Media: Free Times Weekly
Date: June 28-July 4, 2006
The beer vats once were owned by Wolfgang Puck, the distinctive ironwork lights came from an old church in North Carolina, the bar once was a countertop at a general store and a stuffed wild dog from the Central Africa Republic graces the front window.
In short, nothing is ordinary about Kevin Varner’s Hunter-Gatherer Alehouse, which is one of the main reasons it has thrived for nearly 11 years while other establishments looking to cash in on the microbrew craze of the mid-1990s such as Hops, the Columbia Brewing Company and the Vista Brewing Company all busted.
The other reason is, of course, the fantastic beer. The Hunter-Gatherer’s signature flavor in its beers comes from a proprietary yeast strain also used by George Gale and Co.’s Brewery in Hampshire, England, and Hale’s Brewery in Seattle for three years. Those three brewers are the only ones in the world who legally may use that variety, a strain that has been in use making worldwide award-winning beers since 1847.
“The taste of any beer is defined to a large extent by the yeast; it kind of is the framework for the flavor that you use the other ingredients to complement,” Varner says. Varner buys his grain from England (“I pay more for a higher quality than most places use, but it’s worth it,” he says) and uses both English and American hops to produce the Hunter-Gatherer’s three basic beers – the ESB (Extra Special Bitter), Pale Ale and Wheat. Varner also produces season beers such as Ye Olde Bastarde, a Scotch-type ale in winter, and a Brown Ale in summer, among others.
But it’s the three stalwarts, each with their distinctive taste and obvious craftsmanship, that are most responsible for the Hunter-Gatherer’s religiously loyal customer base.
“I think with the style and taste of my beers, if you like them, you really like them,” Varner says. “They are unique beers, especially in the sense that you can’t get them anywhere else.”
Varner, who graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in history in 1991, says he thinks what has helped him remain successful was that he knew early on what he wanted out of the operation.
“I never wanted to grow into a 300-seat restaurant,” Varner says. “I never wanted to expand even, really. I’m happy doing what we do now and making sure we do it well.
“I think the brewpubs that didn’t make it, they didn’t know what they wanted to be – a successful chain restaurant, a fine dining place, whatever. For those places, it wasn’t so much about the attention to the beer as it was making money, which is why they lost money.”
Varner took a small risk with the alehouse’s location: From a size perspective, it was on the extreme end of the minimum size he needed, and it wasn’t located in the two traditional partygoing areas of town – Five Points and the Vista, which was just beginning to bustle when Varner opened his doors in October 1995.
“I looked into Five Points first, but parking issues for zoning purposes were going to be tricky,” Varner says. “And nothing in the Vista really stuck out as a good fit.
“Before we came in, this building was a bar called T.W. Muldoons, and it was a mess. We had to do so much work to get it where we needed it and it really was just me, my brother, and a couple of other guys doing it ourselves. But I think we’ve made a niche for ourselves here.”