Sunday, September 29, 2013

To Have and To Hold a Few Pints

Charleston is home to one of the Southeast’s fastest-growing craft beer cultures. It’s also becoming one of the most popular destination wedding locations in the country. If you’re a craft beer lover like me who happens to be planning a Charleston wedding, it’s a match made in heaven, right?

Not necessarily.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about planning a wedding in Charleston, it’s that finding caterers that serve craft beer is a chugging-a-boot-of-barrel-aged-imperial-stout-sized challenge.  Finding caterers and venues that will work with you to bring in craft beer or homebrew isn’t much easier. But it is doable! 

First off, let’s start with the basics. Within the context of getting awesome beer for your Charleston wedding, there are 2 major factors: the venue and the caterer. There are myriad combinations of wedding venues and food and beverage catering options to choose from when you’re looking around for your perfect post-nuptial craft beer fest…er…wedding reception. Choosing the combo that works best for you is your challenge. To make things more “convenient” (read “like an organized crime syndicate”), many of the more popular venues and caterers have somewhat bundled their services together so that, when you book a certain place, you choose from a list of their “preferred” caterers. For many places choosing from this list is a requirement. When my fiancé and I were planning our event, we opted to stay away from this configuration as much as possible for many reasons, not the least of which was that there was no semblance of anything even approaching craft beer on most of the bigger caterer’s menu. Most “premium” beer menus featured rare gems such as Heineken, Stella, and Amstel Light. Maybe there were a few out there offering a Sam Adams Boston Lager. My overall feeling was that, given Charleston’s popularity as a wedding location - the major players in the catering arena were less likely to work with someone who wanted to deviate from their prescribed beer options. This may or may not be the case, but if I’m wrong, I still hold that craft beer, especially our amazing local varieties, should have more of a presence in Charleston’s catering world.

From the research that we did, it first seemed like our best option would be to look at venues that were more or less a la carte, i.e. they wouldn’t push preferred vendors. The downside to these kinds of places are that planning the rest of the wedding is more work; you’re on your own for the catering, plates, silverware, decorating, tents, bands, cakes, flowers, servers, and, yes, beer. This is where our first nugget of wisdom to come from this process wheedled its way to the surface: if you want craft beer at your wedding, you’re going to have to work for it. As limiting as one-stop-shop style preferred vendors lists may seem, there’s something to be said for the convenience. We were willing to take this on, however, and here are a few places that we looked into:

First up is Marion’s, which almost ended up being our venue. It’s a nice little spot nestled between McCrady’s and Pearlz Oyster Bar on East Bay St very close to the Market. It’s within walking distance of several churches, so it would only be a short pedi-cab ride to get from ceremony to reception. They have a full kitchen, something that I’m told is a big deal for your caterers. The look and feel of the place is classic Charleston. The entire front of the room looking out on East Bay St is glass, and the doors that line it can be opened up. You can even put tables out on the sidewalk for guests to take in the sights and enjoy a cocktail right in the middle of the Downtown action. 

The James Island County Park, or any of the state/county parks in the Charleston area for that matter, has a variety of locations available for weddings and receptions. These locations are more pastoral and have a definite appeal for all you nature lovers out there. If you’re looking for an outdoor wedding with all the craft beer you want, this a great place to look. An added bonus is the price; the parks are far and away the cheapest venues of this type we looked at.

The big positive for these places is its almost complete lack of restrictions as far as vendors go; it’s pretty much a blank slate. This aspect is what drew us to them initially. Craft beer? Sure. Homebrew? Of course! At Marion’s, all you need is a professional bartender to serve it (county parks may vary; we didn’t get to that point in considering them). And by the way, there is a subtle but important distinction to make here between a professional bartender and a licensed and insured bartender. A licensed and insured bartender is a requirement most places, and they don’t come cheap. Most of the time these guys already work with a catering company and come with their package, and if you do find one that works independently, it’s probably going to cost you. A professional is anyone that gets paid to sling drinks, and yes that includes your old roommate from college that works at the dive bar down the street. Give him/her a few hundred bucks to pour your beer and bam, you’re in business.  

The drawback to so much freedom, as the old saying goes, is an equal amount of responsibility. When you’re in charge of everything, you are in charge of everything. That means that in addition to the traditional choices, you have to worry about setting up things up, breaking things down, and so on. Who’s going to take out the trash? The caterer? The bartender? Better check. Does the caterer include flatware? How about plates and glasses? Outdoor wedding? You’re going to need to rent a tent (and subsequently wonder how on earth tents cost so much to rent), lights, figure out electricity, etc. Are there tables and chairs? If there’s extra beer/liquor left over, who is going to load it up after it’s over? It’s a lot to handle on top of what already is a daunting task. However, it is a viable option in order to have a craft beer wedding.

Another variation on the all-DIY craft beer wedding lies in the back yard of your best friend’s waterfront home. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend or relative who’s lucky enough to have a back yard that can accommodate a wedding and/or reception, this becomes an attractive option. No preferred vendors, no restrictions, have whatever kind of beer your heart desires. It (hopefully) will come with the help of your generous friend/relative as far as setting up, etc., and avoids any curfews you might incur at a commercial venue. What you will have to worry about here, other than Uncle Larry having too many Boy King DIPAs and accidentally smacking your best friend’s urn with his old dog Fluffy’s ashes in it off of his mantle and onto the living room floor, is the legal aspect of holding a wedding/reception. Here in SC, we’re working hard to make our beer at least half-way reasonable, but we’re not all there yet. Make sure to consult our state laws (caution: laws posted here are not exhaustive) and make sure you’re compliant and have any required permits. And keep the music down, damnit! Some people are trying to sleep! No one wants the Boys in Blue showing up to the reception, unless they’re invited, of course.

In our experience, the above options were basically it. We decided that if we wanted good beer, we were going to be working for it. However, we were lucky enough to find a venue that strikes a compromise between an all-DIY reception and an all-Bud Light reception: the Francis Marion Hotel. The first big check-plus for this place is the price. There is no – as in zero – venue fee. The Francis Marion works off of food and beverage minimums instead. As long as you hit your minimum, which varies on which ballroom you want, your room is at no additional charge. I would add in here that these minimums are no larger than what you would be paying with any other catering company we considered. In a world where venues and caterer charge you extra for every little thing imaginable, this is a great find. The tradeoff is that you have to use Francis Marion for catering, but their food is just as good as any other caterer and, hey, beer is what we really care about, right? And they are more than willing to work with you to bring in local craft beer, and will even let you bring in your own commercial/homebrew if you want. Oh, and all the logisitic stuff you have to worry about at those other places? They take care of it all. Cleanup, chairs, plates, linens, servers, everything. They even have an events coordinator there on the day of to help out. The only other things we have to worry about are music, cake, flowers, photography, and any additional décor we may want (which isn’t much, they have chair covers and provide basic centerpieces for each table). It’s also located right smack in the middle of downtown Charleston, right across from Marion Square. An out-of-town guest couldn’t ask for a better place to stay during their visit. A few of the ballrooms have a beautiful view of King St that you and your guests will enjoy while sipping on a nice Westbrook IPA.

While Charleston’s wedding scene may not yet be doing our bourgeoning craft beer culture any justice, we’ve found that, if you look hard enough, there are certainly options marry the two together.

Article Written By Reece LeMay


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