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Hilton Head Brewing Co., more than a decade of thoughts

Jul 6, 2012

July 2012, and I find myself on Hilton Head Island for perhaps the 20th time in the last ten years or so. I’ve been coming to the island long enough to have seen the transition from largely hopeless beer desert, to a more optimistic outlook, finally followed by a slight re-adjustment and correction of expectations in the last 12 months or so; it’s been an interesting journey, and it’s not over yet.

In that time, oddly, The Hilton Brewing Company has been a constant. Not a good constant, but a constant, and I decided to reprise some of my old beeradvocate reviews in this post.

Mine was one of the very first reviews for HHBC on BA back in 2004, and the photograph that I took back then, is still being used by the site, despite my own demise.

My original photo, circa 2004

My original photo, circa 2004

Firstly here’s a quick review of my most recent visit, earlier this week.

Review 07/12

The first time I’ve thought about a re-review for a couple of years – in reality, there was really no need.

I stopped by at about 4.00 PM in the middle of the week. As usual at this time of day, even in high season, the place is deserted. I gingerly ordered the IPA. Ordering beer at HHBC is always a crap-shoot, and to be honest usually a horrible disappointment. This time the IPA was astringently bitter in a manner that suggested someone had picked up a bottle, about the size of a Tabasco bottle, with a label of ‘BITTER STUFF’ and liberally added it to the mash. It wasn’t a pleasant, grapefruit bitterness, just a harsh reminder of the bad old days at HHBC.

The beer tastes like it is being made from extract (whether it is or not I have no idea). Extract brewing is OK for the part-timer, or the home brewer starting out, but for a place that has been brewing for so long it won’t cut it. The best way to describe this beer, and the scores of other that I have had there over the years is something like, ‘if this were my second or third homebrew batch I’d be OK with it, but at the same time I’d realize it was below average and I’d be desperate to get things better’ – some of the beer over the years has not even been that good, with maybe a few pints doing marginally better.

It still seems as though the place is being run as part nightclub, part brewpub, and that is off-putting. To be fair, on the plus side it seemed a little less gloomy than in the past, and it looked as though there may have been a few hardware and furniture upgrades, but it’s still fairly uninviting. Word on the street is that the food is better than it has been recently, but I’m unlikely to try that any time soon so I can’t comment other than repeating what a few locals say.

Below are my comments previously posted on beeradvocate which summarize my several visits over many years.

Review 08/10

With The Lodge now open with a new philosophy, no need to even walk in the door of HHBC!

Review 07/09

Still shambolic in terms of beer. Pub Light, Blueberry Wheat, Porter and IPA are pouring right now and the quality is, as usual, awful. As mentioned before, this is basically a nightclub (complete with DJ booth) during the evenings with frat boys drinking gallons of BMC, that masquerades as a “brewpub” during the day. However, beer is the last thing on their mind. MASSIVE opportunity missed. It’s a shame.

Review 06/08

Only three brews on this time; Porter, Blonde and Rasp Wheat. The Porter and the Blonde were marginally better than before. We had a good lunch of Caesar Salads and kids meals. ABSOLUTELY (we were literally the only table in the place) deserted for our Sunday lunchtime, PEAK season visit.

Review 05/07

New ownership took over on December 15th of 2006, and now the place actually is back to brewing beer! They had five beers available yesterday; Summer Blonde (Golden Ale), Raspberry Wheat, Tiger Shark Dark (Porter), IPA and Heritage Scotch Ale (Wee Heavy).

I popped in just after lunch on a Sunday, and the huge place was just about deserted. The bartender (a manager I believe) was polite, but VERY distracted by replacing all of the liquor bottles which obviously took a SERIOUS pounding the night before – I know that because outside at the back of the building there was enough trash in terms of plastic cups, empty bottles, boxer shorts! and general chaos, to suggest that the HHB Co. had been a serious party venue the night before. In addition, in the 30 minutes I was there, three people came in looking for credit/debit cards from the night before – only one was successful!

I tried the HSA (good, but MEGA malty and sweet), the Porter (decent) and the IPA (NOT good). ALL three beers (including disturbingly the IPA) were almost black! OK, for the first two, NOT for the IPA. The guy behind the bar was happy to replace the IPA without charge. I tried to engage the bartender about malts bills and the recent SC cap lift, but he knew VERY little about either – whilst that’s not a problem, it just isn’t a good sign for a place that is in the beer business AND brewing it’s own. I saw a woman on a close by table order the “Blonde”, and it was also very dark – maybe they only have dark malts!!

Review 12/06

NO beer again on my latest visit, although there was a man “fixing the tanks” when I called in and brewing was due to “start again in the next few days”. What the hell it all means I have no idea, but as I saw five months ago, the place (as far as brewing goes) is in shambles. I am amazed they have not ceased to be.

Review 07/06

Well, now things seems to have taken a nosedive at HHBC. The place is not opening until 5 PM each day (this is just about peak season) and last night they had NO beer! The surly bartender told me that, “it takes two weeks to brew, you know”! I avoided giving him a lecture on logic and left. Asking around in the other bars there seems to be a consensus that the place is being deliberately run into the ground. Nobody seems to know why, but the signs are very bad.

Review 12/04

Much better, renovated and busy on the Sunday that I visited. Five beers out of the twelve or thirteen on the rotating menu were ready. What they describe as a Pub Light – Blonde, JW’s Stout, Raspberry Wheat, An Amber and a Pale Ale. Others on the menu include a Blueberry Wheat, Dunkel Hefe, Hefe and IPA.

Another good sign, Growlers available! $6 for the growler, $8 to fill it. Things are much better that I remember from my other visits, and on the relatively poor beer desert that the Island is, this is a welcome oasis.

Original Review 07/04

I’ve been here several times over the course of the last four years and I’ll be going back again next week, so I thought I would write this review now, in the hope that I could improve upon it and give a better report in a couple of weeks – we’ll see.

On several of my other visits, this “brewpub” has only had one or two of the advertised beers actually available and have then offered Miller, Coors and Bud as alternatives! My guess is that they are trying to be a brewpub but the local and tourist clientele will simply not support the venture as currently pitched. They end up hopelessly caught between the two, and a complete letdown.

There is enough sophisticated tourist traffic to make this venture a success, but it needs= a totally new approach. If they could get the vision, I for one would support them on a regular basis.

New outlook required, potential is great, but you’ve got to get the bull by the horns and get at least a few decent beers ready to go.


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