When Brewmaster Mark Walters poked his head out into River Rat’s tasting room to meet me last Friday, he told me that if I had shown up ten minutes later, he would have been knee deep in starting to fill the brewery’s first-ever keg, and therefore too busy to show me around and let me taste some of his beers. Yes, as excited as local beer lovers are to wrap their tongues around a brew from Columbia’s second post-Prohibition microbrewery, it’s nothing compared to how excited the River Rats themselves are. But sweet relief finally comes this week as River Rat rolls out its beers in a series of events across Columbia.
Walters and Head Brewer Drew Walker were good enough to take me around for a look at River Rat’s truly impressive facilities. Looking back at the pictures River Rat owner Mike Tourville sent me in the fall, it’s hard to believe it’s the same building at all. The front taproom has a nice bar installed and lots of seating around repurposed architect tables. There’s a cabinet filled with River Rat swag including very nice glassware, a bottle opener with the rat skull logo cut into it (that I will be buying as soon as possible), T-shirts, and even a Frisbee. There’s a sunny deck and plenty of parking. Entering the brewery itself, it becomes even more apparent that these guys mean business — and lots of it, hopefully. As Mark showed me around the facility’s mash tun, boiler and fermenters, he pointed out the empty areas that will soon be filled with more fermenters and bottling equipment. This place was definitely built with expansion in mind.
But first, the beers have to be good, right? Well, if my preview taste is any indication, River Rat was right to think of expanding, because I certainly can’t wait to drink more. The Broad River Red Ale was a highly sessionable red with some great English malt flavors and very smooth 5.3 percent ABV. I’m definitely looking forward to that bottling equipment coming in, because this will be the go-to post-lawn-mowing beer of the summer. Then there’s the Hazelnut Brown Ale, which includes “a ridiculous amount of hazelnut” according to Walters, yet pulls off the difficult trick of delivering a pleasant nutty flavor without tasting bitter or burnt. The Winter Warmer Ale is the very first batch River Rat ever made on its equipment. During first runs with new equipment, mistakes often happen and the beer ends up discarded, but according to Walker, “We started brewing it, and nothing went wrong.” This happy accident is an aromatic spiced ale perfect for these last few cold Carolina nights.
Perhaps my favorite of beers was the River Rat Double IPA. It really is quite different from what I’ve grown to expect from the style. Instead of blasting your taste buds with hops, the hops mix well with the English malts for a floral experience that finishes with a subtle peppery kick. This beer will join the lineup previously mentioned at events starting Feb. 27. Finally, I got a taste of the Moncks Corner Abbey Ale, which won’t really be ready until early March, but even at this early tasting, I could tell that this is going to be one amazing beer, a Belgian-style Dubbel with complex notes of banana and fig. As Walters put it as we were talking, “Brewing is an art form verified by science.” If that’s the case, River Rat is proving its own theorem, and Columbia (as well as all of South Carolina) has a great new addition to this brewery boom.
Feb. 25: Morganelli’s, 5-7 p.m.
Feb. 25: Liberty Tap Room, 7-9 p.m.
Feb. 27: Green’s on Piney Grove, 5-7 p.m.
Feb. 27: World of Beer, 7-9 p.m.
Feb. 28: Total Wine, 4-9 p.m.
Feb. 28: Publick House, 7-9 p.m.
Mar. 4th: Jake’s (Mardi Gras), 6:30-9:30 p.m.
Mar. 10th: River Rat Grand Opening, 4-10 p.m.
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