Even just three or four years ago, one of the biggest complaints people had about York County was that there wasn't much to do there if you were looking for a night out.
Brewhouses have certainly helped changed that. The six brewpubs and breweries that now operate in Rock Hill and Fort Mill bring thousands (and thousands) of visitors a year. Most are looking to sample the IPAs and sours and Belgian ales and stouts. Some are looking to get a T-shirt.
But everybody is, intentionally or not, helping this northwestern end of the county grow its cachet as a destination for anyone who wants top-quality craft beer without having to navigate Charlotte to find it.
There is a difference between brewpubs and breweries. They both make their own beer in-house, but brewpubs sell it only in-house; breweries package their beers and distribute and sell them to stores and bars.
In York County, the six brewhouses are Legal Remedy Brewing, Rock Hill Brewing, Slow Play Brewing, and Dust-Off Brewing in Rock Hill and Lake Wylie Brewing and Amor Artis in Fort Mill. Slow Play and Legal Remedy are breweries, and their beers are available at other places. The rest you need to visit if you want to sample their suds.
If you visit all six, you can get that T-shirt. It says “I drank my way through York County,” and it’s an increasingly sought-after prize for completing the YoCo Brew Trail. The trail is a marketing maneuver by Visit York County; an app that lets you check in from each pub. It launched this past summer, and already, says Billy Dunlap, president and CEO of the Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has already gotten more than 2,000 users.
It’s all part of York County’s – particularly Rock Hill’s – tourism engine that contributed almost $7.5 million to the economy in 2018. And that’s just from, mostly, four of the county’s current brewhouses. Lake Wylie Brewing just opened this past summer and Rock Hill Brewing opened halfway through 2018, so the numbers aren’t yet the full picture of what beermaking in York County is likely to be in the next year or two.
Those numbers seem to be increasing, says Jerod Jones, the head brewer at Rock Hill Brewing Co. He says that over the past few months he’s seen a “massive increase” in visitors from Charlotte who want to sample new beers in a town they’re not yet as familiar with.
Jones says the lure of these pubs is rooted in the fact that they are neighborhood places to socialize over a good brew – something he says is part of the very DNA of the country.
“Even going back to the founding of our nation,” he says, “the Declaration of Independence was drafted in a pub.”
He sees places like Rock Hill Brewing as the next evolutionary step in how people gather and socialize where they live.
“Everybody’s going to have their own little favorite place that they like to go, unwind real quick after work, and then move on, or go socialize on the weekends,” he says.
At Slow Play, co-founder Ben Lee says brewpubs are strong economic drivers that turn communities around.
“Food and beverage build neighborhoods,” Lee says. “They rule the world in our opinion. When you get home from work, you go eat, you go drink.”
In Rock Hill, the four brewpubs are within about a mile of each other, in and on the edge of Old Town – convenient for pub-hopping, enjoyed responsibly, of course. That proximity also puts them squarely where the city’s supports tourism visitors (and the $22 million they spent in town in 2018) find themselves milling around after the games are over.
Slow Play is in the enviable location of being both next to Winthrop University and about two blocks from the delayed-but-close-to-completed indoor sports complex on White Street. Lee says he expects that complex to bring lots of beer aficionados to Slow Play – which, by the way, is a converted repair shop that will allow the company to expand fivefold, if such demand is thrust upon it.
Up in Fort Mill, Amor Artis co-owner Travis Tolson says the neighborhood feel is a key element to all of the brewpubs in York County. Amor Artis is based off the one Tolson worked at while his wife, Khara, was stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Amor Artis does have an Alaska vibe to it – lots of old, original wood; communal standing tables that “force you” to socialize, Tolson says. He doesn’t want you to come in and isolate yourself, he and his brother, Steve, want you to see and talk with your neighbors. The brothers are from Fort Mill and Travis says that was part of the lure of opening a business here – to put you in a place where you’ll see people you know and chat with them.
For Mike Ramsey, ‘warden of woodsmoke’ and one of six co-founders of legal Remedy in Rock Hill, that community vibe is essential. Legal Remedy is the oldest and largest brewing operation in York County – a ripe 4 years old – and has a kitchen. Lake Wylie Brewing does too, but it’d been Pasquale’s restaurant for some time, so the infrastructure is already in place to serve food with the restaurant’s ne name and freshly minted brewing capacities.
It’s no surprise that the community feel is a big deal for all these brewers. Most have known each other for years, having met through the local homebrewing scene. They each took their own personalities into their separate businesses – Slow Play has an air of games, cigars, music, and poker to it while Legal Remedy has a definitively group-hangout-over-a-nosh-and-a-second-beer appeal, for instance – but they all still consider each other friends, not competitors. They see themselves as part of a bigger regional attraction that makes York County the place to be when you want a casual night out with a good brew.
And, Ramsey says, there’s plenty of room for more.
“The more the merrier,” he says. “Honestly, with more breweries opening, that helps and it makes Rock Hill a destination.”