Birds Fly South Ale Project
During the winter months, the cold and snow makes food scarce for the birds. They migrate south in order to survive, live, and find a home.
Lindsay and Shawn Johnson, along with their three sons, have done their time in the cold. A veteran of the US Coast Guard and originally from North Carolina, Shawn was stationed for five years in Kodiak Island, Alaska. They found warmth as they spent some time in Florida, Lindsay’s home state, and also lived in Washington DC during the snowstorm of 2010. “Winter is overrated,” mused Shawn on a visit back to Alaska after they had moved from there. Shawn was transferred by the Coast Guard to the Donaldson Center in 2014. Lindsay and Shawn fell in love with Greenville and they began to create their Ale Project. The birds had flown south for the winter and the foreseeable future. At the same time, they also gained a name for their venture.
Exclusive Photography: FishEye Studios, Greenville, SC
The building now home to Birds Fly South was built in 1930 and began as a cotton warehouse. Lindsay said that it had been used as a warehouse for other goods and random things until Birds Fly South made it their home.
Shawn set out to create a brewery unlike any other in Greenville. Built on wild brewing and open fermentation, they began this new career by brewing in a corner of the Thomas Creek Brewery, serving their beer at local beer festivals, restaurants, and tap rooms.
It took 18 months to open Birds Fly South Ale Project in Hampton Station. It’s not easily seen from a main road and it is literally on the other side of the tracks, but the location and space perfectly match the spirit and style of beer that Birds Fly South Ale Project is creating.
And for Lindsay and Shawn, who retired from the Coast Guard on October 1, 2016 to run the Project full time, the birds have found their nest. "When we told people that we were moving to Greenville, everyone who had been here before told us 'You're going to love it!" said Lindsay. "They were right."
These days, there are so many different beer styles and breweries. However, every beer contains hops and grain, along with water and yeast. The combination of these, along with other ingredients added at different stages of the brewing process as well as how it is brewed and potentially aged, gives every beer its own distinct characteristics.
The brewing community in Greenville is one of collaboration and sharing. Birds Fly South gets yeast or other ingredients from Quest and Thomas Creek when they need it. They have collaboration beers with other breweries like Thomas Creek, RJ Rockers, and the soon to open in Taylors Mill, 13 Stripes.
Many breweries use conical shaped tanks for the brewing process, which allows for the yeast to be collected at the bottom and used again. At Birds Fly South, the yeast is collected by hand from the top of the tank and then reused. The strains of yeast, bacteria, and other things are collected in the wild and not grown in the lab, which gives "wild brewing" its meaning.
Shawn pours beer for testing into a graduated cylinder. The beer is regularly tested and tasted for various aspects and characteristics. Then, the results are written on the outside of the tank along with the date in dry erase marker.
Using a hydrometer, Shawn measures the specific gravity of the beer fresh from the tank. This allows for the brewer to see how the beer is progressing during the fermentation process and to know when it is ready for the next step.
These foudres were made in Italy and used to hold red wine. Now, they hold beer for aging. They have also been christened with musician names, like all the large vessels in the brewery, such as Bob Dylan, the largest one seen above. "If one starts leaking, they have to hand make the replacement piece in Italy. It's a long and expensive process," said Shawn.
Some of the barrels stored at Birds Fly South are from another Greenville brewery, Quest. "They didn't have the space to store the barrels and also put in a new canning line. We have the space, so we let them store the barrels here in exchange for use of their canning line in the future," said Shawn.
Brewing takes place here, but it's not a brewery by name. "We call it an 'Ale Project' and not a brewery because each beer really is a project. We don't know what [the beer's] going to be like until it tells us. It's always evolving."
On the way his beer is brewed, Shawn says that Birds Fly South uses "a lot of the old brewing techniques. That's why our tagline is 'Progressively Old School.' We like to use all of these old, tried and true techniques to create modern beer."
Since opening the brewery, the Tasting Room has been very popular. "Every day we're open, it's been steady," states Lindsay. "We have our regulars and they bring people to try it. People bring friends and family in from out of town so they can try our beer. It's really fun."
Lindsay and Shawn say they've had to work out the kinks of the brewery and Tasting Room as they've gone along. They didn't know if there would be a big crowd at their grand opening. It was a packed house. Due to lack of signage, people were parked down every street and walking some distance to get to the event. "We've had to learn and adjust quickly," chuckled Lindsay.
The Tasting Room is open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for pints, flights, and growler fills.