second production craft brewery in Columbia will be online in the form of the River Rat Brewery. A partnership between a burgeoning homebrewer with an interest in going big and a longtime professional brewer from one of the country’s largest craft breweries, River Rat is aiming to quench not just the local thirst for craft beer, but also a much larger clientele.
About a year ago, Mike Tourville, 51, picked up his first homebrewing kit at Lexington’s Keg Cowboy, eventually expanding into a professional prefabricated 15-gallon system. As he began cranking out double IPAs, non-traditional sours and more, his desire to produce on a much larger scale grew.
A self-described outdoorsman, Tourville said the brewery name came from “river rats,” or those who have an affinity for spending time on one of Columbia’s many waterways. (“Three Rivers,” another name he considered, was already taken. And as for the rat skull/boat paddle/beer bottle logo design, Tourville said he has a thing for skulls.)
So, Tourville set out to get that bigger production going. As a with around 30 years experience at Orangeburg-based Zeus Inc., which specializes in material science and high performance polymers, Tourville was able to self-finance the purchase of a building – 1231 Shop Road, in the former Food Resources and Solutions building next to The State newspaper – renovations and construction, and the necessary equipment to get a production brewery online.
“The building, of course, dictates the capacity, but this is all the space we need,” Tourville said of the one-acre plot. “We have the room for expansion.”
When all is said and done, the 4,000 square-foot facility will house a 15 BBL brewing system, 30 BBL fermenters for regular releases and 15 BBL fermenters for more experimental beers. The brewery will be able to produce about 45 BBL – more than 1,400 gallons – in one brew day.
Tourville admitted brewing on such a larger scale requires a skilled hand, which is why he hired former Abita brewmaster Mark Walters to oversee the brewing operations. Walters has 18 years of brewing experience under his belt, including a four-year stint as head brewer for the largest brewery in the Southeast. Since 2009, Walters has worked as the head of R&D at Abita.
“I’m the apprentice here, and I’ve made that clear to Mark,” said Tourville. “I think we make a really dynamic duo. He’ll bring the experience and I’ll have my two cents on what to brew.”
Going from an annual production of 175,000 BBL at Abita to something such as River Rat is a change of scenery for Walters, but he’s excited about his new venture.
“Mike really does make good homebrews, so I’m excited to get those out on a much larger scale,” said Walters.
What exactly River Rat will produce is still being figured out, but Tourville said the brewery will specialize in “full-bodied ales” and “no gateway beers.” His DIPA will likely see mass production, as well as Belgian-style beers, seasonal releases, session beers and more. He hopes to have about five beers available at the brewery’s opening. They’ll also explore either bottled or canned offerings – or both – down the line, and Tourville said he’s aiming for distribution as far as the West Coast in the future.
The team is also mulling which distributor to sign with, but Tourville said he’s leaning toward Advintage, which also represents South Carolina’s COAST and Westbrook breweries.
Above everything Tourville envisions for the brewery in the future, he wants an amicable relationship with breweries both down the road and across the state.
“We want civility,” he said. “We’re not gunning for anybody else; we’re not looking to overshadow other South Carolina breweries. It’s beer. It should be fun.”